As a former high school speech and debate coach in Houston for 18 years, I know that not all secondary schools have interscholastic speech and debate (forensics) programs. But maybe they should.

A speech and debate program does not simply offer ways to hone speaking skills for its members. Speech and debate offers advantages for an entire school, including skill acquisition, academic improvement, and development of social awareness.

As part of dissertation research at Texas A&M University, 434 speech and debate coaches from across the country were asked about their jobs, including why they do what they do, what they love about forensics, and what motivates them to push students. Using responses from 64 Texas coaches (who compete under the same rules frameworks and represent populations across the country), we can see how speech and debate programs affect their schools and students. These coaches come from communities that are economically diverse, small and large, rural and urban. They represent both pluralistic and more homogenous schools. Their opinions show why speech and debate coaches are vital to schools’ success.

Skill Acquisition

Speech and debate coaches, through their content, provide access to an entire skill set other students may not fully acquire in a regular classroom setting. Some skills that these coaches teach include speaking, listening, organization, argumentation, analysis, critical thinking, writing, poise, confidence, perseverance, evaluative reflection, and teamwork. One coach explains that students:

  1. Increase their vocabulary skills.
  2. Research using professional journals.
  3. Learn to speak with poise and confidence in large groups.
  4. Improve their writing skills.
  5. Analyze world decisions and how they impact everyone in the room.

Coaches are impassioned about their programs because they teach students to hone critical-thinking skills they will use for the rest of their lives. “The communication, research, and analysis skills truly do build a foundation on which a successful life is built,” said one respondent. These skills build better leaders, better learners, and better communicators in a school, shaping the entirety of the campus.

Other coaches focus on skill acquisition for ESL/ELL students within the school. One speech and debate coach noted, “Participation in speech and debate leads directly to an increased rate of understanding of academic language across all subjects, as the constant use and analysis of advanced research or texts, along with the verbal discussion and explanation of those texts, provides the environment for linguistic comprehension.” These students tend to have additional obstacles as they enroll in speech and debate, “because English is not that student’s first language or because in that student’s home, they do not speak grammatically correct language,” one respondent said. In this case, coaches deliver these skills beyond the standardized classroom to students in need.

Regardless of students’ backgrounds, speech and debate provides young people with skills that extend learning beyond classrooms. One speech and debate coach notes that “students will be able to use these skills when they start life on their own, whether that is college or the workforce. … Students can use research skills in multiple classes in college. Students can use listening as social skills in their personal relationships on many different levels.”

Academic Influence

Believe it or not, the academic influence of a speech and debate program can increase a school’s overall test scores on state and national accredited exams.

“My debaters and active speech participants do better in college and beyond,” says one coach. Another adds, “Grades and attendance improve, since both are required to compete.” Students see the correlation between what they do for the team and the classroom, improving learning in all cases through meaningful discussion and collaboration.

Because speech and debate coaches expose students to writing skills, leadership roles, and problem-solving techniques, their academic influence permeates kids’ entire learning experience. One respondent notes, “Students are forced to read at a collegiate level on a near-daily basis; analyze high-level texts, theories, and philosophies; research and understand challenging topics, ranging from current events to philosophical theories to complicated governmental laws and policies; and convey an author’s intent to a variety of different audiences.”

Speech and debate additionally promote the ability to look for solutions out of the box and research best solutions. Speech and debate also can provide advanced curriculum for students who are not normally challenged in the classroom.

The aptitude to see multiple perspectives is important in testing throughout all courses in high school because it allows students to achieve higher-​order thinking on more complex subjects. As students become more prepared for life after high school, these higher-order thinking skills become crucial in college applications, essays, and job interviews.

Social Awareness

As leaders of increasingly diverse schools, the ability to teach beyond a classroom and dive into issues that are national and international in scope builds well-rounded students by giving kids the chance to be introduced to topics that they would likely never deal with in other classes. One coach points out that students garner from speech and debate an appreciation for others and a desire to find solutions. “As they become more aware of the world around them, students in the activity develop a strong sense of social justice,” so they “empathize with others and view the world from multiple perspectives.”

As speech and debate students are “exposed to a variety of texts and perspectives that often help shape their individual identities and create social awareness,” they “tend to graduate with more insight as to how the world around them functions,” another coach said.

Societal awareness is especially significant in rural areas, where students may have fewer opportunities because they attend a small school. A coach elaborates: “From a rural perspective, demystifying the ‘big’ can be life-changing. … Ruralism often means that students feel trapped because of a lack of resources of understanding how to leave. Speech and debate expands the horizon for my students.”

Coaches provide untold perspectives crucial to developing social awareness for both students who compete, as well as classmates who learn from interaction with competitors. “Some schools, due to location or other factors, may lack diversity within the student population. Speech and debate competitions tend to be very diverse, and students learn to interact with other cultures, which helps them beyond school,” wrote one coach. In fact, “some students might never leave their hometown if it weren’t for trips to speech tournaments. This enables them to see other opportunities (some tournaments are at colleges and universities) and other places (even within state borders there are many different cultures),” providing “a wider field to choose from.”

While speech and debate is an interscholastic academic sport, it does not always have public performances; there are no games to attend, no cheerleaders, no band playing at halftime, no homecoming court, and no state playoffs to publicize. Yet, speech and debate programs can help students build lifelong skills. A strong speech and debate team helps build a stronger school community.

J. Scott Baker, PhD, is assistant professor in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, in La Crosse, WI.

Making It Work

How to effectively utilize speech and debate coaches in your school:

  • Skill acquisition: Ask coaches to mentor struggling students with research, vocabulary, and communication skills needed after high school.
  • Academic influence: Coaches understand the importance of first impressions; ask them to engage with students about résumé building, scholarship applications, and college essays.
  • Social awareness: Encourage coaches and debate competitors to participate in open-forum discussions or presentations on social and cultural issues pertinent to the entire school.