Series Engaging Newcomers in Language & Content: Using Debate to Teach Academic Language

Using Debate to Teach Academic Language

Lesson Objective: Engage in a debate about a current event
Grades 9-12 / Social Studies / ELL
10 MIN


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Discussion and Supporting Materials

Thought starters

  1. How does the debate structure help students build and practice academic language?
  2. What scaffolds does Mr. Clement have in place to make the debate accessible to all students?
  3. How might you use debate in your own classroom?


  • Private message to Tobon Lucero

I liked that Mr. Clements helped his students learn academic language, using grammatical structures, to help students debate a topic.

Debate helps students who have language barriers to communicate more academically. Students did a good job expressing themselves and they seemed very self-confident in the debate.

I liked the way Mr. Clements prepared his class and the way he used colored posters on the wall; green for those who were in favor and red for those against.

Of course, I will use this type of discussion in my class. My students will be learning Spanish and it is a great activity for them to speak Spanish fluently. I will have to prepare my class, organize the material I will use, and be polite to encourage my students to participate in class as Mr. Clements did.

Recommended (0)
  • Private message to elizabeth proby
Mr. Clement did an awesome job setting up the classroom debate by having information preprinted. He used an interesting technique using color for the details. His execution of the debate was very structured and the support given to the students was very encouraging. Even though the students have language barriers, they were very cooperative and applied their skills. The debate can be used in my classroom to help students with planning their food labs. I often run into problems with students making decisions as to what should prepare during free cook meal planning labs and they sometimes fall out of the group because they do not know how to negotiate and/or talk it over with each other. The students in the video were very respectful towards each other and valued each other's opinions. Great job, Mr. Clement.
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  • Private message to Erin Miller
Mr. Clement has index cards which indicate claim, evidence, and reason steps to use in the argument. Also, he uses the open ended sentences,different situations, and visuals to aid the student. The debate structure helps students in building academic language because it integrates speaking, reading, writing, and listening for the learner. The student learns how to research a topic. Debate could be used in my classroom to not only build academic skills, but social skills as well. Debate teaches one how to listen to other's differences and agree to disagree in a socially acceptable manner.
Recommended (1)


  • Using Debate to Teach Academic Language Transcript
    Matt Clements: So, welcome to our debate. You have your arguments on your

    Using Debate to Teach Academic Language Transcript
    Matt Clements: So, welcome to our debate. You have your arguments on your desk.
    My name is Matt Clements and I am the leadership seminar teacher in the 9th grade at Enlace Academy in Lawrence High School in Lawrence, Massachusets.
    Angelino, would you like to speak?
    Angelino: I agree with your argument
    Matt Clements: Today in class, we are debating whether or not world leaders have made positive or negative choices during the Syrian Civil war.
    Who has an argument now on the other side, on the positive side?
    Speaker 3: I disagree because the United States want to help the people, they do not want to ...
    Matt Clements: Enlace is a program within Lawrence high school that accepts 14 to 16 year olds. Most of them are in their first year in the United States learning English.
    What up Juan? How are you?
    The students I work with are SLIFE students, or students with limited or interrupted formal education and are in their, usually their second or third year of learning English.
    Our theme for this whole year is leadership. So as the students learn the listening, the reading, the writing and the speaking skills well enough, they were transitioned into my leadership class where they can sort of put all those skills together.
    Well as you guys know we've been preparing our Syrian Civil War debate for quite a few days.
    And the reason we're working on the Syrian Civil War is because student were sort of shocked when the United States attacked Syria. So what we try to do in leadership seminar is stay current, stay on top of those current events and give student a space to talk about real things that will be affecting their lives. But to also take action and to become a leader within that space
    Alright, so the first thing we're gonna do is you're gonna look through your arguments, read them again. If you only have one, that will be the argument you're presenting. If you wanna talk to a partner, and decide which one is your strongest argument you can do that. If you wanna just do it silently by yourself, you can do that as well. You have two minutes to do this.
    Students have been reading different articles of their choice on the internet, researching some evidence for the questions.
    Which one do you think is the best, the strongest? Why?
    They wrote arguments in a CLAIM/EVIDENCE/REASON format and those all correspond to a different color. The coloring just helps them build that structure over and over again, especially when they're writing a paragraph. And today they're presenting them.
    Speaker 4: Bashar ...
    Matt Clements: Bashar Al Assad
    Speaker 4: Al Assad
    Matt Clements: Good
    Speaker 4: Killed for graffiti
    Matt Clements: Just for graffiti, right. So do you think that fact that he was killed just for doing graffiti is kind of surprising.
    Speaker 4: Yeah
    Matt Clements: Yep I think that's excellent. SO what I want you to do, is this is kind of a long piece of evidence so practice saying it in your head, okay?
    Speaker 4: Okay
    Speaker 5: This negative because they come to involve other country and kill many people.
    Speaker 6: I have a question. How do you know this can be a war in the foot.
    Speaker 5: Because, where if one country attack Syria, other country want to help why this country attack.
    Matt Clements: So, do you feel like you're ready? Carnacio is ready. He's got a thumbs up over here, ready? Let's just remind ourselves over here what a debate looks like.
    Students have also been learning different sentence starters in all of their classes. In our leadership seminar we sort of expanded upon those and I had those projected up on the board.
    So what we're gonna do today like we have in the past is we'll take one of these arguments, we'll present one of these arguments, we'll read it out loud, present it to the whole group. Then, if you believe that their choices were positive, we'll take a magnet and stick that argument right up here. If you believe that their choices were negative, take a magnet and stick that up right here. One reminder, lots of respect. I know we have some differences of opinions in here. We're gonna respect each other in this conversation. One argument, one counterargument.
    Do you want to use Buffalito today?
    No, just raise your hands?
    Speaker 6: Yes
    Matt Clements: Yes. So let's throw Buffalito our talking piece over to Alvina.
    Buffalito is our talking stick, it means little buffalo in Spanish. I just happen to have a stuffed buffalo, so Buffalito has sort of become a security blanket, a well as a talking piece within our class. The person who has Buffalito is the only one who can speak. Solid rule in our class.
    Alvina: So first, Bashar Al-Assad chose to attack the Syrian people. Why is negative, because many people die. According to the text it says 'shemical weapons-
    Matt Clements: Chemical weapons.
    Alvina: 'Chemical weapons are designed to seriously hurt people.
    This shows it was negative because when they attacked the Syrian people, many people died and they fought with Bashar Al-Assad.' What do you think?
    Matt Clements: Alvina come on up. Are we gonna put it on the red side or the green side. Who agrees with Alvina, or who disagrees with Alvina. Alvina why don't you choose someone, or throw Buffalito to somebody.
    Louis: I agree with the argument of Alvina because I think that this is very negative. I feel that maybe USA and Russia-
    Matt Clements: Louis, before you start with your argument, I want you to respond directly to Alvina's. Why do you agree with her? SO nothing from your paper. Your argument should just be from your brain. Okay?
    Louis: I agree because this involve many people life in Syria.
    Matt Clements: I would say that the biggest thing I was looking for was for student to respond to each other. I find that for students that aren't necessarily used to the academic setting of the school, for students who have missed so much schooling like our SLIFE students, they need to be taught how to sort of respond one another, to listen to one another, to go sort of back and forth. Even at this sort of later age, in the ninth or tenth grade.
    Who has an argument now on the other side, on the positive side? Who has an argument that some of these actions were positive? Ernst? Alright. And Louis we'll come back to you to get your argument later on, okay?
    Ernst: I think Trump's choice was positive because Trump help in Syria to stop government in the country.
    According to the text, "Donald Trump ordered attack on Syrian airbase. He said because he used chemical weapons."
    This show Trump make good choice because he want to stop Bashar Al-Assad because he kill many people.
    Matt Clements: So honestly do you agree or disagree with this statement by Ernst? Alright now we're getting into more of the debate. I had a feeling people might not agree with Ernst on that one.
    So students also used different hand gestures. They agree, they disagree and they build on one another. That's something that we use consistently throughout the school, throughout all their classes.
    Throw Buffalito to someone who disagrees. Alright, Wikaudi.
    wikaudi: I disagree with Ernst because if Trump wanted to remove the Sudan government he had to [inaudible 00:07:23] because many people die. So I disagree Ernst.
    Matt Clements: Alright, this seems like this is a pretty contentious or controversial issue so let's keep the debate going. Let's go back to Ernst so he can respond to Wikaudi and then we'll go to someone else to disagrees.
    Ernst: Now the reason I disagree with you is because Trump did not make chemical in the ground. Trump bombed Syria because he want to stop Bashar Al-Assad government because Trump ...
    Matt Clements: I was surprised by Ernst's answers, he thought that both the United States and Russia had both made some positive choices in attacking Syria. And what was surprising to me was not that he had chosen that side but the way that he had decided to argue it. He had really pulled out some of the best evidence that you could find in any of the articles that the students had read.
    Ernst: Because according to the text, it say the president named Bashar, is Bashar Al-Assad, he massacred the people. While many Syrian have been fight to get Bashar Al-Assad, they want a new leader.
    Matt Clements: Just a quick time out, but I love what Ernst did, is when he was countering, he actually used his argument. He said, 'Oh I have a piece of information that connects.' That's awesome.
    I thought that having such a keen eye for evidence is something that I've really been seeing in a lot of the students, but particularly in Ernst growing, recently.
    Speaker 3: I disagree because why you think killing people is good for Syria?
    Matt Clements: I think the students did really well. They went back and forth. They were able to discuss the issue using a lot of evidence, especially using a lot of evidence from a lot of different pieces, a lot of different countries.
    I hear you guys sort of forming into different groups. Some people don't want any war; some people think fighting is a good way to stop the war. So there's an argument about pacifism happening here. I'll introduce you to the word pacifism tomorrow, and we'll talk more about who agrees with pacifism, and who disagrees.
    That whole group speaking that we did today will then sort of launch them into writing full paragraphs next week.
    Leave your papers there. I'll collect them ,and head to your next class.
    So my favorite part about teaching at Enlace, I'd have to say it's being able to build from the ground up. I love to sort of examine where each student's gaps are and sort of individualize what they need in order to be mainstreamed. And it's just been amazing to see their growth and see those gaps being filled throughout the year. So that the students have prepared to really engage in the rigorous curriculum of tenth grade next year.
    Have a good weekend.
    Good bye, sir.

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