Reflections on teaching debate to primary school students in Seoul

I had a great time teaching primary school students in the 4th-6th grades at Korea University in Seoul about debate.

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It was the first time I ever worked with that age group so it certainly presented both challenges and opportunities.  The students were very fluent English speakers, which made the instruction was easy in that regard.

In this brief post I want to offer some quick reflections on the experience.

(1).  The age of the students had a big impact on the ability of the students to generate arguments and write speeches. Although the age difference between 4th and 6th graders is not that substantial, the 6th graders were able to comprehend the instructions and complete the speeches much more effectively than the 4th graders.


In fact, the 4th graders struggled quite substantially and I needed to adjust the assignment to simply have the students write out individual reasons rather than an entire speech.

It wasn’t difficult to remember their ages.


Based on this limited experience, it writing argumentative speeches may be too difficult for students in the fourth grade age group.   It may be best to focus this age group on easier speeches.

(2).  The limited content knowledge of students in this age group should not be overstated.  For example, one student thought that Dunkin Donuts was a Korean company.  The lesson from this is that when constructing topics to debate about it is important to keep the content about something the students know a lot about so that time is not wasted teaching the content of the topic area.  For example, most of the students had no difficulty at all generating arguments about the relative value of paper books vs. e-books.


(3) I taught two groups of students for three hours each.  I found that the students paid attention well during the first hour but that after coming back from a break they struggled to focus. I needed to work hard to keep their attention and instruction needed to be supplied in short segments with the students completing discreet parts of the project at individual times.  I originally gave them multi-step instructions which repeated individual steps that we went through in the first hour, but most of the students weren’t able to complete multi-step tasks.  It is not obvious that this was due to the students losing focus; the students may simply have not been able to complete multi-instruction tasks at their age level.

They certainly didn’t forget that they were supposed to take a break for a snack!

Based on this experience, I think that ideally instruction would be delivered to 5th and 6th graders on consecutive days for approximately one hour each day with the following schedule –

Day 1- What is debate, what is an argument, work through one example

Day 2 – Use additional topics to generate more arguments, introduce evidence

Day 3 — Have students pick arguments previous discussed and insert evidence, introduce how to organize an argumentative speech

Day 4 — Have students generate an outline and write out their three main arguments with supporting evidence

Day 5 –  Finish speeches, review speeches

Day 6 — Present speeches

This encompasses approximately one hour of instruction each day, so if only three days are available then the instruction should be for two hours each day.

This is obviously designed to only accomplish the very basics of constructing an argumentative speech.  The next additional sessions should focus on refutation/rebuttal so that the instructor can begin to lay the foundation for conducting a debate.

(4) A breath of fresh air made the central activity fun.  Our central activity was to produce an argumentative speech that could be presented.  After the students finished their speeches I took them outside to deliver the speeches on the campus of Korea University.  Although the students were skeptical of the activity at first (ok, that is an understatement), they all enjoyed it in the end.  They even asked if they would have another chance to learn more about debate.


Thanks to Dr. Anand Rao for this idea.  He uses it with high school students at the Harvard Debate Council Summer Workshops.

(5) Although I hope the students had a chance to learn about debate, I also learned from them.  In Korea, many students attend private academies after the regular school day, often attending school until 9 or 10pm at night.  In the morning session, most of the students attended these academies and in the afternoon session all of them did.

Since academy attendance was something the students were very familiar with, one of the topics we used to help the students understand the debate was, “Resolved: Korean students who attend academies have to go to school for too long each day.” Interestingly, most of the students had trouble generating any arguments against this 12-13 hour school day! One student even remarked that Korean students had to work harder than US students because Korea lacks natural resources and they want to make Korea a great country!

Of course, all were not in favor of such long days! One of the youngest students wrote about the difficulties of the long day.


(6) As with all instruction with ESL students, it is important to keep the vocabulary that you are using simple. This is especially true with primary school students.  Fortunately, most of the students carried dictionaries and were always quick to look up words that they didn’t know!

(7) The students worked very well in groups.  Given the time constraints that we were under, I gave them many opportunities to come up with arguments together and prepare speeches together. One group even coordinated delivering different parts of the speech without any prompting!