How To Choose Debate Topics

Check out these sites for ideas on debate topics and activities:

  • for a list of controversial statements (or write your own).
  • Political Nightmares is a well-developed roleplay where students act as politicians and journalists; there are both British and US versions.
  • 42explore has a number of links to relevant sites about debate.
  • Tefl-magic has an activity about technology which can be adapted for any number of other topics.
  • ESL flow also has a number of resources for everything from advanced International business English discussion topics to ranking activities to rolepleys.

My own tips on choosing topics:

Choose the topic carefully.
I avoid topics that are likely to be highly personal to students just because it can be unpleasant and I’d rather not cultivate that atmosphere if I can avoid it. I knew that some of my Korean students wanted to discuss North Korea’s missile tests, and so in the last fifteen minutes of a class I asked everyone to brainstorm (any) topics they were interested in and, in small groups, to choose one each Sure enough, there it was. But I’d assigned five minutes to each group, so we had a limited time to fill. It did get emotional for some people, but class time ended, I told a joke on a totally different topic, and they left in good spirits.

Frame the topic carefully.
A topic like “Racism” is extremely broad and hard to debate in the sense of taking two sides: “Is racism good or bad?” is not likely to get much back and forth, but “Is affirmative action the best way to remedy past discrimination?” or “Compare racism in America to racism in your country” leave room for several points of view. Some teachers advise choosing one concrete case to discuss rather than just debating a topic in general. This can work, and is useful if you want to incorporate reading or listening, but with a well-thought-out topic and questions, it’s quite possible to discuss a topic without spending an inordinate amount of time reading a complicated text.

Choose topics that you are comfortable sharing your own views on.
It seems unfair to ask students to give their views if you aren’t willing to give yours. I sometimes give my own opinion at the end (in part so students don’t feel like they have to agree with me), but stay neutral for the duration of the discussion and let students speak.