Teaching Debate Skills to ESL Students

Instructor: Linda Winfree

Linda has taught English at grades 6-12 and holds graduate degrees in curriculum and teacher leadership.

In this lesson, you will learn how debate can help your English as a Second Language (ESL) students build English skills, as well as strategies for implementing debate lessons for your ESL students.

Using Debate in the Classroom

Sarah teaches middle school English Language Arts in a mixed-ability class including cluster groups of gifted learners, students receiving special education services, and English as a Second Language (ESL) students. Sarah wants to help her ESL students increase their conversation skills in English while working toward their Language Arts standards. Sarah collaborates with her school's ESL teacher to develop a series of debate lessons.

You can use the same strategies in your classroom to encourage your ESL students to use conversational English and critical thinking skills. Besides promoting conversation, well-prepared debate activities expose your ESL students to English while reinforcing reading and speaking skills.

Parts of an Argument

Debate revolves around the idea of argument, a claim backed up with evidence and reasoning.

Parts of an Argument: Claim, Reasons, Evidence, and Counterclaim

Before participating in a debate, your ESL students will need to understand the parts of an argument and how they function. Begin with direct instruction of the argument pieces: argument, claim, reasons, evidence and counterclaim. You may provide these definitions in the students' home languages, but also give simplified definitions in English.

Argument: reasons and evidence provided to prove a claim

Claim: the statement someone is trying to prove in an argument

Reasons: statements that tell why the claim is true

Evidence: examples used to support reasons

Counterclaim: a statement of the claim opposite your own

Debate: when two people give opposing arguments and each tries to prove his/her claim

After reviewing the definitions, ask students to sketch small pictures to help them remember what the words mean. This step allows you to assess student understanding of the vocabulary.

Identify the Parts of an Argument

Next, you want to offer your ESL students an opportunity to identify the parts of an argument. Give students two essays presenting both sides of an engaging issue. To reinforce reading skills in English, locate articles that are of a reading level appropriate for your ESL students' current level of comprehension. For non-literate ESL students, you may want to translate the articles into the students' home languages.

Work with students to read the articles and locate the claim, reasons and evidence. Help students to organize these parts, either with a simple graphic organizer or on chart paper. Again, use this stage of instruction to gauge student understanding.

Prepare and Debate

At this point, your ESL students will be ready to prepare for their debate. Begin by offering a variety of interesting topics with two perspectives or guiding students in generating a list of such topics. Ask students to choose a subject which they would like to debate.

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