Hands-on English current events activity for July, 1998

Latest update: July 1, 1998

Note: You are welcome to print, copy and use this activity with your students. However, this material is copyrighted, so please don't re-publish it anywhere without permission.

ESL conversation activity:

Controversy cards

To the instructor:
Here is a lively and interesting discussion activity that you can follow up with a writing exercise. Students at all levels can participate. This activity first gives the students a chance to voice their opinions on various urgent topics, in a limited and structured way, then allows them a chance to pursue a topic in a more thoughtful manner in writing. We have found that students really enjoy this activity!

How to do it:
The students will be working in small groups, so prepare enough copies of the 'Controversy cards' so that each group will have a set. The cards should be cut up and perhaps mounted onto cards before class. You'll also need a timer, and a bell or something noisy to signal the students. We sometimes use a tape player with a music cassette for this purpose.
Have the students sit in groups of 3 or 4. Give each group a set of the cards and tell them they will be discussing each card in their groups, but they can only talk for one minute! To begin they should start with "I agree with this statement because. . ." or, "I disagree with this statement because. . ." Write these two sentence starters on the board as a guide for the students.
If you like, you can do an example together first so the students understand what to do. Write an example on the board such as "Soccer is a better sport than baseball," and have a few students agree or disagree with this orally.
Now tell the students to start the discussion in their groups by drawing a card and responding to the statement they see. While they are doing this you can assist any students who need help with the vocabulary. When a minute is up, sound your signal and have the students draw the next card and start a new topic. Continue until they've disussed all 12 cards.
Tip: If the students are enthusiastically engaged in their discussions, you can let the time go a little bit longer than a minute.

Follow up with writing:
When the conversations are finished, have each student select one of the cards to write about. It's best if they choose their own topic for this exercise. Give the students 10 or 15 minutes to write, and ask them to begin with "I agree/disagree with this statement because. . ." just as they did in the discussions.
Once the students are finished writing, collect all the papers, shuffle them and then give one to each student, making sure everyone gets someone else's paper. Ask the students to read the comments the other student wrote, and respond in writing with "I agree with you because..." or "I disagree with you because..." When they are done, the papers should go back to the original authors. If there is enough time, the students can continue the written discussion further, exchanging papers back and forth.
A possible homework assignment (especially for advanced students) is to have the students write a new essay about the topic they have chosen, this time incorporating the arguments that came up in the written discussion with another student.

Why it works:
The rapid, back-and-forth exchange of ideas, both in the speaking and in the writing parts of this exercise, brings out a lot of views in a hurry. This can be very interesting for everybody!
Because of their limited English, our students don't often get a chance to discuss such serious issues, but they certainly have opinions and ideas about them. This activity gives them a forum to do so, and a chance to develop their thoughts on adult issues in writing.

Adapting to ABE and Secondary students:
This would be a wonderful activity for native speakers of English as well. The discussions will help them generate ideas for their writing. Some of the topics below might need to be adapted to the interests of your students, though. Here are some ideas for other topics that might interest them: Gangs, welfare reform, minimum wage, medical costs, old age, Social Security, campaign finance reform, quality of the schools, child care, United Nations, relations with Vietnam. If you write a controversy card yourself, try to state it in such a way that there might be reasonable arguments on both sides.

Need more topics?
We printed another version of this activity in the latest issue of Hands-on English (July/August 1998). The topics there are somewhat more general and probably require less background knowledge to discuss; however they are interesting and really get students talking!
Another set of these topics (also of a general nature) appeared in our July/Aug 1991 issue--Vol. 1, No. 2, page 11.
To order a subscription, or to get back issues, see our
order form!

Happy teaching!
--The Editor


Controversy cards

(There are 12 current events topics here. Make a set of these for each group of students.
Cut up each set and clip them together. If you like you can mount them on cards first.)


There will never be peace
in the Middle East.

Priests in the Catholic Church
should be able to marry.

The Iranian government and
the U.S. government should be friends.

Korea's economic problems
will improve in one or two years.

People who smoke should pay
high taxes for cigarettes.

There should be no
death penalty for any crime.

Some day people will live on Mars.

Earthquakes are more dangerous
than hurricanes.

Driving a big car is better
than driving a small car.

India and Pakistan should stop
testing nuclear weapons.

The U.S. should send military troops
to Yugoslavia.

All education should be free.

Editor's note: I'd be very interested to hear what you and your students thought of this activity! Thank you! We welcome teaching suggestions.--Anna Silliman.


Do you subscribe to Hands-on English?

Get lots more great activities like this one, in a 16-page issue mailed to you six times a year for $21. Order by mail, to P.O. Box 256, Crete, NE 68333 USA, or order online at www.handsonenglish.com!
See our order form: form icon