Debates are a good way to practise English speaking skills and develop argumentative language in the TEFL classroom. They also encourage English learners to listen carefully to the counterpoints made by their opponents. In addition, reading skills can be improved during any research undertaken for a debate.
Debate of any kind has to be approached cautiously but is, nevertheless, a great way to engage students and activate their English language skills. Controversial topics can be the most interesting and fun way to motivate students, but these need to be presented cleverly and diplomatically. Otherwise, you risk students being ostracised or ridiculed for opinions that may be out of step with those of their peers. I often ask students to assume a specific role in a debate. This usually means a wider range of opinions and arguments are presented - and students aren’t forced to voice their own opinions. In addition, it divorces the debate from learners’ own personal circumstances, which in certain situations, can lead to shyness and embarrassment.
In the following paragraphs, I will suggest some topics and specific questions I have found to work well with classes of different types. I have arranged them according to their CEFR levels which, for the purposes of this post, I have assumed to roughly match their age and maturity.
A1-A2 YOUNGER STUDENTS
With younger EFL students it is good to have some pictures handy as a stimulus for discussions and debates. Most of us have built up a stock of useful photos and diagrams over the years and these days it’s easy to search online for images related to specific topics or themes. With young and inexperienced learners of English, I start with very simple questions such as: ‘What is happening in this picture?’ or ‘What are these people doing?’ Then I would ask questions such as ‘Do you think this person is happy? Why or why not?’ This, in turn, can lead to more clearly defined debates.
I have found that students as young as eight can be very tuned in to some topics and are happy to debate them. For example, climate change is a significant theme at the moment and students are not shy about debating ways their town or their school could do more to save energy and protect the environment.
The school itself is, of course, something the students have a vested interest in. From the design of the building to the subjects on the curriculum, there are plenty of things to talk about. For example, there is no reason younger students can’t debate what makes a good teacher, or a bad teacher – although you obviously need to avoid discussing the merits of individual teachers! It may also be interesting to get their perspective on what makes a good student, or what the consequences should be if school rules are broken.
Other topics that are popular with younger students include technology, sport, fashion, gaming, films, and books. Debate questions might include:
- ‘Will computers and robots replace teachers?’
- ‘Who is the best footballer/athlete/etc in the world this year?’
- ‘Are boys more interested in clothes than girls?’
- ‘Do computer games teach any useful skills?’
- ‘Is it better to see films at the cinema or on a tablet or television?’
For younger students it is also nice to have some more light-hearted or funny debates:
- ‘Are dogs better than cats?’
- ‘Are school meals bad for you?’
- ‘Is Summer more fun than winter?’
- ‘Should children work for their pocket money?’
Remember that even with less serious topics, students are still practising their critical thinking and speaking skills.
B1-B2 TEENAGE AND OLDER STUDENTS
With intermediate-level students, I often use the TEFL Toolkit ‘Discuss This’ cards to stimulate discussion and debate. These cards also offer frameworks for the discussions and ideas for how to extend them.
Teenagers are often required to learn about health and social issues in other parts of the curriculum, so it makes sense to build on and extend that knowledge in English language debates. Students of this age can be sensitive about some of these issues, so I try to separate the topic from the person. As suggested above, debates in which the students are given a pre-defined role can be very useful for this. Also, simple changes to how the questions are framed can make the debate more or less interesting. For example, rather than debating ‘What makes a healthy diet?’, ask the question ‘What makes a diet unhealthy and why?’
Most students of this age enjoy using technology, so why not give them something to research online before the debate itself? Or example:
- ‘Is vaping as dangerous as smoking?’
- ‘Do cities benefit from hosting the Olympics?’
- ‘Do women have the same educational opportunities as men?’
It is good to encourage students to take an interest in news and current affairs. In our present times, you might ask them to debate whether it should be obligatory to wear face masks in all enclosed spaces. Other current news-related questions might include:
- ‘Should COVID vaccinations be compulsory for all?’
- ‘Has Greta Thunberg done more harm than good in her environmental campaigning?’
There are some perennial subjects and questions relating to teenage development which would be silly to ignore, and which are often popular topics for debate. These might include references to recreational drug use, sexual identity, and rights, or social media and bullying. It helps to know the students well when inviting them to debate these topics and to have clear rules and structure for the type of debate you want them to engage in.
For the older and more linguistically able EFL students, other more controversial debate topics could include euthanasia, capital punishment, cosmetic surgery, vivisection, and animal testing. I also find teenagers quite motivated to discuss the ages at which things should become legal, such as consensual sex, marriage, smoking, drinking, gambling, getting a tattoo, voting in elections, or standing for public office.
C1-C2 OLDER TEENAGERS AND ADULTS
Older teenagers and adults can of course discuss any of the aforementioned subjects in greater detail and with more nuance and maturity. In addition, I like to ask my older EFL students to debate more abstract and ethical topics. I have listed some potential debate questions below.
- What is art? What makes good art?
- Is science the new religion?
- Will we ever find intelligent life on other planets? Does it matter if we are alone in the universe?
- Do we learn anything from history?
- What is beauty?
- Are we defined more by nature or nurture?
- Why do some people hate sport?
- Are opera and classical music only for rich and intelligent people?
- What makes a good novel?
- What is the difference between intelligence and wisdom?
- What was the most significant invention of the last hundred years?
- Should assisted suicide be legal and, if so, under what circumstances?
- Should future parents be able to genetically design their own babies?
- Should adults be allowed to buy and own guns?
- Is gender fixed and permanent?
- Can the news be unbiased?
- Is research and testing on animals acceptable?
- Should cosmetic surgery be free or banned altogether?
- What things should be censored?
- Is state law more important than religious law?
- Should the internet be more controlled?
- Should all citizens be entitled to free health care?
- Should immigration be more or less controlled?
- Is multiculturalism a good thing?
- Should young people be obliged to do some form of national service?
Hopefully, the questions and topics listed above will give plenty of inspiration for interesting and engaging debates in any TEFL setting. If you have something that works well in your own classes, please do leave your suggestions in the comments.