Speaking skills at middle school and teen debates

students working in a group at table
09 Oct Shelley Vernon No Comments

Getting students speaking can be tricky, usually one or two dominant pupils do all the talking and the shy ones just sit there. Young teens might be apathetic, say very little and if they do, give short answers. The usual method of taking in an article to read and discuss can make for a pretty dull class with the brightest students doing all the talking while the others sit there - and if you don't have any bright students, it's a flop!

Motivation to speak

1. Firstly, structure the activities in a way that students do the work, they make the lesson, not you. i.e. their ideas ARE the lesson, not the article.

2. Turn the debate into a game. Make teams and brainstorm a topic, having them work to earn points for every comment they make, however silly. 

3. Students have a 30-second talking challenge to earn points for their team - another team picks the topic. To play, teams write topics on pieces of paper. Students pass these around. When you say stop, everyone has one minute to prepare for the topic on the paper they just received. Students take it in turns to do their 30-second speech to earn a point for the team.

A variant is to have teams of 3 or 4 and to have two-minute speech slots but all the team members can join in - the vital thing is for their never to be silence.

avoid heavy debates that are divisiveOther tips

  • Having silly points keeps the atmosphere light. You want light conversation rather than passionate divisive debate. You want students to feel that participating in English discussions is a light-hearted learning tool, not a soul-baring activity reserved for the courageous.
  • Try different things, the students will get used to being creative and get better at it.
  • They should debate things that they know about.
  • The key thing is to have the students chose the topics themselves. Whatever you pick, it won't be cool!
  • Keep it light-hearted. I wouldn't debate anything heavy.


Structured activities for speaking skills

​1. Topics

Also at 11-12 kids may not be very skilled at arguing a point, so give them more structure. For example:

  • What is the best pet you could have? Cats, dogs, horses, other
  • Make four teams - those that think cats are the best are in the same team, and so on.
  • Each cat-team pupil gives one reason why cats are the best. For each different reason, that team gets a point.
  • Then the dog fans have a go and you note the points on the board.
  • Then the horse fans.
  • And the "other" team. In that team, each pupil gives one reason why their choice of pet is the best.


​2. Debate cards

You can create debate cards and put kids in pairs or small groups. This way you give them ideas or roles to play. Working in groups saves the ones who have no ideas from being stuck! Prepare an example for demonstration. For example:


Mum: I don't want you to go to boarding school. I'll miss you. I won't be able to keep an eye on you. It's expensive. You'll be tired all the time, you might not like the food...I like cooking for you and looking after you.


Child: I want to go to boarding school. I won't have to travel each day to and from school, I will be with my friends, study periods are supervised, there are team sports at the weekends, there are trips, it's fun, I'll be home in the holidays...you won't have to cook for me in the week, you can do some sport instead of looking after me, I won't mess up the house all the time because I won't be there...


Have some kids come up front and demonstrate your example of the "debate" using the cards. Then have the kids write their own arguments for topics they have chosen. Kids perform their debates in class. Collect in their arguments and in a different lesson, let pupils "debate" again with the cards or arguments made by other classmates, adding their own ideas.



  • To win their point pupils have to use the debating terms that you are wanting to teach (if there are any!)
  • You could do two points for a sentence that is correct and one point for an incorrect sentence but the team still get a point for their idea.
  • You might want to do debates on social media, which is the best social media platform - because they are teens though they might all agree with each other.


Check out this blog post below too - it's not directly on debating but the ideas are good for speaking skills: https://www.teachingenglishgames.com/new-ideas-plays-skits-or-theatre-teens


We totally welcome any ideas you have in the comments box!

All the best, Shelley Ann Vernon.

PS Try my skits for kids or teen skits to get your students speaking.

skits for teens  skits for kids book cover


Leave a reply

Follow blog

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.
Join 2,450 other followers

Blog categories