Complete lesson plan: debating the Stop Online Piracy Act

List of arguments for and against SOPA

Level: Advanced.
Ages: older teens and adults.
Type: for classes of 6 or more students – exchanging information; holding a debate.
Skills: reading; writing; speaking; listening; pronunciation.
Language focus: revising modals of deduction and speculation, and language of agreeing, disagreeing, and expressing opinions and doubts.

Note: This debate relates to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which is currently being debated in the House of Representatives. If passed in its current form, this bill would allow private individuals and companies to stop internet service providers and online companies from linking to or doing business with websites that host or share copyrighted material without permission from the copyright holders. Opponents of the bill say it will censor the internet and cripple online services in the USA and worldwide, and many major internet companies (Google, AOL, Twitter, Wikipedia, …) are considering holding an internet blackout on 18th January, to coincide with the next scheduled hearing of the bill in the House of Representatives.

Preparation: It might be a good idea to set homework the lesson before this debate, asking learners to research SOPA online to find out what it is and the strongest arguments for and against its enaction in US law. Otherwise, copy the second page of the handout, one per student. The text on that page explains the Act and the impending internet blackout proposed for 18th January.


  • copies of page one of this handout, one per group of three or four students;
  • copies of the second, explanatory page as necessary, one per student;
  • blank sheets of paper.

Warmer for learners who have not researched SOPA beforehand

  • Board “media blackout”. Elicit ideas about what this phrase implies (censorship of news about a particular topic, imposed by governments or media companies for whatever reason). Board “internet blackout” and again invite learners to guess what the phrase implies (censorship of the internet by switching off online services).
  • Ask your learners to think about why major internet companies like Facebook, Google, Wikipedia and Paypal are considering taking part in an internet blackout on 18th January. Put them into pairs or small groups and ask them to discuss their ideas. Allow about 4 or 5 minutes for this.
  • Elicit ideas from different groups, boarding useful language.
  • Explain that you have a short article about why this internet blackout might occur. You could hand out page two of the worksheet above to your learners, set a strict time limit (perhaps 4 minutes) for them to skim through it, then ask them a few comprehension questions to ensure they’ve understood the main points. Alternatively, ask your learners to listen and make notes while you read the text aloud; afterwards, they can compare their notes in pairs and then read through the text to check they’ve understood. Go through any unknown vocabulary at this stage. Ask your students what they think of SOPA, and how it might affect the internet outside the USA.

Anti-SOPA Poster

Warmer for students who have researched SOPA for homework

  • Board “SOPA” and ask your learners to recall what they read about it, without looking at any notes they may have made.
  • Put your learners in pairs and ask them to share what they remember. Then ask the students to form new pairs and repeat this exercise, this time sharing what their partner told them as well.
  • If you like, you could then hand out copies of the explanatory text (page two of the worksheet), asking your students to skim through it and check their ideas. Is there anything important missing from the text? Is there anything in the text which the students didn’t know? How could SOPA affect the internet outside the USA?

Main language input

  • Explain that you are going to hold a debate about SOPA and whether it should become law. Ask your learners to take a blank sheet of paper and divide it into quarters: one each for “expressing opinions”, “expressing doubts”, “agreeing” and “disagreeing”. Do the same on your board. Dictate the following expressions and ask your learners to put them in the right place on their table:
    1. Yes, but…
    2. For sure.
    3. In the first place, …
    4. Hmmm…
  • Check your learners have put these expressions where they belong (I suggest a = disagreeing, b = agreeing, c = expressing opinions and d = expressing doubts, though allow your students to argue against this categorisation). Put your learners into groups of 4 or 5 and ask them to think of and write as many words and expressions as they can which have these functions. Set a strict time limit for this (perhaps 4 or 5 minutes), then allocate each quarter of your board to a student from a different group and invite them to write the expressions their group came up with for that category. Sitting students can help the writer by calling out words. Stop this activity after a couple of minutes and invite corrections and additions from the class. Drill pronunciation as necessary.

Preparing to debate

  • Nominate one side of the classroom to be “I strongly agree” and the other side “I disagree strongly”. Board “SOPA should become part of US law” and ask your students to stand in the place which best reflects their view of this statement at the moment.
  • Using where your students stand to guide you, divide them into two roughly equal groups, A and B. Explain that As will defend SOPA and argue that it should become law. Bs will attack SOPA and argue against it. If you have 12 or more students, sub-divide the groups so there are two As and two Bs, making sure those with stronger opinions are equally divided amongst the four groups.
  • Ask your learners to spend some time thinking about and noting down their arguments for or against SOPA. Ask them to consider the arguments the other side might offer as well, and think of counter-arguments against them. If your learners have lots of ideas, let them get on with it; however, if some are struggling, give copies of page one of the worksheet (which contains arguments for and against) and let the groups see which arguments they want to use, note down counter-arguments against those of the other side, and think of other good arguments for their cause. Monitor the students here, help with language and encourage or suggest possible arguments or counter-arguments.

Holding the debate
There are a number of ways you could do this. Here are four:

  • With smaller classes of 6 to 8 students, explain that each student will have up to three minutes to put forward one argument in favour of or against SOPA and to respond to their opponent’s last argument as necessary. Board “speaker 1″, “speaker 2″, “speaker 3″ (and “speaker 4″). Elicit that the first speaker introduces their side’s case and present one argument. The first speaker for the opposition responds to the first speaker’s argument, introduces their side’s opinion and gives an argument for it. The second speaker of the first team then responds to that argument and presents one of their own, and so on. The last speakers give their arguments and summarise their team’s case. Allow each group to allocate roles, then let the debate begin, asking your students to try and use a variety of ways of agreeing, disagreeing, and so on. noting down language issues (pronunciation, vocabulary- or grammar-related, and so on) for subsequent feedback, and keeping an eye on the time.
  • With larger classes, you could:
    1. elicit speakers’ roles as above, and allow two debates to proceed simultaneously. Make sure to warn any teachers nearby about noise levels if you choose this option! After the first debate, and if there’s time, you could give delayed error correction, then ask the groups to swap around (so A1 is now against B2 and vice versa) and hold the debate again, this time trying to incorporate the boarded language.
    2. ask a number of more ambivalent students to form a third group (“C”), who will judge the debate. Reduce A and B to four members each, then go through the speakers’ roles as above. Ask Cs to forget the side they were on in this debate, and to imagine they are neutral observers. Ask Cs to divide a blank sheet of paper into two columns and four rows, and to write the names of each speaker for the As in column one, and those of group B in column two. Ask them to give a point every time they hear a different boarded expression to do with agreeing, disagreeing, etc., rate each argument out of 10, and mark each speaker for their powers of persuasion (how clear were they? Did they keep your attention? and so on). Then hold the debate, noting down language for delayed feedback. Afterwards, nominate different Cs to give their feedback and add your own.
    3. Turn the activity into a more casual debate, pairing As with Bs and asking them to spend 5 or 6 minutes debating the issue, while you circulate and monitor their language use. Afterwards, either give delayed feedback or ask the pairs to swap around and continue their debates with a new partner, then give feedback.

Giving delayed feedback
I have some notes on various ways you could do this here. One useful approach is to think about what your students could have said as well as what was actually uttered, and write these expressions on the board for your students to look at and note down, perhaps turning feedback into a gapfill completion task, or focussing on pronunciation (sentence stress, weak forms, and so on).

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