Discussion and Debate Bring Many Benefits, Researchers Say
Engaging in classroom-based debates and discussions can help boost reading comprehension, according to research spearheaded by Harvard University professor Catherine Snow. In 2010, the Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP), which operates under the umbrella of the National Academy of Sciences, won a grant from the Institute for Education Sciences that was intended to help researchers develop innovative ways to improve reading comprehension for middle school students. Snow was a central member of the research team that went to work for SERP, and a key theory she developed in collaboration with others was that debate and discussion are excellent ways to help students gain 21st-century literacy and academic skills.
The SERP project included various methods for reaching students in grades three through eight. Using debate and discussion as the foundation, SERP researchers developed targeted programming for teachers and students; these included an approach called Word Generation that was designed to help students grasp academic language, along with another that zeroed in on adolescent readers in need of more intensive basic skills support. The final spoke of the SERP approach is Reading to Learn, which aims to improve students’ understanding of scientific texts. The team also developed training for teachers around the use of debate, as well as various assessments designed to ensure the group’s theories were being adequately tested.
The central premise of the SERP project is this: Reading comprehension and life skills can be "catalyzed" through the use of engaged classroom discussion. Helpfully, the project’s website includes archived video of the three main researchers explaining the thinking behind this premise. For example, researcher Lowry Hemphill argued that texts need to “come alive” in order for adolescent readers to gain more in-depth comprehension and writing skills. Hemphill also noted that a long-term goal of the study was to get students to internalize debate and discussion skills—such as asking questions, listening for answers, and exploring multiple perspectives—when reading alone, which she characterized as “necessary for deep comprehension.”
This view is supported by many other education research outlets, including the teacher-focused website Edutopia. For instance, one Edutopia post by teacher and author Ben Johnson begins thusly: “Student debate has the capacity to both deeply engage the students in relevant learning, and to encourage students to be deep thinkers.” Johnson went on to reference the national Urban Debate League program, which helps run competitive debate teams composed of “mainly minority and economically disadvantaged students” at middle and high schools around the country. Participating in debate has been shown to help marginalized students graduate from high school with higher-than-average GPAs and ACT scores, which in turn helps them successfully head off to college.
An in-depth look at the impact of competitive debate on middle school students in New York City can be found in this 2015 study, which was conducted by several district educators and sought to more closely examine whether or not participation in debate would actually improve students’ reading comprehension skills. The schools were using Word Generation, a curriculum component that grew out of the SERP grant and utilizes “vocabulary-rich interdisciplinary units that culminate in high-interest weekly debates.” The researchers, who conducted interviews and assessments with middle school students from four New York City middle schools, found that participation in an active debate program did indeed lead to better reading comprehension skills—particularly for students who were the most behind grade level at the start of the school year.
Through interviews with the New York City students, researchers discovered that students were surprised by the “sheer hard work” involved in doing well in debate. The students’ realization that it takes careful planning and dedication to carry off a well-reasoned, respectful debate was a hit for those conducting the study, who noted that such work “reinforces academic literacy skills.” Also, the desire to win debates provided motivation to read in order to find the best evidence and weigh its value. The growth this brought about for the students who participated most actively in debate is exemplified in the words of Simone, a young debater who began to apply her new skills to texts she read for her middle school classes. Simone told the researchers that while reading, she started to “automatically” assess “every single contention” an author was making.
Debate students also reported gaining improved essay writing skills through their prep work and practice. Meanwhile, teachers who participated in the study acknowledged the greater “speaking and listening skills” their students seemed to gain through engaged discussion and active debate sessions—as one administrator said, these are sometimes lost in a sea of assessments that tend to focus on narrower reading and math tests. Many respondents also reported seeing more excitement and energy in their classrooms thanks to the hands-on work that debate requires.
The plethora of reported benefits from the use of debate will likely compel many educators to give the strategy a try, and there are many supportive resources available for teachers. As just one example, the website Education World offers sample lesson plans to guide students through exercises such as a Lincoln-Douglas–style debate or an ethics discussion through the lens of fairy tales. According to Education World, the list of benefits that can result from such lessons include greater citizenship, presentation and communication skills, and the aforementioned boost in reading comprehension levels. So, teachers, get those podiums and debate judges lined up!
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