Crime and Punishment Debates: Super Engaging Speaking Activities for Your ESL Students

Crime and Punishment Debates
Super Engaging Speaking Activities for Your ESL Students

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 13,814 views |

I’ve always found that ESL students contribute more in class when we’re discussing issues which apply to everyone.

Debates on the environment, education and taxation tend to work well, and I’ve always found success discussing crime; everyone has opinions about it, many of us have experienced it first hand, and it’s relatively easy to get a good discussion going, perhaps one which usefully divides the class and provokes extended argument (in a good way!)

There are different approaches, depending on the level of the students and how well you know them. Here are my favorite ways to teach and talk about crime:

Use The Ideas Below To Talk About Crime in the Most Stimulating Way

  1. 1

    Vocabulary Time

    Crime vocab is surprisingly easy to teach because all of the relevant concepts are already familiar to your students. Brainstorm the crimes they already know and then elicit more. Crimes which may not already be in the students’ lexicon include:

    • Financial crimes: fraud, embezzlement, corruption, tax evasion, running a pyramid or Ponzi scheme
    • Arson, criminal damage, vandalism, graffiti
    • The different forms of criminal violence: battery, vehicular manslaughter, homicide, grevious bodily harm (UK), assault with a deadly weapon (US)
    • The different forms of theft: larceny, burglary, home invasion, pickpocketing, confidence tricks, scams, phishing, identity fraud
    • Car crimes: Driving Under the Influence; Driving Without Insurance etc

    Once the board is full of crime vocab, turn to types of punishment or sanction. Consider:

    • Jail (US), gaol (UK, old-fashioned), prison, incarceration
    • Sentences, parole, capital punishment, time off for good behavior, suspended sentence, concurrent / consecutive terms, solitary confinement (‘the hole’), mitigating circumstances
    • Community service, fines, suspended license, restraining order
  2. 2

    Interview Time

    Which of these crimes have your students experienced personally, or through a friend? Are there any famous cases from their home countries? Can they think of someone who was on the run, or who received an especially severe sentence? Which of these crimes should result in the greatest and least penalties?

  3. 3

    Research Time

    Assign each student, pair or group the name of a famous criminal, or a specific crime which they will research and present on. Possibilities include:

    • Bonny and Clyde
    • Bernie Madoff
    • Charles Manson and family
    • The Boston Marathon bombing
    • The Lindberg Baby abduction
    • Al Capone

    They could also research crime statistics from your city or country, or their own, forming enough data to compare the crime rates back home and see which are the safest (and least safe!) cities. Local newspapers normally cover crime in some detail, and will be a good source for recent events. Has the crime rate been falling or rising? Why might this be?

  4. 4

    Scenario Time

    My favorite way to discuss crime is with a handful of fictional but realistic examples. These never fail to provoke debate, and I learn a lot about my students from the answers they give. Feel free to invent your own (potentially nuanced and complex) case, but a good starter could be this sorry tale:

    Barbara Peters had been worried about her husband Albert for several months. He was staying later than usual at the office, and was showing less and less interest in his wife. One evening, while Albert was in the shower, Barbara checked his phone and found numerous romantic texts from a woman named Lydia; they were clearly having a relationship. Barbara dropped the phone, dashed to the bedroom closet, loaded Albert’s gun, threw open the bathroom door and shot him six times. Albert was pronounced dead in hospital. Barbara called the police herself, admitted the murder, and made no attempt to plead her innocence.

    This can be delivered as a listening or reading task. Ask some check questions: how did Barbara find out about the affair? How many times did she shoot Albert? Then give your students time to discuss the appropriate punishment for Barbara. Should her emotional state and Albert’s infidelity be regarded as mitigating circumstances, and result in a lesser penalty? Could Barbara have been mentally unstable, and need psychiatric care, rather than prison?

    Here’s another scenario which generally produces lengthy and heartfelt discussion:

    Patrick Mills has been in and out of work for the past two years. He finds it difficult to follow instructions and seems to resent his management wherever he works. In debt, and short on his rent, Patrick decided to help some friends who were arranging a small shipment of cocaine from [name your own real or fictional city] to London. Inexperienced and poorly prepared, Patrick was apprehended at the airport even before boarding the plane. Local law carries extremely strict penalties for drug trafficking, although the Home Office could request that Patrick serve any prison time in a UK jail.

    Should Patrick’s past difficulties be taken into account, or is he just a ‘bad apple’ who should be off the streets? Should we treat drug traffickers more or less severely than murderers like Barbara? Where should Patrick serve his sentence? I tend to use Ghana as Patrick’s departure country, and remind my students that Patrick might not survive in a local prison.

  5. 5

    Debate Time

    There are many aspects of the criminal justice system which are ripe for debate. Consider these discussion topics:

    • Is it reasonable to call a person ‘a criminal’, as though it were their career, or even their genetic predisposition?
    • Is a criminal sick, evil, or just unlucky?
    • How do you feel about California’s controversial ‘Three Strikes’ rule?
    • Should ‘Life mean life’ during sentencing? (i.e. should the prisoner ever be elligible for parole?)
    • Is the purpose of prison to punish, to deter, to rehabilitate, or simply to house those who cannot integrate into society?
    • Is the death penalty ever an appropriate response? When? How should it be administered? (Be aware that some nations, Saudi Arabia and China in particular, have a strong history of imposing capital punishment, and that voicing concerns about this policy might be seen as criticizing their governments.)
    • Is solitary confinement a violation of the prisoner’s human rights?
    • Should the family of the victim be consulted about sentencing the accused?
    • Should habeus corpus (the right to a fair trial) be suspended in some cases? When? Does terrorism fall into this category? (Tread carefully here, but it’s a terrifically charged topic.)

You’ll be surprised at the depth, breadth and strength of your students’ opinions on these points.

Crime is a great topic for eliciting lots of vocabulary, engaging the students in thinking and discussing realistic cases, and learning about their own cultural and personal values.

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