The Focus Group

What happens if you mix a debate with a role-play?

I’ll do my best to avoid being too political in this post, but I think we should all agree, here at the outset, that there is no shortage of opinions in the world today.  It certainly feels like various views (however fact-based they may be) are also becoming much more emotionally charged than maybe they have been in the past; at least it certainly seems like rational and meaningful debate is in increasingly short supply.  I was looking for a way I could exploit some of this … erm … enthusiasm in the ELT classroom without it ruffling too many feathers.  Can it be done?


  • agreeing and disagreeing
  • presenting opinions with varying degrees of emotion
  • critical reading and thinking skills
  • empathy and seeing others’ viewpoints
  • learner autonomy


  • Level (CEFR High B2-C2)
  • Ages 12 yrs. and older


I’ve tried lots of different experiments with EFL debating in the past.  For younger ESL learners, they are fantastically beneficial and even though they don’t necessarily practice a particularly authentic situation, a lot of the sub-skills speakers use are easily transferable to other contexts.  The only problem was that it always seemed to be dominated by the more opinionated students.  Even when I imposed a more strict Oxford debate-style format, there were inevitably outspoken individuals that managed to take over.

So when we had a teacher-training day last week, and a colleague presented his action research about merging debates with role-plays, I listened with great interest (grazie di tutto, Stefano!).

The following activity works better if it is repeated a number of times.  This has several benefits: a) through repetition, the students become more accustomed to the format and practicing the language. b) all students get the opportunity to do the research task.  For a class of twelve, I would arrange one of these debates a week (30mins) so that over the period of the semester, all the students had the chance to do the research part and also play a range of roles.

Ideally, these themes need to be linked with whatever topics are covered in the book.  This gives the added bonus of providing a forum for vocabulary to be recycled in a natural an meaningful context. For the purposes of explaining the task, I’m going to go with the idea my colleague presented, which was “How should young offenders be punished?”

You will need per class:

  • a relatively complex and moderately controversial topic
  • pre-prepared roles of stakeholders (i.e. police officer, crime victim, young offender, social worker, parent, judge, prison officer, etc.)
  • a homework research task
  • 10 minutes to set the homework task in a previous lesson.
  • 20-30 minutes of class time for the debates (inc. feedback time)
  1. Ideally towards the end of a class, explain that you will be doing a series of debates in class and that everyone is going to do some research to prepare for the task.  All students can research if they wish, however, 3 experts will be given the research handout and they will be the ‘experts’ in the next lesson, during which they will have to present the topic (5-10 minutes) and moderate the debates.
  2. Next lesson, allow the experts to present their research.  Help them introduce and elicit/pre-teach important vocabulary.
  3. Present the debate topic in more concrete terms.  e.g.”There should be a zero tolerance approach to young offenders.  They should be imprisoned like normal criminals.”
  4. Split the other groups into pairs/threes (depending on numbers) and issue each group a role card.  They have 5 minutes to work together and brainstorm how someone in this position might feel. Discourage students from being too stereotypical in their interpretation of the role.  Try and get them to imagine how they would feel if they were put in such a situation.  During this phase, the experts float around helping the other groups with language and pointing them in the right direction if necessary.
  5. Depending on how many experts you have present (i.e. 2 or 3), divide the other students into larger groups, making sure that there roles are well mixed.
  6. Experts mediate the discussion.  It may be helpful to have a talking ball (or something else to hold) to make it clear who has the right to speak at each time.  This will avoid too many interruptions and encourage more structured turn taking.  Set a clear time limit for the debate.  At the end of the time, each group can vote for an outcome.  It’s up to you if you get them to vote with their conscience (i.e. from their own viewpoint) or get them to stay in their roles.
  7. (optional)  this can be a really great lead-in for a writing task.  It works well with both essays, reports and articles.


The Focus Group is really useful for secondary learners.  It gets them thinking about other people’s opinions and also diffuses some of the antagonism that can sometimes come out of these debates.  Because students aren’t necessarily sharing their own views, the dynamics are a little more equitable.  I was really impressed with my colleagues idea and I’ve made it a routine element of this semester’s course for my advanced learners.  Give it a try and let us know how it goes!


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