The Case for Speech and Debate

Faculty and administrators who have assessed extracurricular and cocurricular activities long ago reached the conclusion that participation in these activities has a positive impact on such important measures of a school’s performance as GPA and student retention.

Much of the research done to establish a relationship between cocurricular involvement and academic performance has related to athletic activities.

However, some important generalizations have been made. Daniel R. VanderArk, a former principal at Michigan’s Holland Christian High School, summarized an NFHS study on the subject in a 1992 article for the Forensic Educator, noting that 95 percent of principals surveyed believed that “participation in activities teaches valuable lessons to students that cannot be learned in a regular class routine” while 65 percent of students said that “activities helped to make school much more enjoyable” (VanderArk 26).

He further elaborated by pointing to a Minnesota study that showed significantly higher average GPAs among students involved in activities, with students involved in fine arts showing the highest gains. Similar data from studies in Iowa and Indiana confirmed activities participation as a source of improved student performance. VanderArk also noted the results of research in Kansas showing that “94 percent of high school dropouts in that state ‘were not enrolled in activities programs’” (VanderArk 26).

More specifically, those who have had contact with speech, debate and theatre activities have observed specific desirable outcomes in a variety of areas. Students experience improved learning, both inside the classroom and in the context of what one might call “lifelong learning” – the practical application of classroom skills outside the classroom. Students with special needs – both the gifted and the learning disabled – gain unique benefits from their experiences in these programs. These experiences often satisfy needs that are not, or cannot be, addressed efficiently by current educational curriculum. Additionally, students experience positive outcomes in terms of preparedness for the workforce and occupational success. Socially, students develop in positive ways, learning group communication skills and exploring how to negotiate complex relationships. Finally, and quite importantly for schools in a period of fiscal uncertainty, participation in such programs promotes a sense of loyalty by school alumni that translates into a supportive community, good citizens and future parents.


Students and faculty who have participated in speech, debate and theatre activities have generated voluminous anecdotal evidence of the value of these programs in enhancing the academic experience. Many lawyers, doctors and professors were involved in speech and debate programs. However, they also recognize the vast number of students who improved as students because of their participation in forensics – even if they never went on to graduate school or acquired a six-figure salary.

A 1991 survey of college students involved in competitive individual speaking events (many of whom reported that they continued competing because of their high school experiences) cited among the advantages they perceived: improved oral communication skills, improved critical thinking skills, organization, research skills, improved writing skills, improved self confidence, the capacity to think quickly, development of a sense of ethics and a sense of personal accomplishment (McMillan and Todd-Mancillas 6-8). In each instance, more than 65 percent of students either “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with the statements that these were advantageous outcomes.

Among the most cited advantages of forensics participation are greater oral communication competency, improved reading comprehension, more highly- developed listening skills and stronger quantitative measures of academic achievement. One of the most broadly recognized advantages, interconnecting all of these benefits, is improved critical thinking.