TED Talks for Teaching English

By Peter Martin

One of my secret weapons in English classes is quickly becoming a not-so-secret weapon.

Long before I started teaching English, I began watching TED talks for my own education and entertainment. I watched talks on all subjects, given by speakers from around the world, just because so many of them are fascinating, moving, and—equally important—not very long.

For the uninitiated, TED talks are 18- to 20-minute lectures filmed at the annual TED conference and its spin-offs. The speeches are then posted online for anyone and everyone to watch. TED’s slogan is “Ideas worth spreading,” and its speakers, more than being famous or powerful, are interesting and have ambitious visions of world change. TED’s mission is to spread its speakers’ ideas around the world, at the conferences and through the internet—and not only to English speakers.

One of the amazing features of TED talks is that almost every talk is subtitled in dozens of languages, including English. The fact that most lectures are available to watch without subtitles, with English subtitles, and with subtitles in many other languages makes them perfect teaching tools for ESL students of all levels.

Here in Colombia, I have mostly taught intermediate to advanced students. For my high-levels students, an un-subtitled TED talk makes a perfect (and easy) lesson plan. The videos and the lively discussions that inevitably follow help students’ listening comprehension and speaking skills and always introduce new vocabulary and grammar points. The talks, by their nature, are very intelligent but also casual, so they combine advanced vocabulary with colloquial expressions, challenging students without intimidating them. For students who won’t understand everything spoken in English, putting on English subtitles lets them listen and read simultaneously, helping both their listening and reading comprehension at once. On top of that, TED’s website provides transcripts of every talk. Print out the transcript and you and your students can review the speech in text after watching it, catching or clarifying things they didn’t hear or didn’t understand while watching.

To give examples of TED talks I have used to good effect, here are three I recommend—though remember that there are hundreds of great ones. Ken Robinson, a British educator, gave a talk that is one of the most funny, heartwarming and popular on the site. The talks by writer Malcolm Gladwell and psychologist Barry Schwartz are both very interesting and excellent teaching tools, and their arguments are nice counterpoints to each other, so those talks make for good consecutive class lessons.

When I began using TED talks in my lessons, I thought that students would be amazed by the speeches. And indeed they were—for a while. Like me, they found the talks captivating. And they learned as much from the talks as I hoped they would. But more and more, I’m finding that my students have already heard of and seen TED talks before I introduce them to the classroom.

Though I’ve lost the opportunity to wow my students with TED talks, my classes have benefited from my students’ familiarity with and interest in the speeches. I still use them, and my students still love them.

But I wonder if I’m missing something. I don’t know how other English teachers use TED talks in their lessons. And I don’t know whether there are similar materials available to everyone that I haven’t found yet.

So I’m curious to hear from other English teachers: Have you used TED talks in class? If so, how have you used them, and have they been helpful? Or have you used other, similar materials? Are there other videos out there that I haven’t heard of that make great teaching tools and discussion starters?

16 comments

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  1. cookieminh@gmail.com'

    Minh says:

    Apr 4, 2014 at 8:35 am

    I’ve used TED talks to build up my students’ content. They are young and new with critical thinking and complex ideas so I give them talks as homework for them to slowly digest at home. When they come to class, I will ask them to summarize the points and what new things they have learnt. Then we will continue to discuss the topic related to the talk.
    So my students learn listening, comprehension, summarizing and speaking skill in one go. Very helpful :)

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  2. n.sakiniene@gmail.com'

    Neringa says:

    Apr 4, 2013 at 5:46 pm

    Hi,
    I recently started using TED talks in my English classes. As listening tasks mostly when one or another subject is being discussed. But we are also volunteering with my students in translating the subtitles into Lithuanian. They translate, I revise.

    Neringa

    Reply

  3. lindstromcj@gmail.com'

    Christopher John Lindstrom says:

    Feb 2, 2013 at 1:55 am

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  4. lindstromcj@gmail.com'

    Christopher John Lindstrom says:

    Feb 2, 2013 at 1:54 am

    I appreciate BBC’s 6 minute English Lessons which provide a witty intro to an article of interest each week along with a short conversation and presentation for English learners, guiding questions, a vocabulary list, and written transcript.

    For example www dot bbc dot co dot uk/worldservice/learningenglish/general/sixminute/2013/01/130103_6min_random_acts_of_kindness.shtml

    Good luck and thanks for your post.

    Reply

  5. Tara Benwell says:

    Jul 7, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    Reply

  6. ESL Library Staff says:

    Jun 6, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    20 Most Watched TED Talks: My favourite is Elizabeth Gilbert’s.
    http://blog.ted.com/2011/06/27/the-20-most-watched-tedtalks-so-far

    Tara

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  7. petemartinnyc@gmail.com'

    Peter Martin says:

    Jun 6, 2011 at 10:47 pm

    Sandra, Tara, and John:

    Thanks so much for all of these recommendations! You’ve pointed me to more than one gold mine, and I’ll be taking advantage of your help to find a new TED talk to use in class tomorrow morning.

    Peter

    Reply

  8. john..graney@sfcollege.edu'

    John says:

    Jun 6, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    I have been using TED talks for years in my advanced communication class for college preparation. I use the talks for different purposes. For example, I use Chimamanda Adichie’s talk to introduce social norms. I think they are a great resource for listening practice as well as terrific thought provokers.

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  9. ESL Library Staff says:

    Jun 6, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    Thanks for the post Peter. I just came across this fabulous resource that categorizes TED Talks with link, speaker, summary, date. It’s one of the best resources I’ve ever seen!
    https://spreadsheets.google.com/pub?key=pjGlYH-8AK8ffDa6o2bYlXg

    Also, Karenne Sylvester has some fantastic ideas on her blog: http://kalinago.blogspot.com/2011/03/ted-videos-for-business-english-part.html

    Cheers,
    Tara

    Reply

  10. sandrogers123@yahoo.com'

    Sandra Rogers says:

    Jun 6, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    Hi Peter,

    I like how you use TED Talks in your ESL classroom. I have a favorite that I post on my Web site for alternative education regarding persons with disabilities. In this fantastic video, which motivates me every time I watch it, Aimee Mullens talks about her adversity as a treasure: http://cnn.com/video/?/video/living/2010/03/08/ted.aimee.mullins.ted

    I also use NPR’s Story Corps which has audio and sometimes animation, as in this case about a young boy: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126513865.

    Reply

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