ERIC Identifier: ED321334
Publication Date: 1990-09-00
Author: Aiex, Nola Kortner
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills
Debate and Communication Skills. ERIC Digest.
Most parents are happy when their elementary school age children manifest
an interest in little league baseball, after-school soccer, or beginning
track-and-field. Parents feel that athletics can teach their youngsters
how to compete with others and also how to function as part of a team.
There is, however, another activity which can help young children learn
to be part of a team but which places less emphasis on competition and
which is, in addition, less gender specific than athletics. That activity
According to one educator (Lybbert, 1985), the debate discipline has
three goals: (1) the enhancement of critical thinking and reasoning abilities;
(2) academic advancement or development; and (3) the promotion of communication
skills. For young children, the focus can be on the development of oral
communication skills. And beginning a debate program with young children
in elementary school can go a long way toward removing the somewhat elitist
aura that surrounds debate in high school and college.
Littlefield and Littlefield (1989) describe an innovative after-school
program for grades three through six which was specifically designed to
teach oral communication skills to children. The program is called KIDSPEAK
and was initiated in 1987. Debate represents only one of the units contained
in the program, along with such topics as oral reading, listening, creative
expression, storytelling, communication etiquette, etc. Teachers who were
interested in the debate activity were given a short training session and
access to additional help if they felt they needed it.
Debate concepts are presented to the children in simplified form in
lessons lasting 15 or 20 minutes. Each lesson emphasizes a certain skill
and contains a writing exercise.
"Lesson #6: Good Behavior for the Answerer. When you are answering questions,
there are certain rules you should follow:
-Stand so you may see the questioner and the audience.
-If the questioner asks you to keep your answers brief, you are obliged
to do what you are told.
-It is not proper to answer a question with another question.
-When asked a question, the speaker may not ask anyone else to answer."
"Working in pairs, practice giving answers in a courteous way. Remember
the rules and try to answer each question in as complete a way as possible."
"Now--write down some questions here that you can use in practice."
Debate topics were chosen by the children but were subject to teacher
approval. The topics ranged from the personal (often chosen by the younger
children) to the political and environmental--the Panama Canal Treaty and
smokers' rights, for example. Carre (1987) describes a similar classroom
project in which seven-year-olds debated the controversial environmental
issue of the building of a new road to their town.
The KIDSPEAK project culminated in a debate presented for the children's
parents who were pleased with the results and with their children's mastery
of debate concepts at such a young age.
The Florida Department of Education introduces debate into the curriculum
as early as middle school or junior high school (Curriculum Frameworks
grades 6-8, 1986). A program such as KIDSPEAK would be an excellent introduction
for the more structured course in speech and debate for middle schools.
The Florida program outlines its major concepts/content as follows: "The
purpose of this course is to introduce the fundamentals of formal and informal
communication. The content should include, but not be limited to, forms
of oral communication, techniques of group discussion, fundamentals of
parliamentary procedure, elements of debate and debate activities, basic
techniques of public speaking, and techniques of evaluation." Among the
11 aims for successfully completing the course are (1) use the minimum
essentials of parliamentary procedure; (2) utilize fundamental concepts
of debating in debate activities; and (3) identify careers related to successful
Since the experts generally agree that communication apprehension increases
as the child passes through adolescence, perhaps the earlier introduction
of speech/debate courses in the curriculum would allow the student to acquire
communication skills more easily.
A CROSS-GENERATIONAL PROGRAM
A cross-generational debate program that emphasizes communication skills
was developed as a 4-H project in Pennsylvania. Atwater (1984) describes
a successful project that included two classes of elementary school children
from two different schools who debated the proposal "Resolved, that nuclear
power should become our country's primary source for developing electricity
in the future." Judges were senior students from the 4-H program, and an
adult leader served as an overall moderator. The project generated a sheet
entitled "Helpful Tips for the Debater," and successive topics were selected
from discussions at 4-H meetings.
The tips sheet includes tips for before the debate (such as, "when introduced,
smile and look at the audience"); during the debate ("try to use words
that create clear pictures"); and after the debate ("try to evaluate your
own presentation"). Additionally, 10 tips on delivery were enumerated--tips
which could serve for anyone intent on improving his or her communication
-If you can, practice speaking into a tape recorder. Play it back to
yourself. See how many words you slur, mumble, or mispronounce.
-Always practice, but never memorize. Use of notecards should be kept
to a minimum.
-Stress the important issues by pausing and/or increasing your volume.
-Gesture naturally, or not at all. Never force gestures.
-Use vocal variety. Do not speak in a monotone.
-Speak clearly, slowly, distinctly.
-Make sure that you have adequate volume.
-Remember to look at the audience, your opponent, and the judge--establish
-Watch nervous mannerisms, like playing with your hair, or tapping your
pencil on the desk.
-Remember to relax.
Sodikaw (1985) believes that debate helps students develop the emotional
maturity to win and lose graciously; acquire the social skills necessary
to work with a colleague and compete against other students; and use spoken
English in an increasingly sophisticated way. Huston (1985) stresses that
the student should be encouraged to become adaptable to many different
styles of communication. McClain (1989) argues that debate should be seen
as a cooperative rather than a competitive endeavor.
Some educators feel that debate should become more audience centered
and focused on community issues rather than on tournaments (Stepp, 1989).
Many college students who are involved in debate feel that the emphasis
on tournament debating makes them too argumentative in everyday life. For
younger children, a focus on developing communication skills rather than
on competition in debate fosters attitudes of open-mindedness, fairness,
and tolerance for the viewpoints of others. (Atwater, 1984)
Atwater, Deborah. "The 4-H Debate Project: Getting Adults and Children
Involved in Communication." 1984, 9p. [ED 248 562]
Carre, Clive. "Learning through Talking: A Contribution towards the
Moral Environment of Seven-Year-Olds Provided by an Environmental Project."
Educational Review, 39 (1), 47-53. [EJ 351 843]
Curriculum Frameworks Grades 6-8: 1986-1987. Tallahassee: Florida State
Department of Education, 1986, 38p. [ED 295 183]
Huston, David. "What Should Be the Goals of High School Debate?: An
Examination and Prioritization." Paper presented at the National Forensic
League Conference on the State of Debate, Kansas City, MO, 1985, 19p. [ED
Littlefield, Robert S. and Kathy M. Littlefield. "Debate Instruction
at the Elementary School Level: An Opportunity to Build Legitimacy." Paper
presented at the Annual Meeting of the Speech Communication Association,
San Francisco, CA, 1989, 17p. [ED 314 780]
Lybbert, Blair. "What Should be the Goals of High School Debate?" Paper
presented at the National Forensic League Conference on the State of Debate,
Kansas City, MO, 1985, 9p. [ED 272 941]
McClain, Thomas B. "Secondary School Debate." Argumentation and Advocacy,
25 (4), 203-04. [EJ 392 900]
Sodikaw, Richard B. "Pogo the Possum Lives, or We Have Met the Enemy,
and They Still Are Us: A Response to Frana and Wallmark." Paper presented
at the National Forensic League Conference on the State of Debate, Kansas
City, MO, 1985, 20p. [ED 272 940]
Stepp, Pamela. "Taking CEDA Debaters Out of the Normal Tournament Setting."
Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Speech Communication Association,
San Francisco, CA, 1989, 14p. [ED 314 771]