4 Fast Debate Formats for the Secondary Classroom

Quick Debates for Grades 7 Through 12

Debates are ideal ways to increase student speaking and listening skills.

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While debate is an adversarial activity, it provides numerous positive benefits for students. Debate increases opportunities for speaking and listening in the classroom. During a debate, students take turns speaking in response to the arguments made by their opponents. At the same time, other students participating in the debate, or in the audience, must listen carefully for arguments made or evidence used in supporting a position.

The cornerstone of classroom debate is the ability of students to present their positions and to convince others of those positions. Particular forms of debate are well-suited to first-time debaters as they focus less on the quality of speaking and more on the evidence presented in arguments. 

Debate topics of interest to high school students range from human cloning and animal testing to changing the legal voting age. For middle school students, debate topics may include the abolishment of statewide testing or whether school uniforms should be required. To prep students for their first debate, review debate formats, show students how debaters organize their arguments, watch videos of actual debates, and go over the scoring rubrics for each form of debate.

The debate formats presented can be adapted to the length of a class period.

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Abbreviated Lincoln-Douglas Debate

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The Lincoln-Douglas debate is dedicated to questions that are of a deep moral or philosophical nature.

The debate format for a Lincoln-Douglas debate is one-on-one. While some students may prefer one-to-one debate, others may not want the pressure or spotlight. This debate format allows a student to win or lose based solely on an individual argument rather than relying on a partner or group.

An abbreviated version of a Lincoln-Douglas debate runs about 15 minutes, including time for transitions and claims to be made during each stage of the process:

  • First Affirmative Speaker: Two minutes to introduce the topic
  • First Negative Speaker: Two minutes to restate the opponent's viewpoint
    • Example: "It is often said" or "Many people assume that my esteemed opponent believes that" 
  • Second Affirmative Speaker: Two minutes to disagree
    • Example: "On the contrary" or "On the other hand" 
  • Second Negative Speaker: Two minutes to explain position (using evidence)
    • Example: "For example" or "This is why" 
  • Break for Rebuttal Speech Preparation: Two minutes to transition
  • Negative Summary/Rebuttal Speaker: Two minutes to conclude (including thesis)
    • Example: "Therefore" or "As a result" or "Thus it can be seen" 
  • Affirmative Summary/Rebuttal Speaker: Two minutes to conclude (including thesis)
    •  Example: "Therefore" or "As a result" or "Thus it can be seen" 
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Role-Play Debate

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In the role-play format of debate, students examine different points of view or perspectives related to an issue by playing a role. A debate about the question "Should English class be required for four years?" might yield a variety of opinions.

The points of view expressed in a role-play debate might include opinions that would be expressed by a student (or two students) representing one side of an issue. This type of debate could feature other roles such as a parent, a school principal, a college professor, a teacher, a textbook sales representative, or an author.

To role-play, ask students to help identify all stakeholders in the debate. Create three index cards for each role. Write the role of one stakeholder on each index card.

Students choose an index card at random, and those holding matching stakeholder cards gather together. Each group formulates the arguments for its assigned stakeholder role.

During the debate, each stakeholder presents her point of view.

In the end, the students decide which stakeholder presented the strongest argument.

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Tag-Team Debate

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In a tag-team debate, students work in small groups, and there are opportunities for every student to participate. The teacher organizes two teams of no more than five students to represent two sides of a debatable question. Each team has a set amount of time (three to five minutes) to present its point of view.

The teacher reads aloud the issue to be debated and then gives each team the opportunity to discuss its argument as a group. One speaker from each team takes the floor and speaks for no more than one minute. That speaker must "tag" another member of the team to pick up the argument at the end of his time or before his minute is up. A team member who is eager to pick up a point or add to the team's argument can raise his hand to be tagged.

No member of a team can be tagged twice until all members have had an opportunity to speak. After all teams have presented, students vote on which team made the best argument.

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Inner Circle-Outer Circle Debate

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In the inner circle-outer circle debate, the teacher arranges students into two groups of equal size who take opposing sides in the debate. Each group has an opportunity to listen to the other group discuss an issue and formulate conclusions, as well as discuss and formulate its own conclusions.

The students in Group 1 sit in a circle of chairs facing out, away from the center, while the students in Group 2 sit in a circle of chairs around Group 1, facing the center of the circle as well as the students in Group 1. Once the students are seated, the teacher reads aloud the issue to be discussed.

The students in the inner circle have 10 to 15 minutes to discuss the topic. During that time, all other students focus their attention on the students in the inner circle. No one else is allowed to speak during the inner circle's discussion time.

As the outer circle group observes the inner circle group and listens to the discussion, members of the outer circle group create a list of the arguments made by each member of the inner circle group. The outer circle students also prepare their own notes about these arguments.

After 10 to 15 minutes, the groups switch roles and the process is repeated. After the second round, all students share their outer circle observations. The notes from both rounds may be used in a follow-up classroom discussion and/or as an editorial writing assignment for students to express their positions on the issue at hand.