Let’s Practice Debating in English (Revised) – by Narahiko INOUE

Let’s Practice Debating in English (Revised) – by Narahiko INOUE

Practice Debating in English - Let's Practice Debating in English (Revised) - by Narahiko INOUE


1. INTRODUCTION [ Let’s Practice Debating in English ]

This text is a brief introduction to formal debate but also a more general introduction to argumentation. By the end of the text, readers will have learned to prepare for and engage in a formal debate. At the same time, those concepts and skills learned in this text are more widely applicable to a variety of communication situations when readers try to critically examine controversial issues and find better ways to defend their opinion developed through critical examination.

This introductory section tries to define the debate, introducing a special kind of debate called “Academic Debate”. Section 2 will discuss the nature and selection of topics for debate. Section 3 will go step by step through the process of preparing for a formal debate. Section 4 will examine the nature of arguments. Section 5 will explain how to organize speeches. Section 6 will briefly consider ethical aspects of the debate.

Some of the rules and principles in this text are based on a particular style of Academic Debate, in which a specific topic for debate is announced well before the debate round and debaters are allowed to read manuscripts and quotations in speeches. If you are to practice a different style of debate, you should adjust accordingly. Still, most of the principles and skills discussed here will be applicable to any kind of debate and more broadly to many other communication situations.

Whether you may actually practice Academic Debate or not, it will be a great asset for you to develop the skills and attitudes in critical thinking and strategic communication outlined in this text.

1.1 What is debate?

Debate is a communication process in which participants argue for and against a given topic. There are many kinds of debates. Some people think of a business meeting. An employee proposes a new marketing plan but another opposes it. You and your friend may have an informal debate. You are talking about a plan for the coming long weekend. You suggest a trip to a spa resort but your friend disagrees. You can also debate by yourself. You are trying to make a future plan. “Do I want to go to a graduate school or find a job in a company?” You consider good points and bad points about those two future plans. All these are daily examples of debate.

There are many reasons why people debate. The most important reason is to make the best possible decision regarding an opinion. How can we arrive at the best decision? We want to hear the best possible defense of the opinion and best possible attack against the opinion before we decide. If someone tries his best to find reasons for the opinion and another tries her best to find reasons against the opinion, we will be able to hear enough information to make our decision. If they try to attack and defend each other’s arguments, we will be able to hear better reasons for our decision.

Let me illustrate the point. Suppose an electric power company proposes the construction of an atomic power plant in your town. Some people in your town welcome the plan. Others oppose it. Still, many others cannot make up their mind. There will be a town meeting about the plan of the atomic power plant. You are concerned about the safety of atomic power plants and want to speak up in the meeting.

You will start preparing for the meeting. You call the power company and ask for information. You also find a group of people opposing atomic power plants in other area and ask for information. You go to a library to find several books and articles in magazines discussing the safety of atomic power plants. By carefully reading all that information, you may arrive at a conclusion that the atomic power plant in your town will be dangerous.

You then write up a short speech so that you can give it at the town meeting. You also study what your electric power company has to say about those safety questions so that you can criticize them as well as defend your opinion against possible criticism. In the town meeting, you and some others give opinions against the construction of the atomic power plant in your neighbourhood. Some others present their opinions on the construction.

You exchange some questions and answers about your opinions. You also criticize some of the points raised by the proponents of the construction. They also attack your opinion. There are more exchanges of opinions for and against atomic power plants.

In this illustration, the debate is not only the discussions which take place at the town meeting but it includes the whole process of analyzing the question of the safety of the plant, searching for information, and preparing your speech and possible attacks and defence. At the end of this process, the audience is able to make the best possible decision. In this sense, the debate is a special kind of argumentation by which issues are critically examined and a certain position is strategically defended. Argumentation skills can be applied in both producing and receiving messages in writing, public speaking, negotiating, and other communication situations.

1.2 What is Academic Debate?

When you are using this textbook in class, you will encounter debate as educational exercise. This is called Academic or Educational Debate. Academic Debate is different from debate in the real world like the above debate in the town meeting. In the real-world debate, the purpose is often to decide the future plan of the participants. In Academic Debate, the primary purpose is educational training. Suppose we have a debate in this class on whether we should build an atomic plant in our town. Even if we decide to build it, it will not actually be built.

There are several characteristics of Academic Debate for maximizing its educational benefits. There are strict rules of speaking in terms of time, order, the use of evidence, etc. Judges often give criticism and advice for arguments regarding both contents and skills, as well as making a decision.

Academic Debate is offered as one type of speech course at colleges and high schools in the United States and some other countries, where students are taught how to debate. It is also popular in extracurricular activities and there are local and national level competitions. In Japan you also find some classes using debate and tournaments (contests) both in the Japanese and English languages.

The debate has been practised for a long time in Western societies since the time of Ancient Greece. It is often used in classrooms and business training. Many leaders in politics, business, and academics learned debate. Many of the U.S. presidents and British prime ministers used to practice debate in schools and universities. In Japan, debating in English has an established tradition in extracurricular clubs (mostly called English Speaking Societies). More recently, the high school curriculum for English includes debate as one of the optional activities. Debate in Japanese is also becoming increasingly popular.

In a typical setting of communication for Academic Debate, the following elements are involved as in Figure 1.


A debate as a verbal communication event is primarily conducted between two matched sides which are represented by two teams: the “affirmative” side to support the topic and the “negative” side to oppose the topic. The topic for debate is officially called the “proposition” or “resolution” (or sometimes called a “motion”). In classroom debates, students either sign up for those teams or the instructor may assign them to each group. In tournaments and contests, the participating teams consist of the same number of people and each team usually stands at least once on the affirmative side and once on the negative side.

The speakers (debaters) from the two teams in a debate then give speeches for and against the topic or they give pros and cons of the questions under debate. They take turns giving speeches to support their position. In some formats, they ask the other team questions after a speech (called “cross-examination”). In this sense, they communicate with each other.

The two teams not only communicate with each other but also communicate with a third party. In many cases, the debate is presented in front of an “audience”. The affirmative and the negative teams try their best to persuade the audience to believe their side. There are also special kinds of audience, “judges” or “critics” (or “adjudicators”). The audience may give their decision at the end of the debate. Judges and critics also sometimes give comments and advice so that debaters can improve their analyses or speeches.

1.3. Format of Academic Debate

Academic Debate allows a variety of formats (such as the length and number of speeches). The important point is that the affirmative and the negative sides have the same amount of time for their speeches. A full format in a tournament is given below. The length and number of speeches may be decreased to fit classroom purposes.

Preparation time is used to organize a speech before it is orally presented. In the flexible-time system, each team decides how many minutes to spend before a speech until the given time is used up. In the fixed-time system, a fixed amount of time (e.g., 2 minutes) is given before each speech except for the 1st Affirmative Constructive, which is prepared before the debate round. Cross-examination is conducted immediately after the speech.

Study Questions

1. Compare Japanese “tooron” and “debate” defined here.
What are similarities and differences?
2. Compare “debate”, “discussion”, and “negotiation”.
What are similarities and differences?
3. What are the merits and demerits of making a decision in a classroom debate?





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