Debates & Common Core Speaking and Listening Skills

Boy and girl in front of school board debating.

Think about a time when you worked collaboratively in a small group. Who decided the rules for discussion? Were there disagreements? How did the participants handle them — did they attack others’ views and talk over each other? Or did participants validate each others’ opinions and then counter with their own arguments backed by solid evidence?

We’ve all experienced group discussions that were disorganized or difficult, but we’ve also experienced those that flowed, those that generated healthy discussions, and even those that changed our outlook on a topic. Those productive discussions are due in part to participants who knew how to use effective speaking and listening skills.

The authors of the Common Core State Standards recognized the need to cultivate good speaking and listening skills in order to arm students with the skills they’ll need in college and in the workplace. One way to incorporate Common Core speaking and listening, reading and writing standards in a single unit is to involve students in a debate.

In preparation for a debate, students will meet reading standards by using their research skills to find credible sources and draw evidence from them to support their arguments. They’ll meet writing standards as they tailor their arguments to their purpose and audience. And they’ll meet speaking and listening standards by preparing their evidence, stating their arguments, and effectively listening and responding to the opposing team.

A formal debate also presents the perfect opportunity to collaborate with classroom teachers, as science and social studies units offer myriad topics around which the teacher can form an essential question. For instance, should the school year be extended to run year round?

In her LibrarySparks column, “That’s Debatable,” reading specialist Beth Anne Burke offers 8 teaching tips for getting the most out of a student debate.

8 Tips for Holding a Classroom Debate

  1. Teach debate terminology, such as the roles or parts of a debate and persuasive techniques. A list of debate terms that students will need to know is provided in LibrarySparks’ November 2014 “Strengthen Your Core” article resources. (AASL. 1.1.9)
  2. Select appropriate topics that students can identify with or are invested in. Allow students to have some input into selecting topics. (AASL 2.1.4, 4.4.1)
  3. Divide students into teams. Assign students to the “Pro” and “Con” sides of the argument. (In a real debate situation, you don’t always get to pick your side.) (AASL 1.3.4, 3.2.3, 3.3.2)
  4. To facilitate research, pre-search for articles that offer balanced information on the topic. This is not only a time-saver, but it also prevents students accessing inappropriate content. (AASL 1.1.4, 1.1.5, 1.4.1, 1.4.3, 2.1.5, 3.1.1, 3.1.2)
  5. Have students write out their speeches, using effective opinion writing techniques (see LibrarySparks’ August 2014 “Strengthen Your Core” article resources.) (AASL 1.1.1, 2.1.1, 3.1.3)
  6. Encourage students to find reasons and evidence to support both sides, so that they have support for counter-arguments. (AASL 1.1.5)
  7. Have students take notes during the debate. Teammates can share notes with each other. (AASL 2.1.1, 3.2.3)
  8. You may wish to record the debates. Watch the recording with students and have them self-assess their performances. (See LibrarySparks’ November 2014 “Curriculum Connections” article resources for a student-friendly debating team rubric. (AASL 1.4.2, 1.4.3)


Liz Bowie

Liz Bowie

Marketing Content Manager at Demco, Inc.
Liz is the Marketing Content Manager for Demco. Her background includes editorial management and product development of innovative and time-saving tools for schools and libraries, with an emphasis on Common Core, literacy and math. The products she and her team have developed, including classroom games, learning centers and professional development resources, have garnered 46 industry awards for excellence in education. Liz is passionate about promoting literacy through her work and the work of others. If you are interested in sharing your ideas and programming tips on Demco’s Ideas and Inspiration blog or have ideas for topics you’d like to see covered, contact Liz at