Developing critical thinking goes hand in hand with teaching persuasive essay writing. You can take it to a new level of fun and engagement by holding a classroom debate. In this post, I’ll give you some topic ideas for elementary and middle school aged students, and guidelines for hosting your debate.
As I mentioned in a previous blog post about persuasive writing topics, it’s a communication form that we can find all around us. But what makes one media message more persuasive than another? Sometimes it’s images or music, but often, it boils down to careful word choice.
Your students can practice writing persuasive essays in teams to prepare for a debate. This collaborative approach to writing will give them ample opportunities to try out some A/B testing on each other and revise as needed.
In case you don’t know what A/B testing for writing is, it’s when you try out two different headlines, captions, or sentences to see which one has the most impact on readers or listeners. A/B testing of taglines and points to make can deepen their critical thinking as they must decide which ones are the best to use to persuade the audience.
Have your students try out more than one way of making a point, and then choose the one their team likes the best.
Pick a Topic That’s Juicy
What do I mean by juicy? I mean something that your students will be eager to talk about, but that may bring up strong differences of opinion. Choose one question for the debate, or choose one question for every two teams.
Here are a few ideas for juicy topics for young students:
- Should students be allowed to bring pets to school?
- Should students be allowed to listen to music while they’re doing classwork?
- Should students be allowed to bring candy and soda to school?
- Is it more important to be good at a sport or to just have fun and get exercise?
- Is it better to be an only child or to have siblings?
- Should the school day be 1 ½ hours longer, but have only four days a week of school?
- Is it better to study online with a digital program or in a group with other students?
- Is it better to earn money by doing chores or to get an allowance and not have to work for it?
- Is it better to be homeschooled or to go to a traditional school?
- Is it better to learn a new language or learn to play an instrument?
If you haven’t taught persuasive essay writing yet, I have a free resource for you in the TeacherWriter Member Vault! It has anchor charts, graphic organizers, and more to get you started.
Split the Class Into Teams
It’s preferable to have the teams be equal in size, but that’s not always possible. Assign each team to prepare a persuasive argument for or against the question.
The reason I suggest assigning teams the side they’ll be on, is because this will get those critical thinking muscles working. For instance, if a student believes that it’s better to be homeschooled, but they are on the team debating that it’s better to go to traditional school, they will have to think critically about the reasons in support of an opinion they may or may not agree with.
This is also good, because in this case, the team will be able to come up with a list of objections that are realistic and valid.
One thing I always found helpful to teams that worked together well, was giving each person a card with their role on it. Here are four roles you might want to use, but you can do it anyway you like.
- Quiet Captain – makes sure everyone is quiet and respectful when another team member is speaking.
- Timer – keeps the track of the time and makes sure everyone stays on task to finish in time.
- Idea manager – keeps track of ideas by writing or typing them so the team can refer back to them later.
- Material management – gathers supplies and replaces them. Asks the teacher when something is needed that isn’t at their table or desks.
Analyzing the Arguments Is Critical Thinking
First, the students should come up with ideas supporting their side of the debate topic. If they get stumped, you could even use AI or ChatGPT to help them brainstorm ideas. (But not to copy, of course!) You can read about using ChatGPT and AI in your teaching in this blog post.
Once students have completed the writing of their persuasive essays, they can work together in their team to analyze the arguments. Again, this analysis will help deepen and strengthen their critical thinking abilities as they prepare for the debate.
By analyzing the arguments, I mean they should think critically about the validity of their persuasive arguments. Then they can work together to improve the language to make it memorable and emphatic.
If you’ve already taught them hyperbole, onomatopoeia, alliteration, and idioms, some of them could be used for emphasis. Who doesn’t believe that Disneyland is the “happiest place on Earth?” This slogan is synonymous with the Disney empire.
Introduce the Thesis, Persuade the Audience, Repeat
This is the well-known, tried and true, tested and approved method for making a convincing argument in persuasive writing. Students can also use the acronym W-R-A-P to develop their persuasive arguments.
Finally, once they’ve done the research, written their essays, practiced speaking their essays with their teams, they’re ready for a classroom debate!
Create a Collaborative Atmosphere in Your Classroom
This has to be one of the most important things to remember, especially for beginning debaters. Then make sure that everyone is clear on the debate rules.
Conducting the Debate
- – Set ground rules. Everyone must remain silent and listen to each presenter with no interruptions. All the pros and cons must be respectful of the other side’s position.
- – Set a timer for two or three minutes.
- – The team in favor of the argument goes first, presenting the request along with their argument in favor of the idea. You can choose to have them present as a group, or have one individual represent the team.
- – Next, have a volunteer from the team against the idea present their argument.
- – Do another round, with a new volunteer who can counter the opposing arguments, or rebuttals, in a respectful manner.
- – Have the other team go up again, with another volunteer and a new argument.
You can do this two or three times. In a respectful and collaborative classroom, this is super fun and engaging.
After the debate, your students can analyze the arguments and decide which ones they agree with now. You could make a tally of how many students changed their minds!
With the right guidance, your students will be persuasive writing pros and competent debaters in no time!
Do you have other ideas or hacks for how to host a debate in an upper elementary or middle school classroom? Let me know in the comments!
P.S. Don’t forget to grab your free resource for teaching persuasive essay writing!
Research used in developing this blog post can be found in this collection of articles at the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.