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7 Tips for Great Rebuttal

Updated: Feb 7, 2022

Rebuttal is often the skill in debating that students find hardest. Students are required to listen to the opposing speakers during the debate and write down points to rebut. That alone can be challenging!

Students often speak quickly and sometimes don’t pause often. Sometimes they don’t use their allocated time and so a student on the opposing team will only have 2 minutes to listen and write, rather than 3.5 minutes. Students also have slower handwriting than adults. It’s definitely not easy. Not only do students need to write down points to rebut but they also need to think about what to say in rebuttal. In addition, we also ask students to think ahead about what the other team might say, so as to be prepared for rebuttal. As with all skills in debating, we don’t expect students to achieve mastery on their first attempt. It takes practice and experience. Here are some tips we’ve found useful when teaching rebuttal.

1. Basic rebuttal

In its simplest format, rebuttal sounds something like this: “The opposition said ……….. I think this is wrong because ………..” Students can use other wording such as; “Speaker 2 on the negative team said ….... I disagree because....” “The negative said ……… I rebut that by saying ………” “ The opposition said ……… Our team believes …………..” “ Speaker 1 on the opposing team said ………. This is incorrect because …………”

2. Rebuttal Cards We often prepare cards for students that have prompts printed on them. Cards have sufficient space on them for students to write their thoughts. These cards are helpful for beginners to prompt them and to save them time in writing the starts of the sentences themselves. As students gain experience with debating, encourage them to vary the wording.

3. Pre-rebuttal

Sometimes teachers encourage students to do pre-rebuttal at the start of their talk. Pre-rebuttal is where students say, “the other team might tell you….” or “you might hear from the opposition…” We generally discourage beginners from doing this because: a) it may give the other team ideas that they hadn’t thought of, b) it uses valuable time telling the audience about something another team may not say. Time is better spent delivering arguments for your own team with great evidence, and

c) students who do pre-rebuttal are often tempted not to attempt actual rebuttal. Is it important for students to think about what the other team might say? Absolutely! But their ideas about the opposition’s arguments can be used as part of their own rebuttal.

4. Preparing rebuttal

Whilst students must listen on the night to what the other team says, there’s no reason they can’t also be prepared. Have students write out rebuttal cards with the arguments that they think the opposition will state, along with their response. If students are familiar with these rebuttal points, as they are listening to the opposition, when they hear an argument arise that they have thought of, they can just move their prepared card to a pile of rebuttal cards that they will use. Students must be prepared to not use all their prepared rebuttal – if the other team doesn’t say it, don’t use it. You can’t rebut something the opposition didn’t actually say. Prepared rebuttal is different from pre-rebuttal because you only deliver the prepared rebuttal that argues against what the other team has actually said. Pre-rebuttal delivers rebuttal against what the opposition MIGHT say. Students should not rely solely on their prepared rebuttal cards but also have blank cards to use as well.

5. Teamwork

It’s important to let students know that the first and second speakers also need to help the third speaker with rebuttal. Once they have delivered their own speech, they need to be listening to the opposition and writing rebuttal cards that they pass to the third speaker. Allowing students to practice together as a team will help them become familiar with each other’s writing too. It can also be helpful to have the third speaker sit in the middle position so that speakers 1 and 2 can pass him/her notes or whisper their ideas quietly to the third speaker more easily.

6. Practice

It’s important to allow time for students to practice rebuttal and gain more confidence in delivering rebuttal.

7. Extension One way to extend capable or experienced students is to ask them to add examples or facts to their rebuttal. Rather than just saying “the opposition said…. I disagree because…” the student would then also add, “for example…” and give facts or examples to support their rebuttal.

Don’t expect students to be perfect with rebuttal when they are beginning – it's a complex skill and any student who even just has a go should be applauded. As they gain more experience and confidence, students can begin to expand the number of points that they rebut. Celebrate students' efforts and you’ll find that students will soon become masters of rebuttal!


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