Middle school, high school and college students often participate in debates as part of their classroom assignments or as extracurricular activities, such as debate clubs or debate teams. Teachers or debate coaches and organizers often create their own formats for classroom instruction or for competitions, so there's no official structure. However, most debates include the same main parts -- opening statements, rebuttals, question-and-answer sessions -- sometimes referred to as cross-examinations -- and closing statements. Students should ask their teachers or coaches exactly what they should prepare for their debate and how much time they have to spend on each part.
Opening Statements and Arguments
Opening statements are critical to a successful debate, because they allow both sides -- those in favor of a position and those who oppose it -- to grab the audience's attention. The affirmative side -- also known as the side that's supporting the topic or issue -- always gives its opening statement first. Structured debates have a time limit for opening statements, such as four minutes for the side presenting the affirmative case, followed by four minutes for the side presenting the negative case. Opening statements set the tone for the debate and should include the opinion, claim or idea you plan to support and a short summary of your supporting evidence, suggests the University of North Carolina School of Education. After the opening statements, each side presents its arguments in more detail and provides statistical information, examples and expert opinions to back its views. Once again, the affirmative side presents its arguments first.
Once both sides clearly identify and explain their points, each side has the opportunity to express why it believes the other's arguments are weak or invalid -- this process is known as the "rebuttal." The opposing side offers its rebuttal first. You might start your rebuttal with:
"My opponent's claims are wrong for several reasons." Or, "My research shows that my opponent's views lack credibility."
After each side issues its rebuttal, and depending on the moderator or the judge's format for the debate, each side may have another chance to issue a rebuttal -- technically known as a "second rebuttal." Neither side is allowed to present new information to support its case during the rebuttal.
Question & Answer Sessions
Some debates have a question-and-answer session, in which each side asks its opponent questions. The purpose of cross-examination is to clarify your opponents' arguments, force them to commit to a specific position on vague issues, bring up any fallacies or errors with their arguments and discuss shortcomings with their evidence, according to the International Debate Education Association. The cross-examination generally takes place after each side presents its arguments, but before the rebuttal stage. Ask your teacher or the debate host when and if a question-and-answer session will occur. You might start your cross-examination by asking:
"Could you please repeat and explain your first argument?" Or, "Could you clarify where you got the statistical information to back your findings?"
The goal of a Q&A session is to ensure that both sides correctly understand the opposition's arguments, so they can create and argue their best defense.
Closing statements help each side summarize its main arguments and stress its most critical points. They also allow you to remind the judges of your opponent's shortcomings. The affirmative side presents its closing arguments first. The aim is to persuasively convince your audience that you have solid evidence to back your arguments and that your opponent's views come up short. Leave a lasting impression by ending with a compelling example or a powerful analogy. Detail any negative consequences that could result if your position isn't heeded or accepted.
As curriculum developer and educator, Kristine Tucker has enjoyed the plethora of English assignments she's read (and graded!) over the years. Her experiences as vice-president of an energy consulting firm have given her the opportunity to explore business writing and HR. Tucker has a BA and holds Ohio teaching credentials.