Debate in the ESL classroom offers much more than speaking practice. Learners can acquire everyday vocabulary, boost their persuasive writing and speaking skills, learn to spot faulty arguments and gain confidence as they learn to defend their viewpoints. Debate topics for ESL students are virtually inexhaustible, but teachers should be mindful of two things: first, that everyone in the classroom feels comfortable with the topic and, second, that the topic’s necessary vocabulary is not too far outside the students’ level.

A Substantial Repast

Classic, “heavy-hitting” debate topics are often teachers’ go-to choice. Adults and teens find these common topics easy to research, although some, such as abortion or capital punishment, might be too heated. These may be best reserved for classes comprising students who are comfortable with each other or who come from similar backgrounds; some students may have to adopt a side they don’t identify with, but this promotes critical thinking.

Classic debate topics to consider include euthanasia, animal testing, gun control, cheating in schools, antismoking laws, cloning, teen plastic surgery, LGBT rights, censorship of explicit lyrics in music, creationism in schools, drug testing by parents, junk food in schools, arranged marriages and environmental laws.

Lighter Fare

Not all debate topics are ultra-serious. Lighter topics fit well with classes whose members are shy, widely different in age or come from varying lifestyles and cultures. In these cases, a less substantial topic can prevent hurt feelings from debates turning into arguments as well as offer commonality to students of all backgrounds. English-language learning, for example, provides many workable topics: Which is more difficult, writing English or speaking English? Should students spend more time studying grammar or speaking?

Other topic questions follow: Which is the most important meal of the day? Is television bad for young children? Which is better: exercise, running or swimming? Are there aliens in the universe? Is Facebook quality social interaction? Should people eat three large meals or many “micro” meals?

The Kids’ Table

Young leaners who may not have the awareness or vocabulary for classic debate topics, serious or not, can certainly debate simple topics that immediately concern their world. Even a question as simple as “Which is a better pet: a dog or a cat?” can give students a framework for practicing language, critical thinking and argumentation. Young students might also enjoy debating topics related to food, homework, mythical creatures, television, books, computers, chores, sports and family.

Advantages of Potluck

ESL debates function smoothly when participants are interested in the topic. Brainstorming topics in class is one way to ensure that students are engaged, since they have more of a say than with teacher-assigned topics. Ask students leading questions to find their areas of interest: When was the last time you had a disagreement, and what was it about? Is there anything you wish you could convince your friends of? If you could change anything about the world or your school, what would it be? Teachers can also use local or school newspapers to inspire dialogue or keep a running list of things that students have disagreed on throughout the course.