A Complete Guide To The National Speech and Debate Association and Tournament 

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

Back view of students in a room looking at their professors.

A Complete Guide To The National Speech and Debate Association and Tournament

The National Speech and Debate Association is the largest speech and debate organization in the entire world. So if you’re thinking of joining a speech and debate institution, this is where you want to be. They’re the most recognized organization, are qualifiers for nationals, and offer multiple awards and resources to their members.

What is the National Speech and Debate Association?

The National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) is an American organization that promotes and supports speech and debate education in secondary schools. Since its founding in 1925, the NSDA has offered resources, coaching, and competitive opportunities for students to build skills in public speaking, critical thinking, research, and argumentation.

The NSDA organizes a range of tournaments and events, including the prestigious National Speech and Debate Tournament, one of the largest competitions of its kind in the United States.

What does the National Speech and Debate Association do?

The National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) hosts activities to support and promote speech and debate education among students. Here are the primary functions and activities of the NSDA:

a professor in front of his class

Hosting Tournaments and Competitions

  • National Tournaments: The NSDA organizes the annual National Speech and Debate Tournament, which is one of the largest and most prestigious high school speech and debate competitions in the United States.
  • Regional and Local Tournaments: The NSDA oversees numerous regional and local tournaments, providing competitive opportunities for students throughout the year.

Educational Resources

  • Curriculum and Lesson Plans: The NSDA offers comprehensive educational materials, including curriculum guides, lesson plans, and teaching resources to help coaches and educators effectively teach speech and debate.
  • Workshops and Webinars: The association conducts workshops, webinars, and professional development sessions to train and support coaches and students.

Honor Society and Recognition

  • Points System: The NSDA operates an honor society that recognizes students’ achievements through a points system. Students earn points by participating in and excelling at tournaments.
  • Awards and Scholarships: The NSDA offers various awards and scholarships to recognize outstanding performance and contributions in speech and debate.

Advocacy and Outreach

  • Promoting Speech and Debate Education: The NSDA advocates for the inclusion and importance of speech and debate in educational curricula, highlighting its benefits for students’ personal and academic development.
  • Community Outreach: The NSDA engages in community outreach to expand access to speech and debate programs, particularly in underserved areas.

Resource Provision

  • Digital Resources: The NSDA provides a wealth of digital resources, including practice materials, topic analyses, research databases, and competition videos.
  • Technical Support: The association offers technical support for running speech and debate programs, including guidance on organizing tournaments and managing teams.

Professional Development

  • Training for Coaches: The NSDA provides training and certification programs for speech and debate coaches to enhance their coaching skills and knowledge.
  • Networking Opportunities: The association facilitates networking opportunities for coaches and educators to share best practices and collaborate on initiatives.

Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives

  • Equity Programs: The NSDA promotes diversity, equity, and inclusion within the speech and debate community, offering programs and initiatives aimed at reducing barriers and fostering an inclusive environment.

Group of students sitting on their desks.

How do you join the National Speech and Debate Association?

Becoming a member of the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) involves several steps, which include joining through a school chapter, fulfilling membership requirements, and maintaining active status. Here’s a detailed guide on how to become a member:

Join Through a School Chapter

  • School Affiliation: To join the NSDA, your school must have an affiliated speech and debate team or chapter. If your school does not already have an NSDA chapter, a teacher or coach can start one by affiliating the school with the NSDA.
  • Coach Registration: A coach or teacher must register the school with the NSDA. This involves filling out an application form and paying the annual school membership fee.

Student Membership Registration

  • Interest and Participation: Show interest in joining your school’s speech and debate team. Participation in team activities, practices, and competitions is usually required.
  • Coach Approval: The team coach must approve your membership. Coaches submit student registrations to the NSDA through the NSDA’s online platform.

Fulfill Membership Requirements

  • Earn Points: To become an official member, students must earn a minimum of 25 NSDA points. Points are accumulated by participating in speech and debate events, with different events and placements earning varying amounts of points.
  • Compete in Events: To start earning points, participate in NSDA-sanctioned tournaments and competitions. Points are awarded for both participation and performance.

Submit Membership Application

  • Online Registration: The coach or team administrator submits your membership application through the NSDA’s online portal, entering your details and the points you’ve earned.
  • Membership Fee: Pay the student membership fee. This fee is typically collected by the coach or school and forwarded to the NSDA as part of the registration process.

Receive Membership Confirmation:

  • NSDA Honor Society: Once your application and points are verified, you will be inducted into the NSDA Honor Society. This recognition includes a certificate and a membership pin.
  • Access to Resources: As a member, you gain access to NSDA resources, including educational materials, practice guides, and the ability to compete in NSDA-sanctioned events.

Group of female students laughing and talking in front of a laptop.

What are the costs involved?

The costs associated with joining and participating in the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) can vary based on several factors, including school affiliation fees, student membership fees, and participation in events.

  • Annual School Membership Fee: Schools must pay an annual affiliation fee to be recognized as an NSDA chapter. This fee typically ranges from $149 to $199, depending on the size of the school and the resources it provides.
  • Individual Student Membership Fee: Each student must pay a membership fee to join the NSDA. This fee is generally around $20 per student. This fee covers the cost of the student’s induction into the NSDA Honor Society and provides access to NSDA resources.
  • Tournament Entry Fees: Participation in NSDA-sanctioned tournaments usually involves entry fees. These fees can vary widely depending on the tournament’s size, location, and level of competition. Entry fees are $140 per student. For partner events, the fee is $280. Each supplemental event costs $30 per pre-registered entry.
  • National Tournament Fees: Competing in the NSDA National Speech and Debate Tournament involves additional fees. These can include registration fees, event entry fees, and other associated costs. National tournament fees can range from $50 to several hundred dollars per student, depending on the number of events entered and other factors.

The National Speech and Debate Tournament

The NSDA National Tournament, officially known as the National Speech and Debate Tournament, is the premier event organized by the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA). It is the largest academic competition in the world, bringing together thousands of high school and middle school students from across the United States to compete in various speech and debate events.

The tournament showcases the best of the best in speech and debate, giving students a chance to demonstrate their skills in public speaking, argumentation, and performance. Winning or placing highly at the NSDA National Tournament is a significant achievement. Colleges and universities recognize it as a mark of excellence.

This year’s national tournament will be hosted in Des Moines, IA between June 16-21. 2024.

Road to Nationals: National Qualifiers

To qualify for NSDA Nationals, students must participate in debate tournaments known as National Qualifiers, which provide the opportunity to advance to the National Tournament. The primary qualifying method is competing in and earning points at NSDA District Tournaments. Each district tournament is organized by an Association District, consisting of a group of schools within a specific geographic region.

The district tournament series stands out from other tournaments. Many districts hold qualifying tournaments for different events on different dates, making it easier for students to participate in multiple events and increase their chances of qualifying for Nationals.

Asian students talking in front of a laptop.

Each district sets its own tournament dates and reports them each winter. You can find these dates on the District Info page, accessible from the left-side menu on your Account page. The district committee, a group of five elected individuals led by a district chair, runs the tournament series.


Only NSDA member students from NSDA schools are eligible to compete in the district tournaments. Students must be NSDA members with a Degree of Merit (at least 25 points in the honor society) and have an email address attached to their account. Eligible students will have a checkmark in that column on their team roster.

The number of entries a school can have at the district tournament depends on the school’s overall strength. A school’s total strength equals the top 3 active, paid coach degrees plus all the active, paid student degrees. Only members with an email address attached to their account contribute to a school’s strength, so make sure members provide an email address. A student can enter this when they sign up or add it by an advisor or coach with permission when creating an account from the student roster.

Last Chance: Last-Chance Qualifier

If you haven’t yet qualified for NSDA Nationals 2024, consider participating in the Last-Chance Qualifier. This free, live, online competition was held on April 25-27, 2024, and is exclusive to current high school NSDA members. Students who didn’t qualify for Nationals through district tournaments have one final opportunity to qualify by competing in these events. However, the student’s school must have participated in at least one district tournament. There are seven categories to compete in: Speech, Congress, Lincoln-Douglas, Public Forum, Policy, Big Questions, and World Schools.

Check out the NSDA Nationals 2024 Last-Chance Qualifier Schedule and read more details on eligibility. Registration closed on April 19, 2024.

Tournament Structure

Event Categories: The national tournament features a wide range of events divided into three main categories: Debate, Speech, and Interpretation.

  • Debate Events: Policy Debate, Lincoln-Douglas Debate, Public Forum Debate, Congressional Debate, and Big Questions Debate.
  • Speech Events: Original Oratory, Informative Speaking, Extemporaneous Speaking (US and International), and Commentary.
  • Interpretation Events: Dramatic Interpretation, Humorous Interpretation, Duo Interpretation, Program Oral Interpretation, and Prose and Poetry (middle school).

Preliminary Rounds: Each event begins with a series of preliminary rounds, during which competitors are judged and ranked. The number of preliminary rounds varies by event but typically ranges from four to six.

Elimination Rounds: Based on their performance in the preliminary rounds, the top competitors advance to elimination rounds, which continue until the final round, where the winners are determined.

Supplemental and Consolation Events: Students who do not advance in their main events can enter supplemental and consolation events to continue competing and gaining experience.

Group of students talking while sitting on the round table.

Awards and Recognition

Winners of the NSDA National Tournament receive various forms of recognition and awards, reflecting their high achievement in speech and debate. Here are some of the key rewards and honors that winners can expect:

Awards Description
Four-Time Competitors High school students who attend the National Tournament in any main event, supplemental event, Big Questions, or World Schools Debate for all four years are eligible for this prestigious award.
Phyllis Flory Barton Policy Debate Top Speaker The top Policy Debate speaker award is named in honor of Mrs. Phyllis Flory Barton, one of the distinguished coaches from Cincinnati-Princeton, Ohio.
Harland B. Mitchell Trophy The national champion Policy Debate team is awarded the Harland B. Mitchell Trophy, named in honor of Harland B. Mitchell, a renowned debate coach from Oklahoma.
Robert Shrum Award The top speaker in World Schools Debate is honored annually at the National Tournament with an award named after Mr. Robert Shrum. Mr. Shrum is a legendary attorney, speechwriter, columnist, political consultant, NSDA alumnus, and an outstanding debater at the 1965 Collegiate National Debate Tournament.
Lincoln-Douglas Debate Top Speaker The top speaker in Lincoln-Douglas Debate is honored at the National Tournament with an award presented in memory of Tina Wang.
Interp Bowls Custom bowls are awarded to the students deemed by the final round judges to have won the final rounds in Dramatic Interpretation, Duo Interpretation, and Humorous Interpretation at the National Speech & Debate Tournament.
President’s Bowls Custom bowls, presented by Past President Donus D. Roberts and his wife Lovila, are awarded to the students judged by the final round judges to have won the final rounds of Original Oratory, United States Extemporaneous Speaking, and International Extemporaneous Speaking at the National Speech & Debate Tournament.
Congressional Leadership Bowls Custom bowls are awarded to the top Senator and Representative, as voted by their peers, for being the most outstanding in the National Final Session.
Congressional Presiding Officer Awards Special gavels are awarded to the top presiding officers in the Senate and House during the National Final Session.

How does the point system in the National Speech and Debate Association work?

The National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) uses a points system to recognize and reward students’ participation and achievements in speech and debate activities. This system is integral to the NSDA Honor Society, which provides students with recognition and opportunities based on their accumulated points.

Points are awarded to students based on their performance in various speech and debate events. The number of points awarded can vary depending on the type of event and the level of competition (local, regional, national). Here’s a general overview of how points are typically distributed:

  • Participation Points: Students earn points simply for participating in events. These points may vary based on the event and the level of competition.
  • Performance Points: Additional points are awarded based on how well students perform in their events. Higher placements earn more points. For example: Winning an event or placing in the top ranks at a tournament earns significant points. Advancing to elimination rounds (e.g., quarterfinals, semifinals, finals) also earns additional points.
  • Event-Specific Points: Different events may have different point values. For example: Debate events like Policy Debate, Lincoln-Douglas Debate, and Public Forum Debate may have higher point values due to the length and complexity of the rounds. Speech events like Original Oratory, Informative Speaking, and Interpretation events may have different point scales.

Degree Levels: As students accumulate points, they advance through various degree levels within the NSDA Honor Society. Each degree level has a specific point threshold:

  1. Membership Degree: Awarded upon earning the first 25 points.
  2. Merit Degree: Awarded at 75 points.
  3. Honor Degree: Awarded at 150 points.
  4. Excellence Degree: Awarded at 250 points.
  5. Distinction Degree: Awarded at 500 points.
  6. Special Distinction Degree: Awarded at 750 points.
  7. Superior Distinction Degree: Awarded at 1,000 points.
  8. Outstanding Distinction Degree: Awarded at 1,500 points.
  9. Premier Distinction Degree: Awarded at 2,000 points.

It is important to note that NSDA points and degrees can be included in academic records and college applications, highlighting students’ dedication and success in speech and debate.

Coaches and students can track points through the NSDA’s online dashboard. Coaches submit tournament results, and points are updated accordingly. Ultimately, the NSDA verifies points to ensure accuracy and fairness.

Frequently Asked Questions about the National Speech and Debate Association

1. Is the National Speech and Debate Association prestigious?

Yes, the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) is highly prestigious. It is the largest and oldest speech and debate honor society in the United States, recognized for its extensive and exclusive competitions and the significant achievements of its members. Participating in NSDA events is seen as a mark of excellence in public speaking, critical thinking, and leadership skills, with top performers gaining national recognition and often receiving scholarships and awards.

College students looking gleeful looking at the camera

2. Are there costs involved if I join the National Tournament? 

Yes, there are costs involved if you join the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) National Tournament. These include entry fees for each event, travel and accommodation expenses, and potentially other costs like coaching fees or materials. The entry fee per student is typically around $140, with partner events costing $280. Supplemental event entries usually have additional fees, around $30 per pre-registered entry. Schools and participants often engage in fundraising or seek sponsorships to help cover these costs.

3. What are the housing options during the National Tournament?

During the NSDA National Tournament, housing options typically include a range of accommodations coordinated by the NSDA. These may consist of reserved hotel blocks with negotiated rates for participants and their families. The NSDA usually provides a list of recommended hotels close to the tournament venues. Additionally, some tournaments may offer on-campus housing if held at a university. Participants and schools are encouraged to book accommodations early due to high demand during the tournament period. For specific details, it’s best to refer to the NSDA’s official housing information page for the current year’s tournament.

4. Will there be free transportation during the National Tournament? 

Transportation during the NSDA National Tournament is not provided for free. Each individual program is responsible for arranging their own transportation. Parking is available at the Convention Center for $12 per day, with additional options for metered street parking and city ramps. Hotel shuttles and rental cars are also available for those traveling from the Des Moines International Airport.

For more details, please visit the NSDA National Tournament 2024 – Your Stay page.

5. What high school subjects should I focus on if I want to excel in the National Tournament? 

To excel in the NSDA National Tournament, focus on high school subjects that enhance your research, critical thinking, and public speaking skills. Key subjects include:

  • English: Develops strong reading, writing, and comprehension abilities.
  • Social Studies: Enhances understanding of history, politics, and current events.
  • Science: Builds analytical and research skills.
  • Debate/Speech Classes: Provides direct practice and techniques in argumentation and public speaking.
  • Drama/Theater: Improves performance and interpretation skills.

6. How can I maximize my experience as a member of the NSDA?

To maximize your experience as an NSDA member, consider the following strategies:

  • Active Participation: Compete regularly in tournaments and events to gain experience and improve your skills.
  • Engage in Workshops: Attend NSDA workshops and webinars to learn from experts and improve your techniques.
  • Utilize Resources: Make use of the educational materials, practice guides, and online resources provided by the NSDA.
  • Network: Connect with peers, coaches, and judges to gain insights and build relationships.
  • Seek Feedback: Actively seek and apply feedback from judges and coaches to continuously improve.
  • Leadership Roles: Take on leadership positions within your team to develop organizational and mentoring skills.

Is being a member of the National Speech and Debate Association worth it?

Being a member of the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) is worth it for several reasons. You gain opportunities to develop critical thinking, public speaking, and research skills through various events and competitions. Membership also provides access to valuable resources, workshops, and a network of peers and mentors.

Colleges highly regard achievements in NSDA activities and can enhance your college applications. The experience promotes personal growth, confidence, and leadership abilities, making it a worthwhile investment if you’re interested in speech and debate.


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