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Stage a Debate: A Primer for Teachers (Lincoln-Douglas Debate Format)


Debate Lesson Plan

Return to It's Up for Debate!



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Brief Description

Try the standard debate format. Includes adaptations of the format plus ten more strategies for engaging students!



Students will
  • understand the debate process.
  • play a variety of roles in a debate.
  • follow the rules and procedures of a good debate.
  • judge their own and their peers' debate performances.


debate, four corner, role play, Lincoln, constructive, constructor, affirmative, negative, fishbowl, cross-examine, summary, summarize, think-pair-share, inner circle, graphic organizer

Materials Needed

  • copy of rules of debate (provided)
  • debate rubric for grading their own and/or peers' debate performances (provided)

Lesson Plan

This lesson presents several basic debate formats, including the popular Lincoln-Douglas format. In addition, it provides adaptation suggestions for using debates with whole classes and small groups. Plus, it offers ten strategies teachers can use to make the debate process more interesting to students.

In 1859, Senator Stephen A. Douglas was up for re-election to his Illinois Senate seat. His opponent was Abraham Lincoln. During the campaign, the two men faced off in a The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, a series of seven debates on the issue of slavery. On Election Day, Douglas was re-elected, but Lincoln's position on the issue and his inspiring eloquence had earned him wide recognition that would aid his eventual bid for the presidency in the presidential elections of 1860.

The basic format of the Lincoln-Douglas debates has long been used as a debate format in competition and in classrooms. The Lincoln-Douglas Debate format is a one-to-one debate, in which two sides of an issue are debated. It starts with a statement of purpose/policy. (For example, School uniforms should be required in all schools.) The debater who agrees with the statement (the Affirmative) begins the debate, which is structured in this way:

  • Affirmative position debater presents constructive debate points. (6 minutes)
  • Negative position debater cross-examines affirmative points. (3 minutes)
  • Negative position presents constructive debate points. (7 minutes)
  • Affirmative position cross-examines negative points. (3 minutes)
  • Affirmative position offers first rebuttal (4 minutes)
  • Negative position offers first rebuttal (6 minutes)
  • Affirmative position offers second rebuttal (3 minutes)

Generally speaking, in a Lincoln-Douglas competitive debate, debaters do not know the statement of purpose/policy in advance. The purpose is proposed, and each presenter is given 3 minutes to prepare for the face-off.

In the classroom, however, the Lincoln-Douglas debate format is adapted in a wide variety of ways. Following are some of the ways that procedure might be adapted in a classroom setting to involve small groups or an entire class.

Adapt the Lincoln-Douglas Format for Classroom or Small Group Use
Arrange the class into groups of six. Each group will represent one side -- the affirmative or negative -- of a debatable question or statement. In order to involve all six individuals, each member of the team will have a specific responsibility based on the Lincoln-Douglas debate format detailed above. Each team will include students who assume the following roles:

  • Moderator -- calls the debate to order, poses the debatable point/question, and introduces the debaters and their roles.
  • Lead Debater/Constructor -- presents the main points/arguments for his or her team's stand on the topic of the debate.
  • Questioner/Cross-Examiner -- poses questions about the opposing team's arguments to its Question Responder.
  • Question Responder -- takes over the role of the Lead Debater/Constructor as he or she responds to questions posed by the opposing team's Questioner/Cross-Examiner.
  • Rebutter -- responds on behalf of his or her team to as many of the questions raised in the cross-examination as possible.
  • Summarizer -- closes the debate by summarizing the main points of his or her team's arguments, especially attempts by the opposition to shoot holes in their arguments.
Note: In the standard Lincoln-Douglas debate format, the negative position is given a lengthy rebuttal time in which to refute the affirmative rebuttal and make a final summary argument for the position. Then the affirmative position has a brief opportunity to rebut the rebuttal (offer a closing argument, if you will) -- and the debate is over. In this format, adapted for the classroom, both teams offer a closing summary/argument after the rebuttals.

The six-student team format enables you to arrange a class of 24 students into four equal teams.

  • If your class is smaller than 24 students, you might adapt the format described above by having the teacher serve as moderator.
  • If your class is larger than 24 students, you might arrange students into more and/or smaller groups and combine some roles (for example, Moderator and Summarizer or Moderator and Questioner/Cross-Examiner).

You can apply the Lincoln-Douglas classroom debate adaptations above by having pairs of teams debate the same or different issues. If this is your first experiment with debate in the classroom, it would probably be wise to have both teams debating the same issue, or you can use your most confident students to model good debate form by using the fishbowl strategy described in the Additional Strategies section below.

Additional Strategies
The following strategies can be used to extend the Lincoln-Douglas debate structure by involving the entire class in different ways:

  • Three-Card strategy -- This technique can be used as a pre-debate strategy to help students gather information about topics they might not know a lot about. It also can be used after students observe two groups in a debate, when the debatable question is put up for full classroom discussion. This strategy provides opportunities for all students to participate in discussions that might otherwise be monopolized by students who are frequent participators. In this strategy, the teacher provides each student with two or three cards on which are printed the words "Comment or Question." When a student wishes to make a point as part of the discussion, the student raises a card; after making a comment or asking a question pertinent to the discussion, the student turns in the card. This strategy encourages participants to think before jumping in; those who are usually frequent participants in classroom discussions must weigh whether the point they wish to make is valuable enough to turn in a card. When a student has used all the cards, he or she cannot participate in the discussion again until all students have used all their cards.
  • Participation Countdown strategy -- Similar to the above technique, the countdown strategy helps students monitor their participation, so they do not monopolize the discussion. In this strategy, students raise a hand when they have something to say. The second time they have something to say, they must raise their hand with one finger pointing up (to indicate they have already participated once). When they raise their hand a third time, they do so with two fingers pointing up (to indicate they have participated twice before). After a student has participated three times, he or she cannot share again as long as any other student has something to add to the discussion.
  • Tag Team Debate strategy -- This strategy can be used to help students learn about a topic before a debate, but it is probably better used when opening up discussion after a formal debate or as an alternative to the Lincoln-Douglas format. In a tag team debate, each team of five members represents one side of a debatable question. Each team has a set amount of time (say, 5 minutes) to present its point of view. When it's time for the team to state its point of view, one speaker from the team takes the floor. That speaker can speak for no more than 1 minute, and must "tag" another member of the team to pick up the argument before the minute is up. Team members who are eager to pick up on or add to the team's argument, can put out a hand to be tagged. That way, the current speaker knows who might be ready to pick up the argument. No member of the team can be tagged twice until all members have been tagged once.
  • Role Play Debate strategy -- In the Lincoln-Douglas debate format, students play the roles of Constructor, Cross-Examiner, and so on. But many debate topics lend themselves to a different form of debate -- the role play debate. In a role play debate, students examine different points of view or perspectives related to an issue. See a sample lesson: Role Play Debate.
  • Fishbowl strategy -- This strategy helps focus the attention of students not immediately involved in the debate; or it can be used to put your most skilled and confident debaters center stage as they model proper debate form and etiquette. As the debaters sit center-stage (in the "fishbowl"), other students observe the action from outside the fishbowl. To actively involve observers, appoint them to judge the debate; have each observer keep a running tally of new points introduced by each side as the debate progresses. Note: If you plan to use debates in the future, it might be a good idea to videotape the final student debates your current students present. Those videos can be used to help this year's students evaluate their participation, and students in the videos can serve as the "fishbowl" group when you introduce the debate structure to future students. Another alternative: Watch one of the Online Debate Videos from Debate Central.
  • Inner Circle/Outer Circle strategy -- This strategy, billed as a pre-writing strategy for editorial opinion pieces, helps students gather facts and ideas about an issue up for debate. It focuses students on listening carefully to their classmates. The strategy can be used as an information-gathering session prior to a debate or as the structure for the actual debate. See a sample lesson: Inner Circle/Outer Circle Debate.
  • Think-Pair-Share Debate strategy -- This strategy can be used during the information-gathering part of a debate or as a stand-alone strategy. Students start the activity by gathering information on their own. Give students about 10 minutes to think and make notes about their thoughts. Next, pair each student with another student; give them about 10 minutes to share their ideas, combine their notes, and think more deeply about the topic. Then pair each student pair with another pair; give them about 10 minutes to share their thoughts and gather more notes Eventually, the entire class will come together to share information they have gathered about the topic. Then students will be ready to knowledgably debate the issue at hand. See the Think-Pair-Share strategy in action in an Education World article, Discussion Webs in the Classroom.
  • Four Corners Debate strategy -- In this active debate strategy, students take one of four positions on an issue. They either strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree. See a sample lesson: Four Corners Debate.
  • Graphic Organizer strategy -- A simple graphic organizer enables students to compare and contrast, to visualize, and to construct their position on any debatable question. See a sample lesson using a simple two-column comparison graphic organizer in the Education World article Discussion Webs in the Classroom.
  • Focus Discussions strategy -- The standard rules for a Lincoln-Douglas style debate allow students 3 minutes to prepare their arguments. The debatable question is not introduced prior to that time. If your students might benefit from some research and/or discussion before the debate, you might pose the question and then have students spend one class period (or less or more) gathering information about the issue's affirmative arguments (no negative arguments allowed) and the same amount of time on the negative arguments (no affirmative arguments allowed). See a sample lesson: Human Nature: Good or Evil?.

More Debate Resources

  • Click here for resources concerning debate rules, rubrics for measuring student participation, a list of debate topics for classroom use, and additional debate lesson plan ideas.
  • Return to this week's Lesson Planning article, It's Up for Debate!, for more debate lesson plans.


Students use one of the debate rubrics on the resources page to rate their own debate performance and those of their peers.

Lesson Plan Source

Education World

Submitted By

Gary Hopkins

National Standards


  • GRADES K - 12
    Reading for Perspective
    Reading for Understanding
    Evaluation Strategies
    Communication Skills
    Communication Strategies
    Developing Research Skills
    Participating in Society
    Applying Language Skills
  • GRADES K - 4
    Values and Principles of Democracy
  • GRADES 5 - 8
    Principles of Democracy
  • GRADES 9 - 12
    Principles of Democracy
    Roles of the Citizen

Find more Debate Resources or click to return to this week's Lesson Planning article, It's Up for Debate!

Last updated 09/06/2011