Debating in the primary classroom

Debates are important in oral language as they develop a child’s ability to argue a point of view, a skill that is valuable in many aspects of life. These activities allow them to become better debaters through time and help them become critical thinkers, expressing their opinions and thoughts and gaining self-confidence.

Debating is not about raising your voice but about choosing your words wisely, making reasoned and well-thought-out arguments.  

The aim with teaching pupils how to debate is not to start formal podium style debates immediately but rather work to develop and expand their debating vocabulary so that the pupils can understand and use the expressions in the correct context.

Depending on the class level being taught, you may want to select a few introductory statements, some expressions for during a debate and a closing statement to introduce debating language with your pupils. When they understand their new expressions and argue points of view using them correctly, then you can begin adding a few more phrases at a time throughout the school year.

Suggested language for the different classrooms for use in arguments and informal/ formal debates.

Opening statements:  Useful expressions for during a debate  Closing statements:  
Suggested language for junior classes
In my opinion
I agree/ disagree that
I think/ don’t think
I strongly agree/ disagree  
I have mixed feelings
Yes/ no
I like/ don’t like
Because of that  
Build upon the language in the middle classes by adding the following expressions
I strongly believe
I firmly/ thoroughly believe
It is believed/ widely believed It has been found/ discovered/ proven
To begin  
On one hand
On the other hand
Consider the following
In fact
Firstly, secondly, next
For example
However/ although
To illustrate my point (further)
To reinforce my point the problem with … is
Unlike/ like
Finally Therefore Overall
In conclusion, in summary Consequently As a result
Build upon language talk  by adding the following expressions in the senior classes
 In addition
For example
You may have a point but
Well, I feel that I have a problem with
Of further concern
More importantly
What’s more
It is a well-known fact
In contrast  

Activities to develop arguments and formal/ informal debates

Initial activities can be whole classed using topics of your choice or from the debate cards container in Language for Living. Here are a few examples;

For junior classes:

  • Yes/ no: When discussing a topic with the classroom formulate ‘yes/ no’ tables.
  • Decision time: An imaginary line is established in the classroom. One end represents ‘agree’, the other end ‘disagree’ and the middle represents those who are unsure of their opinion. The teacher reads aloud a debate card, and the pupils take their positions along the imaginary line.

After a discussion about the topic issued, the teacher asks pupils if anyone wishes to changes their positions after hearing other points of view, why did they change etc.

  • Four corner debate: All four corners of the classroom are used in this debate game. Each corner is labelled as follows: Strongly agree, agree, disagree and strongly disagree. The teacher selects a topic for discussion. Each student is invited to walk to the corner that best represents their opinion. Each group has a few minutes to discuss the topic before presenting their answers to the whole class. This game can be repeated with another topic card.

Nb: If social cliques are a problem, ask the pupils to write their selection on a piece of paper first to ensure honest opinions.

For middle-senior classes:

  • Follower the Leader: In this game, the teacher is the leaders and selects pupils by calling their names to be conducted. The leader selects a topic from the debate card container. During this exercise, the leader will select a student and an expression for the student to use to continue the debate. This is an important learning activity for debating as it develops the pupils understanding of useful phrases to use in debates and how to use them.


Leader: Children shouldn’t be allowed to chew chewing gum. Niall continue with ‘furthermore.’

Niall: Furthermore, fines should be put in place for any littering of chewing gum as it destroys furniture and roads when not disposed of properly

Leader: Bidgeen continue with ‘on the other hand.’

Bridgeen: On the other hand, chewing gum can be useful and provides you with a fresh-smelling breath.

Leader: Janet continue with ‘for example.’

Janet: for example, chewing gum can remove small bits of food that is stuck between teeth and therefore helping to keep our teeth clean.

Leader: Jack continue with ‘you may have a point.’

Jack: You may have a point. Nevertheless,  chewing gum is a disaster when not disposed of properly and also can be a choking hazard with young children.

  • Stakeholder debate game: Pupils can participate in role-playing with this debate game. The teacher selects a card from the debate card container which he/ she feel would involve a few stakeholders in that particular situation. E.g. School should be all year round. Pupils make a list of possible stakeholders involved e.g. parents, teachers, students, administrators, residents etc. These stakeholders can be written on cards and give each student a card. Each stakeholder group should contain at least 3 pupils.

Each group makes an argument for or against the situation based on their stakeholder card. E.g. Pupils may be against school all year round as they want to enjoy summer holidays and weather etc. Parents may be for school at year-round as they think their children will benefit from the education. Ask groups to present their arguments to the whole class and leave it open for discussion and questions.

This debate can be carried out with the whole class and remainder pupils an audience or divide class into two/ three groups and gives different topics to discuss.

You can use improvisational drama here to practice more elaborate social functions, e.g. making formal introductions, proposing a vote, expressing sympathy, making a complaint.

Further debate activities:

  • Think-pair-share-debate: The teacher selects a topic for discussion from the debate card container. Pupils initially have a few minutes to gather information on the topic on their own. Each student is then paired with another student and given 10 minutes to share information and think more deeply about the topic. Finally, each pair joins another pair of students for a further 10 minutes to compare information, share thoughts and gather more information. Eventually, the entire class come together to share information they have gathered. The students are now knowledgeably ready to debate the topic.
  • Two Person debate: The students work in pairs. Each pair selects a topic to discuss from the debate card container. Students select sides and spend 5 minutes preparation time to think of arguments. Student A gives a series of opinions about the topic for 2 minutes. Student B then directly attacks the opinions of student A for 2 minutes. The first speaker then continues again for 1 minute, followed by Student B.

There are 100 debate cards in both the middle and senior Language for Living boxes with more suggested activities. The junior box contains 50 debates with a mix of debates based on fairy tales and debates based on real life.

Please add any ideas you may have for debating in the classroom below in the comments. Let’s get debating in the classroom. Thank you!

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