Debating Skills for Children
By Louise Harding
Teaching debate skills to children should be pared down from adolescent or adult formats.
Children should be taught how to debate a topic effectively. There is more to having an opinion on something than simply having an opinion. Organization of a child’s thoughts is important to forming a convincing argument and having facts to support those thoughts is paramount. Teaching a child how to debate also involves a confident and persuasive presentation of the ideas and facts gained through research.
Forming an Opinion
Before children can tackle a designated debate topic, called a resolution, such as used in high school Lincoln-Douglas or Team Policy (also called Cross Examination) debates, they need to be shown how to have an opinion. Most children already have opinions on many topics; they might just not realize it. Present a list of topics on the overhead that can have preferences one way or the other (or several angles). Allow the children to write their opinion on each topic on paper or converse out loud. Topics such as current events and political platforms may not be age-appropriate, depending on the children’s ages. Topics such as hamburgers or hot dogs, fast food or homemade, salty or sweet, are simple topics that children usually have a preference for, and seeing these topics listed allows children to realize how many opinions they already have.
Once a child realizes he has opinions, he should be shown how to organize his thoughts to present a convincing debate. Depending on the age of a child, an organized format of debate, such as what is used in high schools and college, may or may not be effective. Organized debate requires a lot of research, preparation and public speaking skills. Children can effectively be taught how to organize their opinion into three main points. For example, the opinion may be: I like hamburgers better than hot dogs. The child needs to develop three reasons why hamburgers are preferred over hot dogs. For example: Hamburgers can be cooked fresh. Hamburgers can be cooked in more ways than hot dogs. Hamburgers are better for you. Once a child has three reasons why he believes his opinion is right, he is ready to research these thoughts.
In a convincing argument, it is not enough to simply have opinions. There must be facts to support opinion in order to persuade someone else that the opinion is correct (such as the debate judge). In organized debate, these facts are introduced in the constructive speech and later are used to refute an opposing argument from an opponent. Facts must be found from reputable sources such as national magazines or established newspapers (Time, Newsweek or The New York Times). Facts may be found in medical journals, educational resources (such as university studies) or reputable websites. Teach children how to find at least one fact that supports each reason for their opinion. For example, in the reason, “Hamburgers can be cooked fresh,” the child could find a fact that details how hot dogs are processed meats made with many preservatives.
Children should be taught that debating is not a verbal assault on another person, but rather persuasion based on facts. Organized debate features a series of timed presentations. Introducing the entire format of organized debate may be too involved for children, but an abbreviated form can be used; for example, using the topic of hamburgers versus hot dogs. One child can give a timed (three minutes or longer depending on the age group) oral presentation stating, “Hamburgers are better than hot dogs,” complete with three points and three facts to support her reasons. A second child can then give an oral presentation stating, “Hot dogs are better than hamburgers,” complete with three fact-supported reasons. Allow the class to vote individually (then tally the results) basing their judgment on the facts presented by both sides of the argument.
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