How to teach advantages and disadvantages- looking at both sides
Summary: Language and teaching ideas for examining both sides of an argument before reaching a conclusion in both speaking and writing
Asking students to look at both sides and then come to a conclusion is perhaps the most common kind of essay question in EFL, including in IELTS and Cambridge exams. It can also be a good structure for presentations and more informal extended speaking activities. In addition, for debates and discussions students can try to brainstorm both advantages and disadvantages in order to be able to pick a side, predict the other side’s arguments and/ or prepare counterarguments. A lesson on advantages and disadvantages can also be a good way of getting students to look at things from other points of view, something that is a vital intercultural communication skill. The structure of looking at pros and cons can also be a good way into the topic of supporting your arguments, looking at cause and effect, etc, and good practice of brainstorming in small groups. You can also use some of the practice activities below as a way of practising or presenting vocabulary.
Despite all these uses and how common it is to set the task of looking at both sides, very few EFL books have sections specifically on the language of advantages and disadvantages. This article will look at issues involved in having specific lessons on this point, then give presentation and practice activities, with most of the ideas adaptable for both speaking and writing classes.
What students need to know to explain both sides of an argument/ Typical students problems with giving advantages and disadvantages
The first thing students will need to be able to do is to understand what exactly they are being asked to do. For example, most students are unaware that “discuss” in a writing question means that they have to look at both sides of the issue. Others miss the “s” at the end of questions asking them to “Look at the advantageS and disadvantageS”, instead often giving a detailed justification of just one of each. There can also be times when students assume they have to look at both sides but could have got away with just looking at one side and might have been better off doing so, for example if the question simply asks “What do you think about…?”
After having made sure they understand the tasks, students will often need to be able to brainstorm at least three or four points on either side. If brainstorming will be done in groups of two or three students, it might be useful to give them phrases for this interaction like “Any more ideas?” and “I think that’s enough. Shall we choose the most important ones/ cross off the least important ones?”
Problems when explaining those positive and negative sides to other people tend to include overusing the same few words or expressions and using simple and rather information-free expressions like “One advantage is…” Other possible expressions that are worth teaching include “pros and cons”, “arguments for and against”, “good and bad points”, “positive and negative aspects”, “benefits and drawbacks”, “pluses and minuses”, “selling points”, “arguments in support” and “merit”. The last three have no obvious opposites (“demerit” only really being used to talk about school punishments). There are slight differences between those expressions in terms of formality, topics they are used with, and sometimes meaning. There are also other slightly different but still useful phrases like “positive consequence”.
Putting the expressions above into longer, more complex, more creative and more informative phrases can lead to expressions like “a comparatively minor drawback”, “by far the greatest selling point”, “the main argument in support”, “a great/ major/ big disadvantage”, “a possible/ potential minus”, “the overwhelming merit” and “a significant plus”, with some restrictions on which words collocate with which. These kinds of collocations are less common with “pros and cons”, as the two parts of that expression tend to stay quite close to each other, usually in the same sentence. “Pros and cons” also don’t have singular forms, “a con” being instead a fraud or an ex-prisoner, and “a pro” being a professional.
The distinction between “the” for “the only/ aforementioned/ greatest advantage” and “a” for “one of the…” is also often a difficulty for students, and a useful grammar point that is well worth bringing up as part of a lesson on advantages and disadvantages.
Students will also need more general phrases for continuing their arguments on one side or switching to the other side of the argument such as “Moreover”, “Furthermore”, “In addition” and “On the other hand”, “On the other side of the coin”, “Turning to the other side of the argument”, “We can balance against”, “As for…”, “Moving onto…”, “Looking at…”. Students can have problems distinguishing between these, e.g. that “whereas” is more general than “On the other hand”, that “but” is very informal at the start of a sentence, or that “On the contrary” actually means the last thing isn’t true (rather than just can be argued against). They can also have issues with telling the difference between these kinds of phrases and ones that show what the conclusion is coming such as “Despite all of this,…”, “Even though all that is true,…”, “Nevertheless” and “Nonetheless”.
At the conclusion stage students particularly have problems with not providing a clear link between the arguments on both sides that they have listed and the final conclusion, or with not having a clear conclusion at all. The latter is often a cultural difference, with totally sitting on the fence rarely being acceptable in the UK and US – if only because it makes reading or listening to both sides seem utterly pointless! Culture can also be a factor in “As we have seen, there are several advantages and disadvantages, but in my opinion it is a good idea”, but native speakers are certainly not immune to such logical jumps. As with English-speaking teenagers who create those kinds of essays, students will need to be taught to eliminate less important factors they have talked about, pick the most important, and/ or weigh up both sides, probably after briefly summarising what they have said. Given that students are in class to practise their language at least as much as sharing their actual opinions, they can help themselves with this by expressing the conclusion that comes naturally out of what they have written or said, even if that contradicts their opinion before they started writing or speaking.
There can also be issues with their first stage of their speaking or writing (mentioned at this point of this article because it should usually be the last part of an essay or presentation that they plan). I generally advise against students giving their conclusion away in their introduction, as it can make it seem like giving the ridiculous and annoying response “I definitely want to go for a picnic. There are both advantages and disadvantages to going on a picnic” when your friends asks “What shall we do on Sunday?” It can also make it difficult to put anything new or interesting in the conclusion. Longer academic writing might need some kind of abstract with a description of their conclusions, but they will still need to try to design that abstract to make people read further rather than to tell them all they need to know before they do so.
Classroom presentation of looking at both sides
My students are usually in the position I have mentioned above of often having been asked to look at both sides but never having been taught how to do so. I therefore tend to take a Test Teach Test/ Task-based Learning approach – asking them to do look at both sides of a debate, testing them on language they know or can think up to do so, then expanding their knowledge before asking them to do so again. The initial task can also be done with a list of suggested phrases for them to use, in which case they can also try to remember those at the next stage.
My usual way of testing and expanding what language they know or remember tends to be getting them to brainstorm words into the gapped phrases “A/ An _________________________ advantage” and “The ____________________ advantage”, plus the same for disadvantages. After then putting suggested words into the right gaps, they brainstorm other words meaning “advantage” and “disadvantage”, and match suggested words to those two meanings.
Stronger groups can also be thrown straight into these brainstorming and matching tasks before any speaking practice. There is also a way of getting straight to the phrases while demanding less of them than brainstorming, a game which I call The Longer Phrases Card Game. Students match beginnings and endings of shortish phrases like “Even though” + “that is true,…” or “There are” + “pros and cons”. Then, perhaps after brainstorming words which could go in the gaps between the two cards, they put other cards (e.g. “all” and “both” for these examples) in those gaps.
The TTT/ TBL approach described above means that most of the practice activities below can also be used in the first stage.
The other alternative is to get students guessing from language in context whether the phrases with these functions mean advantages, disadvantages, changing sides, sticking to the same side, or coming to a conclusion. This guessing from context is easier than with most other language points, as long as there are a few expressions in there with those functions that they already know or can easily guess such as “but” and “arguments against”. For example, the simple rule “expression meaning advantage” + “expression meaning and” leads to “expression meaning advantage” (plus the opposites with “disadvantage” and “but”) can help them guess most of the useful language without even needing to work out which side each specific argument in supporting - although that is also of course useful. Model answers for IELTS and similar exams for native speakers can provide lots of lovely examples with enough context to guess from, although you might want to edit the model texts in order to add even more useful phrases.
Classroom practice of looking at both sides
As mentioned above, getting students to prepare for a debate with another group is great practice of this language, particularly if you let groups choose which side of the debate they want to take after some thought on the topic, then ask them to predict the other side’s arguments and think of how to defeat them. The actual debate itself, however, is likely to lead to far less of the language of looking at both sides than you might like, given how one person or group will be mainly looking at one side.
Instead of a debate, you might want to set up the discussion as a kind of brainstorming competition, with students allowed to continue giving more ideas on the same side of the argument or the other side, as long as they use new phrases with every statement they make. This can also be played with cards that have phrases and/ or single words they must use (“Turning to…”, “also”, “despite”, etc), or functions that they must express differently to how has been done so far (“change sides”, “conclude”, etc). Students are allowed to discard cards if they use the phrases correctly, as long as those phrases haven’t been heard so far in the game. The person with the fewest cards remaining at the end is the winner. These cards can also be used with many of the other activities explained in this article.
A more amusing kind of coming up with arguments on both sides challenge is for students to mention things that they think only have one side and for their partner to see if they can come up with something on the other side of the coin, e.g. “Falling poverty only has advantages”. “That does seem to be the case, but in fact falling levels of poverty cause people to appreciate the little things in life less.” This activity can also be played for points, with one point for each argument they can come up with on the other side or each thing they can think of that no one can think of anything on their other side for.
A simpler version of this is for students to work in groups of three or four. One student chooses a topic that they think is overwhelmingly one-sided and argue that side, with all the other people in the group attempting to take the other side. The side which comes up with most arguments wins.
There are several activities which aim to improve their ability to link their arguments to their conclusions. One is for students to read or listen to someone looking at both sides of something and then predict their conclusion before they actually hear it.
Students can also be forced to use one of the phrases they have been given such as “Eliminating the two least important factors,…” and “As we have seen, there are more… than… and therefore…” to come to a conclusion at their end of their brainstorming and/ or discussion. They can then discuss if that conclusion makes sense and matches their own ideas. This is more fun if they phrases are chosen randomly in some way, e.g. taken from the top of a pack of cards face down on table or chosen by someone closing their eyes and pointing at a worksheet.
Partly in order to solve this problem of random conclusions, students can also work in turn to write pieces looking at both sides in a consequences/ chain writing kind of way. Each student writes an introduction to the essay, then passes that piece of paper to their right. They then write one side of the argument on the paper they have received, passing it two more times for the other side and the conclusion to be added. They then receive one more and see if the four parts of the essay match or not. The essays can all be on the same topic or different topics.
A more intensive way of making the point is to give students an essay as a Word document on a computer and ask them to change it as little as they can while making the opposite conclusion make sense. This could also be done with paper and pencil, as long as you give them the essay printed with a blank between each line to give them room to edit. They could also be asked to edit an essay down while leaving the same conclusion – the main point being made by doing so is that it should be difficult or impossible if the essay is well written.
There are enough common errors and confusions with this language point to be able to do a whole activity where students have to work out if expressions have the same or different meanings, or correct errors. The first can be played as a kind of game by getting them to lift “The same” or “Different” cards depending on what they think about the meanings of the expressions they hear, with more than two expressions being all the same or all different. For error correction, language to correct can be given as phrases or sentences, or as part of a whole text. If it’s a whole text, as well as mistakes with phrases, students could be given a text with bad paragraphing, no paragraphing, mixed formality, answers that don’t match the question, overlong justifications of single advantages or disadvantages, advantages or disadvantages stated with no support, etc.
Error correction can also be used at the presentation stage if you add less typical and/ or more common language errors to other useful phrases like “A additional advantage”, asking them to use the phrases in some speaking or writing once they have corrected them.
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