Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Summer Debate Games

Debate in the Summer
Debate camp is often not an option for students.  Camps are expensive and while many offer financial aid the logistics of traveling to a distant University for three to seven weeks is daunting and generally unsupported by some parents.  Facing these realities, the ambitious coach may find that many students are willing to give a few hours per week to attend some kind of local activity aimed toward making them a little better at debate.  This has certainly been my experience so we usually arrange to meet a few times per week in June or August or whenever we can muster adequate participation to make it worthwhile.  These meetings are very informal.  We may choose to meet outdoors.  Casual dress, flip-flops and tee-shirts are the norm and the aim is fun.  Over the last few years I, with the help of an assistant coach, have designed a number of "games" which I hope help kids become better debaters.  Perhaps I am fooling myself and they are pointless activities, but they are fun and the students seem to enjoy them.  I think many of these activities are best suited to novices but they can certainly be "amped up", for more experienced debaters. In any case, the more experienced debaters still enjoy these games.  So here they are in no particular order.

Five Good Reasons
The idea behind this game is teach students to think quickly on their feet while under pressure.  A list of premises are prepared in advance which begin with, "Give me five good reasons why...".  These statements can be very elementary such as, "Give me five good reasons why soda should be banned from school activities" to the more difficult such as "Give me five good reasons why drilling for oil should be allowed in public parks and recreation areas".  The harder topics are reserved for the more advanced debaters.  The students, in turn, are then asked to supply the reasons while the coach and others press them to answer quickly within some arbitrary time constraint.  In most cases, they can spew out three reasons in very short order, but then it gets tough reaching for the fourth and fifth reasons.  we have learned, that some students resort to certain "tricks" to come up with reasons such as saying, "1. Its good for your health 2. It prevents people from getting fat..."  At that point, we may interrupt and disallow the second reason for being too similar to the first. We also may disallow certain obvious and repeated answers which are universal to many topics such as "its good for the economy".  Often the answers are silly, and perhaps not completely correct but the idea is not to be at a loss for words in a pressure situation.  This game is a lot of fun and easily adapted to debaters of all skill levels.

Cross-X Game
This is another game designed to develop spontaneous speaking under pressure situations but since it is done in a cross-examination context, it is very useful for developing and honing cross-x skills.  The basic idea, is to have a student come forward and they are given a hypothetical position to defend.  For example, "You have just presented a case which bans the ownership of handguns.  Defend your position in cross examination."  Generally the student is allowed a few a minutes to collect thoughts on the position while another (usually more experienced) is chosen to do the cross-x.  When I first conceived this game, I had serious doubt about whether it could work because, we were basically asking kids to spontaneously question and answer one another about a position that was never really presented as a case.  Therefore, we selected scenarios which were relevant to a typical high-school student and dealt with topics they were likely to have thought about and formed opinions on.  surprisingly, once the cross-x got underway, it became very engaging, dynamic and occasionally aggressive.  It also allowed us to work on basic techniques like how to maintain eye contact with the judge, avoid filibustering and be aware of non-relevant arguing.

Distracted Speech
This game was designed to teach students to ignore distractions and focus on a task.  A student is given a text, such as a case or a famous speech, like the Gettysburg Address and while reading it, two or three other students are selected to stand next to the speaker and do what they can to be a distraction.  They will whisper in the speaker's ear, talk to one another, look over the speaker's shoulder and begin to read the same text or read other things.  All the while, the speaker should ignore it all and continue to read the assigned text without interruption.  It is a fun game and serves a useful purpose.

Speaking Drills
There are many kinds of speaking drills which are used to help students speak clearer and project their voices.  We also enjoyed these activities and sometimes added our own twists to the activities.  Some of our favorites:
1. Read a speech backwards.
2. Read a speech with a pen in the mouth.
3. Read a speech within a fixed time period trying always to complete the speech within five seconds of the time limit.
4. Read a speech with exaggerated inflexions, and gestures or extreme drama.
5. Read a speech as fast as possible.

Advanced Activities
Fun and games keep things on a lighter note which is appropriate for a summer practice session but there are other activities which can help develop skills without taxing individuals too much.  Here are some of the things we have done:

Flowing Exercise
A student reads a case and the others flow it.  The case is then discussed based the flows.  This activity is mainly a tool for the coach to work more one-on-one with students to help them develop flowing skills.  After each case is flowed the coach should take time to assess the flow of each student (novices in particular) and help them improve.  Variation of this activity include flowing a speech which is read very fast or flowing a rebuttal speech which is delivered by an experienced debater.

Case Outline Exercise
Given a resolution, each student should prepare a case outline for both the AFF and NEG within three minutes.  Each case should have at least two contentions with subpoints.  This activity does not require writing a case.  Rather it requires the development of main contentions or taglines only.  It provides the opportunity to work on the logical structure of cases.  We used this exercise to work on syllogistic case structures and though some students never really adapted to that style of case writing the activity was still useful to help them quickly draft a case outline.

Fun With Learning
Of course there are other activities that can be done, and many we have done which are not listed above.  It is a challenge to find the balance between work and fun and designing activites which are appropriately engaging while at the same time directed to specific skill sets.  It is, after all, summer.  The students call it summer vacation and vacations should be fun and relaxing.  So relax and have fun.


  1. I am especially fond of the 5 Reasons Game.

    The Assistant Coach

    1. I like it too, Anonymous Assistant Coach.

  2. I like the flowing game because I feel that many of my teammates have trouble with organizing their flow charts and understanding the notes they've taken down in an actual debate.

    Also, I have a request. I'd like to know if there are any games that would help in coming up with rebuttals. I've noticed that it is one of the weak points of many of my teammates. I've tried to make up games for it but I'd like to know if there are any better ones.

    1. There are numerous formats for mini-debates which support both rapid formulation of arguments (like one would during prep time) and rebuttals. For example two debaters are given a topic (something easy not requiring research) then each has 15 minutes to write a 2 minute contructive speech supporting their side. Aff reads a case, Neg CX's Aff, Neg reads, Aff CX's then each write a rebuttal. It can be shortened by having one prep and read a 2 minute case, CX then the other preps and does a rebuttal. We have done similar things, and it works pretty well.

  3. Please send me by email


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