How to Structure a Simple Classroom Debate

Posted by Emily Guthrie on Jan 9, 2015 7:35:56 AM

One of my teacher resolutions this year is to help students grapple with complexity.  I want them to read both fiction and informational texts with an eye to layers of meaning and multiple perspectives.  Discussion is one tool to accomplish this goal and I've told you how much I love Socratic Seminar and Literature Circles, but today I want to talk about using debate in the classroom.  DISCLAIMER: I am not trained in the classical form of debate, which has very particular goals, rules, and regulations. While I respect my colleagues who lead debate teams, I find that many English teachers I know do not know the traditional debate rules and many English students I know do not have the same kind of enthusiasm for every class period that many debate team members have for every debate.  So instead of adhering to the structure, I am just going to offer some advice for preparing a simple classroom debate.

1. Create a clear rubric. RubiStar has some really good and flexible debate rubrics.  Here are some categories to consider adding:

  • Clarity of information
  • Credibility of Sources
  • Rebuttal
  • Rhetorical Strategies
  • Presentation Style (eye contact, tone of voice, etc.)
  • Balance of Team Participation
  • Respect for other team

2. Pick Teams and Roles. Depending on how big the class is, you may need to split up into 2 debates.  I try to keep my teams to a 12 person maximum so that everyone on the team can reasonably participate within a class period.  It is also nice to assign a team captain or two who can help organize information and balance participation. You may also consider splitting a team into a main argument team and a rebuttal team, each with a captain.  This helps structure things without too much teacher intervention.

3. Allow time for research. If you rush the preparation, the debate can easily fizzle with simple heated opinions not supported in evidence. As English teachers, we need to focus on teaching the art of succinct and credible evidence to back up claims.  This is a perfect opportunity.  I usually require students to turn in debate prep so that I can see what they came up with even if they do not get to use it all in the debate.  I encourage them to use and cite a variety of credible sources.

4. Structure the time. In order to encourage participation, have some kind of a structure that students know in advance.  The structure can easily be adjusted to fit your schedule and needs, it is just there as an outline. Here is what I do:

  • Affirmative Constructive Argument: 12 minutes
  • Negative Constructive Argument: 12 minutes
  • Affirmative Rebuttal: 6 minutes
  • Negative Rebuttal: 6 minutes
  • Final Thoughts and cross talk: up to 6 minutes
  • Teacher feedback and wrap up: 5 minutes

5. Set up discussion norms.  Depending on the topic, debates can get heated and personal.  In order to help maintain a calm and professional debate, set up and enforce ground rules like:

  • Speak so that everyone can hear you clearly
  • Listen closely to all participants.
  • Use visual cues to jump into the conversation when appropriate. Don’t raise your hands.
  • Base all opinions on the text and refer to it frequently.
  • Address all comments to the group. Don’t look only at the teacher and refrain from side conversations.
  • Be respectful to each other. Use conversation techniques like:
    • “I agree with what you said and I would like to add...”
    • “I understand your perspective, but on the other hand...”
    • “I think it is also important to note...”
  • Try not to interrupt each other. If two people start talking at the same time, make eye contact and one person defer to the other.
  • Monitor your own participation. Be sure to speak up, but also avoid monopolizing the conversation.
  • Be passionate in your own critical thinking, but don’t be afraid to change your mind if your peers present compelling arguments.
  • Ask for clarification if and when you need it.


Do your students debate?  What questions or tips do you have for our teacher community?

Topics: Classroom Management, debate, discussion, strategies, tips

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