Articles for Teachers

English Speech & Debate Contests - How to Get Students Prepared
By:Dave Webb

Aside from teaching classes at my senior high school in Japan, one of my biggest roles is preparing students for English language speech contests and debate contests. I've had 5 years experience of doing this now and like to think I know one or two things about it. So I thought I'd share some ideas with you and hopefully it will help some of you teachers and your students a little further down the line. This guide is catered more towards Japanese senior high schools, but I think a lot of the information is universal.

Stress the importance of these to students at the SHS level (tears and celebrations if they win, tears if they lose - tears will flow no matter how your students do!)
Also the importance of contests to the school cannot be underestimated (i.e. expectations placed by teachers & principal on you. Being told that you are expected to make your students succeed). I remember I was once told by an incoming principal that he expected me to give the students the knowledge and ability so they can win the forthcoming debate contest.

Writing a speech

Don't write your students' speeches for them. It has been known to happen and is very transparent to native speakers. Let your students compete on their own merit. This can be harder to do at less academic schools when pressure is being placed on you, but the aim of these contests is to test the students' English ability... not yours.
Speeches often submitted to ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) after the deadline for making changes. Bad move! You must find out when the contests are and be involved from the first step. Then you can have most influence. Get yourself involved in the preparation process early on, noting down important dates and deadlines.
At SHS level, a lot of speeches talk about family/friends etc. Speeches on these topics can be good and interesting to hear, but rarely win prefectural speech contests. In order to challenge for the winner's trophy, they must have strong links to something outside the students' own lives. If your students show judges that they have a knowledge of life outside their own town, it makes them much more impressed. Stories about their own experiences are good, but they should be used to support the main message of the speech.
Linked to this is that the speech has to be interesting to the audience. While the student may be interested in their exploits at the school's tennis club and how it helped them to realise that friends are important, the audience lost interest towards the end of the introduction. The first paragraph has to grip the audience and make them want to listen to the rest of the speech.
Correct speeches, but positive reinforcement is the key with SHS students, as they lose confidence very easily. Always give them positive reinforcement, even if their speech is awful. Tell them what you really liked before going onto corrections. This is a process I go through in all my classes. I will always try to focus on the good points first, even if they are hard to find. Doing so gives the student confidence and makes them a little more comfortable when listening to things they can improve upon.

Preparing to give a speech

Preparation is the key, and lots of it. Be prepared to spend time after school with students, but as ALTs you shouldn't feel forced into working hours you don't have to, if you have other important plans. Bear in mind though that the students will be cancelling their own plans so they can receive guidance and advice from you, so try to be there when they need you.
Someone once said a speech is 20% what you say, and 80% how you say it. The J.F. Kennedy "Ich bin ein Berliner" is an urban legend, but it can be used to get the point across. Tell your students that they should speak with complete confidence. If they believe what they are saying, the audience will believe it too. That's not to say you should neglect the contents, but that the winner of the speech contests is usually the person who appears confident and gets their point across well; not the person with the best speech.
With this in mind, there is something you can do in classes to help students with their spoken English. Try to create an atmosphere where the students aren't afraid of making mistakes. In a number of my classes, I'll ask students a question and they'll talk to their friend for a good minute about whether they should say "I ride bicycle to Naha" or "I ride my bicycle to Naha". The truth is that it doesn't matter! Make corrections, but don't criticize everything the student does or they will just lose confidence and interest in English. We're trying to inspire them to use English whenever they can... not scare them into silence with a fear of not being perfect. When we get to speech contests, their grammar has to be excellent, but it all starts in the classroom.
Pronunciation is an important aspect of speech contests. At SHS, the speech contest students shouldn't be using katakana English ("Mai neemu izzu Deibiddo Uebu") to start with. If they are, drum it out of them. Accent is unimportant - it doesn't matter if they speak with an English, American, Australian, Indian or Scottish accent - if what they say is comprehensible then that is fine. Make sure students annunciate though - the words should not be slurred together.
Commas, full stops etc. The students use these, but are rarely sure of when or how they should be used. You must show students how to use them (comma = 1 beat pause, full stop = 2 beat pause)
Body language. From the start, have students practise to you standing up. Shoulders need to be back and head held high. Sounds simple, but must be emphasized and done over and over again until they do it subconsciously. This is especially the case in Japan, where students are often very shy about making speeches in English (the origins of this probably go back to my previous point about being scare to make mistakes).
Gestures are linked with the above point. Japanese speakers don't use gestures generally, but Westerers do, and they will be expected to use them in their speech. Promote the use of hands and arms during the speech, but movements should be subtle. Don't wave your hands around like you're trying to achieve flight.
The Q&A section of a speech contest (when included) is invariably the part where the contest is won and lost. A lot of this comes down to luck: some students will get seemingly simple questions about their writing; others will be asked very challenging ones. But regardless of the questions, it does mean that students need a full understanding of what they are saying. If they simply write their speech using their electronic dictionary and learn how to read it from you then they will come undone when they are asked about it. Get your student ready for this part of the test by asking them increasingly more difficult questions about their speech as the contest approaches. Again, give positive feedback and tell them where they can improve.
If you have time before the contest, concentrate on one particular issue each you meet with the students. Then you are not giving them too much to think about and task-loading them. If they can focus on one problem then they'll cut it out by the next session, so you can move onto the next.
Speed. Whether your students are taking part in a speech contest or debate contest, the speed of your speech is very important as they are working to time limits. Try to get their speech flowing, but don't have them speak too fast that you can't take everything in. In this year's debate contest, a couple of teams seemed to have the tactic of giving their speeches so quickly that the other team couldn't take it all in and had to ask them to repeat things, which consequently makes them look bad. This is a possible tactic if you have strong speakers of English, but not one I'm a fan of personally. For your speech and debate contests, try to get their speeches finishing with 15-20 seconds spare - that will give them a little extra time if they hesitate during the event.
When the contest is only 7 days away, your student should be almost ready. Keep praising their speech and start to emphasize taking a break from it a couple of nights before the contest. The mentality here is to work as hard as they can before the contest, which leads to stress and lower confidence. Try to get them to relax and not work late into the evenings just before the contest. You can enlist the students' classmates to help you do this too.
On contest day. If you've helped you're student prepare for the contest since the start, then do try to attend. It's very possible your school will let you go to coach your student, but if the contest is held on a weekend then you should try to make the effort to keep that day free. The students appreciate our attendance a lot more than we think. Your role during this day is just to try and keep your student(s) calm and concentrating on their speech. And to wish them luck before they go out and perform. After the speeches, it's either consoling a tearful student, or coping with a super-genki one jumping up and down around you. Hopefully you'll get to experience the latter.

Debate Contests

Same principles apply with giving the speech itself, but there are some differences in preparation techniques.
You will hopefully get information about debate topic before the summer vacation, so you can prepare well in advance. As well as studying about the topic, many students will not be learning about the concepts of debate in their English classes, so these need to be introduced also. You should also organise your debating teams as soon as you can, so the team can have time to work together and gel. Some people try to put their strongest competitors all in one team, others try to even out their talent throughout their teams. What your school does is up to you and your JTEs.
You will have to help your students do research, and often find articles for them. On the whole, students find it difficult to conduct efficient searches on the internet for topics, especially in English. In this situation though, you definitely cannot write the students' speeches for them. The students need an in-depth knowledge of what they are saying, otherwise they will have serious problems when it comes to the cross-examination. Here, a good system of notes is vital. The students need to be able to get information to answer questions quickly and without hesitation.
Play devil's advocate with everything the students find. Get them into the mindset of questioning every piece of evidence they find or hear.
Set up debates throughout the year and integrate them into your classes or clubs (International Club / English Club / Debate Club etc). This is especially the case when the students don't have specific Debate classes. Don't make debate a "once a year" event. Constant practice will keep their skills honed.
Constructive speeches are the easiest part of debate - they can be prepared weeks or months in advance. To win debates you need to be good at the cross examination and refutation. Listening is key here - if you can't understand what the other team is saying then you can't refute it. Listening and speaking practice is essential for this part of debate. Give them exercises to do, or just go and have lunch in the students' homerooms or the debate teams' preparation rooms. Talk to them about anything, but make sure you are giving them opportunity to listen and ask questions.
Have debates yourself with the students. Initially, use bad supports and evidence and give them a good chance of defeating you. But as you progress, use more advanced speeches and evidence. Make sure you put pressure on your students in this debate - they have to be able to answer questions in this environment if they are going to succeed in debate.
Confidence and in some ways aggressiveness is very important here. If students can ask questions in an aggressive but controlled manner and pressurize the other team, then they have an excellent chance of winning. Again, it goes back to confidence and giving your students the belief that they can win every match. If a student goes into a match thinking that they will lose, then that's exactly what they'll do.
Spoken English ability here is important (as we saw in this year's debate contest), and the students who can speak the best English are invariably those who spent a year abroad. This will put a number of schools at an immediate disadvantage if they haven't got any students debating who have done this. But if your student's spoken English isn't perfect, then don't worry. It's more important to understand the facts and to be able to answer questions and make refutations effectively. I've seen a number of students have excellent English skills, but whose debate skills leave a lot to be desired.

Well hopefully that has given you some pointers and you can use some of this information to help your students improve their English and prepare for these contests. If you have any questions or other tips then leave a comment below or send them to me and I'll post them up.

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