How Debate Structures Allow English Learners' Brilliance to Shine

English learners at Lawrence High School practice academic discourse by debating current events. (Teaching Channel)

Students are often attuned to current events and world affairs. Debating topics relevant to the news can be a high-interest way to engage English language learners in academic discourse that matters to them while building language skills. Structured debate also gives students opportunities to disagree politely without attacking individuals for their opinions -- a useful life skill.

"Our theme for this whole year is leadership," said Matt Clements, a ninth-grade teacher in the ENLACE Academy at Lawrence High School in Massachusetts. "So as students learn the listening, the reading, the writing and the speaking skills well enough, they transition into my leadership class where they can put all those skills together."

In his ninth-grade leadership seminar, Matt Clements established norms early on with his class about debate and finds it's a great way to get students to use strong evidence to support their opinions, even when defending an unpopular opinion. In this Teaching Channel video, his students are debating whether world leaders made good decisions during the Syrian civil war. Clements asked students to research the war and write arguments about what they found. But throughout the debate, he also pushes them to respond to one another spontaneously, a completely different language skill they also need to practice.

To help build students' argumentative writing skills, Clements uses a color-coded "claim, evidence, reason" text structure. He started using this structure when he noticed that students weren't elaborating on their ideas when writing. The colors help students to remember the elements of a paragraph and practice it over and over again.

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