Debates and ELLs


This was something I wrote for a class on Education on whether debate can help ELL (English Language Learner) students.

I’m a fan of NPR’s Intelligence Squared podcast, which offers hours long Oxford style debates on contemporary issues. I also enjoyed participating in a debate on the morality of dropping the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that was part of my high school history class. So I’m certainly interested in the benefits of these kinds of debates in a middle school setting. I am convinced that it fits their interests in providing opportunities to speak, and also their needs in having others listen to what they have to say. I could see some arguments when students are asked to take sides that go against what they believe, but it does seem important for children in this age group to have a better understanding of opposing points of view. Along with the I-Search, debate is part of possibly the most significant parts of a middle-school education: learning how to research.

Differentiated instruction for ELLs is a sensible approach. Varying instruction strategies will likely help all students, given the principle of multiple intelligences, and recent studies that suggest a nuance to the previous understanding of the concept: It’s not that some students learn appreciatively better under different approaches, but that students in general learn most effectively when they are taught the same thing in different ways. Scaffolding for ELLs is also logical.

In practice, there may be some issues with readiness. From my understanding, in New York City, a student’s inclusion in regular classes is determined by how long they’ve been in the country (typically a year) rather than any assessment of readiness. There isn’t much individual teachers can do about that. Relating items to a student’s extracurricular interests can be helpful, although there are potential drawbacks. The child might see it as pandering, although I’m sure they’ll typically appreciate the effort, and the indication that the teachers do care. The final assessments will also be difficult. There is the question of whether someone unable to complete a written assessment is ready to complete a class, although I can appreciate contrary arguments, especially in fields outside the Humanities. Written assessments can also be double-checked for accuracy, although I’d imagine experienced teachers are able to correctly gauge a student’s mastery with greater speed and initial confidence than I would require.

Debate seems to be something that is better for ELLs than standard modes of teaching, so it is fitting that the article on ELLs has some common ground with the article on the advantages of structured debate. Both suggest the advantages of selecting topics that are more likely to be relevant to students, especially in Middle School where they’re learning technique as much as subject matter. Both also suggest alternatives to the typical method of reading, writing and arithmetic. Finally, both acknowledge the significance of speaking and listening as something students will learn more about in the classroom.

About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at
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