The English-Speaking Union

Middle School Public Debate Program

Educator Resources

Are you interested in joining a middle school debate league?

The Middle School Public Debate Program was founded in 2002 by educators at Claremont McKenna College. Today the ESU MSPDP directly supports leagues in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., and is affiliated with MSPDP programs in California, Colorado, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kenya, South Africa, South Korea, and Tanzania. The format is designed to maximize the learning outcomes for middle school students by modifying a parliamentary model of debate with developmentally-appropriate best practices for middle-schoolers.  

  • Each team consists of three students to maximize participation and educational benefits. 
  • Debates are dynamic public speaking affairs, featuring respectful interruption (points of information) and argumentative heckling.  Tournaments are full-day Saturday events, with each team participating in four to five debates. 
  • Individual schools are usually able to bring six to eight teams to each tournament, depending on classroom availability of the host school. 
  • A different topic is used in each debate. This means that active debaters research and prepare arguments to support and oppose 20 or more topics each year. 
  • Judges are trained and certified. They are teachers, parents, former debaters, lawyers, ESU members, and other members of the community.
Why Debate for Middle School Students?

Debate is a natural fit for middle school education and students. Studies, as well as common sense, recommend the benefits. Debate:

  • builds literacy and multi-media research skills
  • fosters critical thinking and expanded perspectives
  • enhances public speaking skills
  • increases confidence
  • trains students to listen effectively
  • supports diverse learners
  • strengthens civil engagement and discourse

Despite the research, debate finds too little room in today's middle schools. The excuses are myriad: budget cuts, emphasis on standardized testing, and fear of public speaking. For these reasons, the English-Speaking Union seeks to partner with local schools to create middle school debate programs that supports the educators and students, and involves low overhead costs and a sustainable administrative structure.

What is a League?

A League is 6 to 12 schools and hosts 4 to 6 tournaments from October to June. During each Saturday tournament, three-person teams participate in 4 to 5 debates about different topics. The topics are announced approximately one month in advance. 

This may seem confusing, but the students understand and embrace the format. Claremont McKenna College has pioneered an approach that engages students in complex material but is easy to learn for students and teachers. 

Learn more about the program format and how it works at where you can view all of the online materials, including sample debates. 

What do we receive?

Online resources, handbooks, workshops for teachers, judges and students with national and international debate educators. 

What else does it cost?

The annual membership to join an ESU-sponsored Middle School Public Debate Program League is $600. Financial aid is available. 

What else does the school provide?

At least one teacher or administrator to serve as the school coach. Each school decides on its own way to involve the students—for most it's an after-school program.  Alternatively some schools provide before-school or lunchtime debate clubs or debate classes.

Who administers the program?

The ESU works with a team of coaches to form the League Board. The Board oversees the selection of host schools and topics, as well as the tournament administration. The ESU is the fiscal agent for the League. During its pilot year, the ESU helps in administrative tasks, from ordering trophies to planning teacher and judge training.

How do we get started?

The ESU sponsors Debate Leagues in New York and New Jersey. If you are interested in joining either of those Leagues, please contact Alice Uhl at or 212.818.1200, ext. 212. For Leagues in other communities please visit for further information.