In this lesson, you will learn about different areas where you can find a good topic for your students to debate about. The lesson covers topics for adult or high school ESL learners as well as learners who are in elementary school and middle school.

Debate topics

Debating is a fun activity for ESL learners. Normally, in debates, you have two sides: a side for the topic and a side against the topic. These sides are often called affirmative or pro, and negative or con. There are two types of popular debate that can be used in your class. In fact it would be a good idea to do both so your students don’t get bored.

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The first kind is academic debate. In academic debate, there are normally only two people per group, a first speaker, who presents their side of the argument, and a second speaker who refutes the other side’s argument. In an academic debate, both sides will present their arguments, this will then be followed by a general discussion. After the discussion each side will present their closing arguments.

Another type of debate is parliamentary debate. In parliamentary debate, each team has four speakers. The first is their constructive speaker, who presents their side of the argument. This speaker is followed by the attack speaker who takes what the constructive speaker of the other team said and punches holes in the other side’s argument. After the attack speaker is the defensive speaker who defends their side’s argument and points out mistakes maybe by the other team’s attack speaker. Last is the closing speaker, who sums up their team’s side of the argument and how the other side was not able to disprove their argument. Remember the affirmative side or pro side normally speaks first.



Most debate topics pick something that is easy to have an argument over, politics being one such area, where good debate topics are found. Debate even goes hand-in-hand with politics, as politicians are often seen on TV having debates. However, be careful when choosing a debate topic based on politics. If you are not teaching in the U.S. or another English speaking country, then this warning is especially for you.

For now though, let’s say that you are teaching in the U.S. To find a good debate topic, watch a show on TV that is focused on politics and pull an issue that is discussed there. You can even show the episode to your class. Remember to give your students some time to look up more information about the issue and to come up with their own arguments.


Another good topic to choose is the environment. The environment is always on people’s minds. Similar to politics, looks at the news to find a proposal by someone or a disaster, and figure out two sides for your students to debate from. Some environmental disasters might be a little hard to have a debate on, like an oil spill, but you could have a debate on recycling, or land preservation for endangered species versus using the land for human habitation. Again, you will want to give your students time to find out more information on their topic.

School Issues

Now, let’s say you are looking at this and think, ‘That’s nice, but what about my fourth and fifth graders who want to debate?’ Well then the topic should be closer to their level. Pick an issue at school; this can be homework, tests, a school uniform, recess, anything your students will care about. For an example let’s use homework. Your classes debate topic could be ‘should you have homework or not?’ Then just have a normal debate. The con side might be upset that they have to argue for homework, so tell them that after the first debate they will switch sides.

Lesson Summary

Debate is a great activity for ESL classrooms. Your students will be happy to use their English speaking skills in a way that is not just a conversation, but an argument for something that they possibly believe in. While debate can be a lot of fun, make sure your students do not get too excited by it and out of hand.