Resources: Up for debate

Staging debates in the ELT classroom seems like a ‘no-brainer’, says Tyson Seburn, but teachers need to tread carefully

Should the government increase the minimum wage from $11/hour to $14?

This is a timely topic in some areas of Canada at the moment, where one provincial government has passed a law that implements this jump in earnings.

On the face of it, most people would initially agree with the idea that increased earnings for lower-income employees is a good principle.

But deeper exploration reveals a number of issues. For example, there is the potential for the removal of existing benefits like paid breaks to compensate for the increased wage.

Or there are complaints from more senior employees whose wages did not increase as a result and are now earning almost the same amount as new employees.

A quick Google search can bring about many arguments for and against this proposal, which include a rich set of topically related vocabulary as well as functional language for discourse.

Using debates within English language teaching seems like a no-brainer for both receptive and productive purposes. In fact, almost any of us can think back to a class when we’ve used one, likely with memories of purposeful preparation and lively discussion on the part of the learners.

Even if you can’t, one needs only look at any number of ELT resources to find their ubiquity as a staple activity.

Indeed, there are a number of pros to using debates.

They effectively practise:

  • Language of opinion, persuasion, negotiation (plus any number of grammatical uses depending on the lesson at hand)
  • Logical presentation of information strengthening opinions with supporting statements
  • Discourse markers
  • Team-work skills

As innocuous as these above appear to be, debates can also create or emphasise issues of power dynamic, marginalisation and inequality, which we may not realise.
As teachers, we aim to foster inclusive spaces where learners can gain familiarity and confidence in themselves.
As a result, when selecting to debate a topic, it is also important that we consider what is appropriate for our learners and contexts.  

Considerations when using debates

»What is a debate? While it seems like a simple concept that we all understand, recognise that learners gain an understanding of language and content through the lesson approach itself, not simply the language points being practised.
Debates inherently suggest that there are two or more valid sides to an issue worth presenting, supporting and rebutting. But are there?

»How do classroom power dynamics impact learner beliefs? Despite our best intentions and efforts to reduce it, the teacher-student power dynamic is inherent in any classroom and plays a role in how many learners gauge what is appropriate in a language or culture. Framing content as a debatable implies to learners that it is an appropriate topic to argue for or against in their study and living context.

»Does cultural context impact what can be debated? It’s important to consider the learning context. Learners need to recognise when a particular topic is no longer debatable, whether because of laws or social norms. We need to prepare our learners for appropriate communication within the societies where they are using English.

»Will anyone be unfairly marginalized because of the debate? Perhaps not every topic needs to have an equal number of people on both sides of the debate. When the topic, however, revolves around a learner’s belief system or rights things can become more difficult. At best, you could end up unfairly placing that learner in the position of sole representative without their permission. At worst, it creates a space where they may feel attacked. Our learners need the option for their voices to be heard and validated, not discriminated against or violated.

»Read more: Giving a specific set of topics or concrete framework with which to use debates can be overly prescriptive, so I choose not to do so in this article. However, should you be interested in how these considerations may play out on a topic like LGBTQ rights, see my views in my blogpost below. http://fourc.ca/debate-lgbtq/ 

Tips for making the most of classroom debates

A debate itself can be used as the driving force for learner-generated integrated skills classes, rather than a speaking activity tagged onto the end of a separate reading, writing and listening portion on the topic.

A few possible ways may include:

Writing: small groups can create ‘for’ and ‘against’ statements about the topic.Use these initial statements to identify gaps in lexical knowledge you choose to focus on (e.g. topical vocabulary, grammatical structure, functional language, etc.). Later, different small groups can respond to these statements using this learned lexis.

Reading: small groups proofread other groups’ statements for accuracy. Then, when all statements are created, collect them all. Have groups organise them into categories (e.g. connect ‘for’ statements with contrasting ‘against’ statements in terms of content).

Speaking: when in groups, learners negotiate meaning with each other when creating statements and categorising them. Additionally, the oral debate itself is inherently speaking practice, where learners can rotate being main speaker and can use the learned lexis, practise pronunciation and utilise learned discourse markers for discussion, etc.

Listening: learners listen to each other’s ideas when completing the first two tasks on this list. Also, when oral debate is actually happening, give group members the task of identifying a statement’s content. They must then look for a response statement from their generated list to give to the main speaker for rebuttal.

Tyson Seburn is lead EAP instructor of critical reading and writing at the Uni. of Toronto. His main interest focuses on teacher identity and development. He is co-ordinator of Iatefl Teacher Development Special Interest Group.