What Are the Rules for High School Debates?

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Several different styles of debate competitions are held in high schools in the United States, including Lincoln-Douglas, a one-on-one competition and public forum debates, which are team events. Each event has its own unique rules. Further, although many states adopt debate rules promulgated by the National Speech & Debate Association, other states implement their own variations. It is necessary therefore to consult with a tournament’s governing organization to determine the rules that apply to a given event in that competition.

Most high school debate formats do share some common features. Debates focus on a single disputable topic, usually called “the resolution.” One side, the “affirmative,” is assigned to argue for the resolution while the opposing side argues against it. The two sides take turns speaking, and there are strict time limits.

The goal of the different high school debate formats varies considerably, and this results in the different formats having distinctive styles; furthermore, competitors must learn different skills.

For example, team policy debate emphasize gathering, organizing and presenting facts to support one’s assigned position. Speakers earn points based on the quantity and perceived quality of facts they can mention that either support their assigned position or negate facts previously presented by their opponents. Competitors speak as quickly as possible and often in nearly incomprehensible jargon. Eloquence and persuasiveness are of little concern. Conversely, in Lincoln-Douglas debates, the primary goal is persuasion. While presenting evidence is important, eloquence and clarity of speech take precedence.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that students speak highly of the merits of participating in high school debate. Students profess that debate participation improves research and analysis skills, develops vocabulary, builds confidence in public-speaking ability and teaches one to respect opposing opinions.