Using Debate as a Tool For Language Learning

Coach Andy
Post by Coach Andy
Using Debate as a Tool For Language Learning

What are the Benefits of Debate for English Learners?

Many people consider debating to be one of the best possible tools for learning to speak English with confidence. The skills that debate teaches go far beyond language learning, and many enthusiastic debaters are native speakers; but for those who want to sharpen their skills at the world’s most popular language, debating is an excellent tool for learners.

Contrary to the concerns of some students and parents, debate is not only for native or fluent English speakers. English proficiency is not a formal criterion in speech or debate competitions and many of the world’s best debaters are operating in their second language.

Many major tournaments have ESL categories for such debaters and while there is certainly an advantage of being a native English speaker, it is nowhere near as significant as people might think.

It's our consistent experience that students who take part in speech and debate classes quickly become more confident in their spoken English. Furthermore, reading articles, watching videos for research, and taking note on opponents’ speeches all help debaters to enhance their vocabulary list.

Debate and the Four Core Skills of Language Learning

Unlike most classroom activities, debate places demands in all four quadrants of linguistic learning. To be successful at the activity, students must practice reading, listening, writing and, of course, speaking – at almost the same time.

Most obviously, debaters need to speak. A lot. The average debate speech can easily contain over a thousand words and debating complex topics requires a wide vocabulary, including on some quite technical topics.

But debating doesn’t only test English speaking ability. The most undervalued skill in debate is, in fact, listening. Debaters need to pay close attention to their opponents; they need to listen to students with a range of backgrounds and accents, speaking fast, and not making allowances for their listening comprehension level – challenging, but excellent practice for real life situations.

In addition, students in debates need to write – fast, accurately, and with organization and structure. Many forms of speech and debate require students to craft their own speeches, write and rewrite; other speeches need to be written during short preparation times.

Finally, of course, students need to read widely in order to prepare for debates and understand their topics. Sources ranging from blog articles to scientific journals need to be understood and summarized, and the vast majority of them will be in English. Put together, all these requirements make debating one of the most rigorous tools for English practice that we can envisage – and great for building confidence.

According to a 2021 paper presented at the Conference on Applied Linguistics:

students held a positive perception on the use of debate since it helped them to express their opinion verbally, reduce speaking anxiety, improve their confidence and make them prepare speech systematically.

How do Different Formats of Speech and Debate Help English?

Varying formats of speech and debate help students practice disparate aspects of language learning. For example;

  • Persuasive Speaking, also known as Original Oratory, is a form of speech in which students are expected to write an original, long-form speech of up to 10 minutes, if not longer. Unlike many formats of debate, the quality and accuracy of language is important here; the persuasive effect of a nice turn of phrase is valued by judges in persuasive speaking events. Once written, the speech must be edited, polished, memorized and practiced repeatedly, placing great emphasis on the quality of verbal delivery.
  • Extemporaneous Speaking is one of the most complex and challenging of speech events, but also a great way to build vocabulary through research and wide reading. Students prepare for this event by getting up to speed on a very broad range of current events, from international relations to economics, politics and technology. They will then have to summarize and digest all that written information, write a speech during a relatively short prep time, and then give an extemporaneous speech.
  • Public Forum Debate is a format of debate that is often recommended to ESL debaters since it allows students to prepare heavily for debates beforehand. Debaters in PF must research deeply on a topic for days and weeks before starting on their speeches; with short time limits of only four minutes to condense their arguments into, it places great value on being able to express oneself in a concise and clear way.
  • World Schools and BP Debate are the most commonly practiced formats of debate globally, and both are excellent tests of English. In this style of debate, it’s not necessary to write out a longform speech – indeed, debaters will generally not have a script at all, but rather just a set of bullet points or speedily written notes on the topic. This is a great format of debate for practicing speaking impromptu, without text.

All in all, debate is an excellent way to work on language skills. While a certain baseline ability in English is certainly a requirement to be able to participate profitably in debating, there is no need to be completely fluent, or as confident as a native speaker, in order to enjoy and be successful in the activity. Speech and debate supercharges English learning and it’s another reason why we’re so passionate about helping students discover and develop this special skill.

Claim My Risk-Free Trial Class » 

Coach Andy
Post by Coach Andy