The Whole-Class Great Debate: A Discussion Strategy for English Language Learners

By Thomas DeVere Wolsey & Dana L. Grisham

A rule of thumb we have come to find helpful in any language learning environment is that the more one uses a language, the more likely it will be that proficiency develops in that language. Of course, effective instruction, useful models, and other resources are all important, as well.  A resource from the Common Core State Standards website suggests that English language learners, among other things, should have:

  • Opportunities for classroom discourse and interaction that are well-designed to enable ELLs to develop communicative strengths in language arts;

  • Ongoing assessment and feedback to guide learning (p. 2).

Recently, we had the opportunity, as part of a delegation to meet with education leaders in China, to observe a class of middle school age students debate a topic as a way of integrating speaking, listening, and presentation tasks at Tiantong Education Group’s teaching center in Shenyang, China All of the students are English language learners.. The teacher called the process “debate” but we have modified this title a bit to differentiate it from other debate protocols to “Whole-class Great Debate.”

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The students had just returned to class after a national holiday, and, as you may be aware, China is grappling with pollution that causes health problems for many citizens (for example, read this news article about pollution in Beijing).  Students were asked to “state up their opinion” as to whether it was a good idea to stay home during the holiday or to go somewhere, such as the beach.

Students sat in rows, two on each side, facing each other. Initially, a student on each side states an opinion that staying home or going out for the holiday is their preferred option.  Each side then adopted one of the two stated positions.  They met in small groups to come up reasons in support of staying home or going away. Next, a student stated the opinion to which the other side responded. Students they returned to their group to determine counterarguments to those they heard. The process began again. A selected student (a volunteer in the class), then summarized the group’s position.

So far, this seems much like a typical classroom debate. However, to keep the students engaged in the discussions and to encourage them to listen to one another, the teacher developed protocols for speaking to the class. Students were encouraged to stand up and speak up taking turns from one side or the other. The spontaneous nature of standing and speaking motivated students to listen so they might speak. However, at times, more than one student from a side might want to speak. They learned to call “I’m, first” but sometimes it was hard to tell who was actually first. To keep everything moving and in control, students could use a version of “rock paper scissors” to decide who would actually speak first. Finally, each side met again to review their opinions and the counterarguments to their opinions, and a final summary speaker was elected.

ELLs at Tiantong Education Center

The teacher did choose a colleague to come in and evaluate the debate and select a winner based on a rubric for developing and stating an opinion, but it was clear that the debate’s main goal was interaction in English requiring students to listen carefully to each side, discuss their opinions and those of the other side, then speak publicly about it.  The teacher recognized the strengths of each team’s presentation. We hope you enjoy watching this video of the Whole-class Great Debate.

IAIE Representatives

Representatives from IAIE include Jin Zhang, Dana Grisham, Thomas DeVere Wolsey, Marc Grisham.

Reference

Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2012). Application of Common Core State Standards for English language learners [PDF]. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/assets/application-for-english-learners.pdf

2 Responses

  1. I think this strategy to support English Language Learners through the structure of a debate is a great idea: incorporating listening, speaking and presentation. I would think that this activity would be especially effective if the topic of the debate is something that the students feel invested in and that is relevant to their lives. What were student reactions to the topic of staying at home over the holiday? It would be my guess that something so directly related to them would prove more useful than a topic chosen solely for its relation to the curriculum.

    • Hi Liz, thank you for reading our blog! Interestingly, the students seemed very animated about the need to stay home, usually for environmental reasons but sometimes to stay current on their homework, as well.

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