Encouraging students to express themselves through debate

Christopher Treadwell, Ueki-machi Lifelong Learning Center


Quick guide

  • Key words: Debate, public speaking, writing, group discussion activity
  • Learner English level: Low intermediate and up
  • Learner maturitylevel: Young adult, adult
  • Preparation time: 15-30 minutes
  • Activity time: At least 60 minutes
  • Materials: Debate topics written on slips of paper


One problem I have encountered in my classes is getting my students to express opinions beyond “I like” or “I enjoy” (sports, hobbies, etc.) As Maynard notes, many Japanese prefer behind-the-scenes negotiations as opposed to public debates (Maynard, 1997, p. 102). This limits the range of topics students can cover in speaking practice. I have found that debating exercises, if done in a simple format and structured to avoid excessive conflict, can help students in expressing more developed opinions and points of view in speaking, moving beyond “I like” or “I don’t like” to “I (dis)agree with____ because….” and so forth. I have used the following activity with a class of 20 or so, but a larger class could be accommodated over multiple sessions.


Step 1: Come up with a list of debate topics, identifying the two sides that can be argued. To encourage student participation, avoid overly controversial topics (butit’s fine to inject a little humor!) Some topics I have used include:

  • Spring is better than fall because…/ Fall is better than spring because…
  • Japanese (squat) toilets are better than Western ones / Western toilets are better than Japanese ones
  • Japanese students should study English / English classes should be optional

Step 2: Write or type each of thesetopics out on individual slips of paper.


Step 1: Introduce the debating activity to your students. Explain to them that each is expected to make an argument in support of the position they are assigned. (The length and complexity of the argument should be based on the student’s level, but ideally at least a few sentences should be written.) Also inform them that a different student will be arguing the opposing position, which they will have to respond to as part of the debate. (Students should not be told the identity of their debating partners beforehand.) Teach them the appropriate sentence patterns to help them with this. For example:

  • Yes, but…
  • I don’t agree because…
  • I agree, but…
  • That’s a good point. However…

Modify these to fit the proficiencylevel of your students. For low-intermediate learners, sticking to “Yes, but…” might be best.

Step 2: Give each student aslip of paper with adebate topic on it. (Keep track of which arguments students receive so you can call on the appropriate pairs later.)

Step 3: Give the students time to think about and write down arguments in support of their position. Allot at least 15 minutes. Students should work by themselves.

Step 4:Now it’s debate time! Call on the first pair of students assigned to opposing sides of a particular argument. After the first student finishes their opening argument, the second student should respond using one of the patterns in step 1. Then allow the first student to respond, and so forth. The length should depend on your students’ proficiency, but each should present at least three or four points. The other students serve as the audience.

Step 5: Discuss with the class what they thought of the debate. Did the arguments presented effectively make the case? Why or why not? Were they appropriate responses to the opposing arguments?

Step 6: Continue with the next pair of students until everyone in the class has had a chance to participate.


This activity works well with many adult classes, and requires students to think on their feet, as their responses must be appropriate. This is a great way to help students learn to speak independently without using scripts. For advanced students, you can skip the first step, have them choose positions in pairs and then develop their own arguments individually in order to make best use of their creativity and energy.


Maynard, S.K. (1997).Japanese communication: Language andthought in context. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.