The value of developing debating skills in Academic English units

Developing elaborate opinions supported by reliable sources is not an easy task for tertiary students. This is particularly challenging for international and domestic students from a non-English speaking background (NESB).

Though not widely used as an assessment task, debates have been used as an interactive activity that empowers NESB students with the ability to support positions both orally and in a written format. Debates bring together a range of academic and social skills and provide opportunities to formally discuss perspectives orally in a ‘safe’ and small classroom environment.

Karen McRae’s article ‘The value of developing debating skills in Academic English units’ has recently been published in the English Australia Journal. You can read it in full here (p. 20-33). Keep reading below for a summary of the key ideas.

The power of debating

The art of debating is an ancient practice that is still frequently performed in contemporary social, business, and political interactions. It is a valuable skill that requires several techniques taught in Academic English units including the use of critical thinking, application of formal language, and development of sound arguments. These skills are often applied and assessed in writing tasks but used less frequently as an oral assessment.

The role of debating in assessments

Recent research on the impact of Academic English studies on NESB/ELICOS students’ language proficiency in Australia, revealed that the development of speaking skills is an area that is noticeably neglected as students still experience hesitation during group discussions.

Student competency in the 21st century is no longer exclusively assessed through a final traditional examination at the end of the term. Instead, a variety of oral, written, individual, group and interactive assessment tasks are now used, asking students ‘to perform real-world tasks that demonstrate meaningful application’ (Mueller, 2005, p. 2).

Therefore in-class opportunities for speaking practice should prepare NESB students for these challenges in the real-world. As supported by a number of studies (Coates, 2007; McKenzie & Egea, 2016), this is where practising debating can offer significant academic and non-academic value.

Going against tradition

Unlike traditional presentations, debates encapsulate all levels of cognitive learning in Bloom’s (revised) Taxonomy. They place students in a position that requires them to think in English rather than merely regurgitate memorised phrases. Snider and Schnurer (2002) add that debating ‘transcends sheer translation’ (p. 210) as students must develop the ability to listen, observe, interpret, analyse, evaluate and relate, improving mental alertness and intellectual survival skills.

By recreating debating scenarios in the classroom and conducting regular interaction with classmates, students are given an opportunity to gradually learn the rules and codes of the new social setting. Through social immersion NESB learners can start to adapt to the academic and professional rules of engagement in Australian professional contexts.

To hear Karen talk about how debating can be effectively incorporated in the classroom, watch this video:

The study: Debates and Academic English

The study examines teacher feedback as well as student reflections and academic progress once debates were incorporated into the syllabus of Academic English units.

Before the introduction of debates in the Academic English units was reviewed, teachers regularly noted a lack of student interest in the assessment tasks, both through classroom observations and through assessment results, as learning outcomes were not always met.

There remained a need to inspire students to develop in-depth arguments, resist persuasion and create new ideas, rather than simply realigning a number of facts. As part of the study, debates were introduced as an alternative oral assessment task to presentations.

The important role of teachers

Teachers were initially concerned that debates would be too challenging as an assessment task for NESB students as the newly implemented debates required students to defend an academic position rather than simply list advantages and disadvantages of a statement as often performed in previous presentation tasks.

Teachers played a major role in this transition, assisting students to develop a greater sense of responsibility, and transform from passive to active learners. Students had approximately three weeks to prepare for their assessed debate, with a practice mock debate being conducted a week ahead of their assessment.

The study’s findings

The findings of this study complement those of earlier research, confirming that debates are an effective simulation of professional scenarios and offer an enjoyable way of developing formal speaking as well as interpersonal and intercultural competencies for tertiary students.

The most striking observation to emerge was that Arts and Communication students showed significant and ongoing improvement over three consecutive sessions once debates were introduced. The debate assessment comprised of similar argument development and organisation of ideas to this cohort’s final essay, and therefore served as additional practice.

Data collected in this study showed that teachers and students considered debates as a very engaging and fulfilling task. Overall, feedback suggested that debates offered all students a steep learning curve and helped them to understand the high standard of formality and depth required in academic and professional scenarios. Although experiencing uneasiness in pre-debate stages, students expressed feelings of enjoyment during the task, and also made better connections between the activities conducted, skills studied and their learning outcomes.

To continue the conversation, contact Karen McRae, or share your thoughts and ideas via Yammer, Twitter or LinkedIn.


Please refer to the EA Journal article for the complete reference list.