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OPINION: Why schools need speech and debate

If you talk honestly with anyone involved in education for a few minutes, they’ll tell you their worries.

A dad worries that his son will never learn to talk with older people face-to-face and with confidence. How will he do in college interviews? How will he get a job? A mom worries that her daughter, a self-proclaimed drama nerd, will never really find an outlet for her passion in a school that puts on plays only once a year.

An administrator worries that students aren’t reading enough or writing enough. A guidance counselor worries that a non-native speaker isn’t getting enough practice with conversational English. A teacher worries that her best students aren’t being challenged by the curriculum but her struggling students aren’t finding a place to develop the skills where they can succeed. A student worries that he’ll never find a place to fit in; or maybe he worries that his college application isn’t strong enough; or maybe he worries that he’ll fail his AP class because he has test anxiety.

These worries, and their second and third cousins, are real and pervasive in our community. We should do something about them. But that something need not be the creation of hundreds of new programs or initiatives. One program already exists that can help. It’s the National Speech and Debate Association — 91 years old, with a presence in every state and territory, host to the largest academic competition in the world and an honor society with thousands of members.

The support network is there. Every single school should have a team. And every students should at least consider being on that team.

A good speech and debate program can produce students with excellent communication skills. If it did only that, it would be enough. But it can do so much more. It can teach the same skills that we find in good sports programs: leadership, teamwork, discipline, tenacity and sportsmanship. It teaches the same skills that we find in good classrooms: critical thinking, research techniques, and practical creativity. It even teaches the same skills that we find in the best service organizations: showing, empathy, putting others first, finding ways to work with different kinds of people.

Greg Cook is a professional voiceover artist who lives in Fountain Inn. He is a former high school teacher, and currently coaches the speech and debate team at Riverside High School in Greer. 

What is speech and debate?

High school speech and debate is an academic activity consisting of organized competition in areas of public speaking, reading, interpretation, acting and debate. Some students, for example, may debate an issue, while others will interpret a play or piece of poetry. The National Speech & Debate Association hosts the largest academic competition in the world. Qualifiers to the national tournament compete in one of 12 main events — Policy Debate, Public Forum Debate, Lincoln Douglas Debate, Original Oratory, United States Extemporaneous Speaking, International Extemporaneous Speaking, Humorous Interpretation, Dramatic Interpretation, Duo Interpretation, Program Oral Interpretation and Informative Speaking. The tournament includes competitors from all 50 states and several foreign countries. Find out more here.

Share your thoughts

Has a speech and debate program impacted you or your child? If so, send an email to Danna Rohleder, a member of the School Board of Greenville County. Email her at