Getting in Bed with TED (Some ideas for using TED Talks)

I haven’t always been a fan of TED Talks. I’ve always watched them with a bit of apprehension, having never liked the compression of ideas into a few minutes, the scripted and overenthusiastic applause, or the elitist atmosphere of the speakers and talks. However, I have come around. I realized, first with surprise and then with admiration, that my students actually enjoy TED a lot more than I do. They apparently don’t have the cynicism that I do. So, while I still find some of the well-timed cheers and applause gag-worthy, I can now see the promise of TED, both in the dissemination of ideas (hence their tagline: “Ideas Worth Spreading”) and in the utility of this medium for my students.

TED Talks now form a solid core of my upper level listening courses because my students find the topics interesting, and because the videos are extremely exploitable, that is, they lend themselves to a lot of adaptation and adoption. So, I wanted to share some activities I have done and some ideas I have had for using TED Talks in the classroom.

First, a quick breakdown of why TED Talks are so exploitable:

  • They include a transcript
  • They often include multiple translations
  • You can download the video for offline viewing/editing
  • You can download only the audio for offline listening/editing
  • They represent enough topics to get anyone interested
  • They are relatively short, from between 5-20 minutes
  • Creative Commons license

Keep in mind that TED Talks may only be useful for intermediate and above learners, and usually for adolescents and up. So, not for really for everyone. But, for those of us who teach older and more proficient learners (especially in more academic environments), TED Talks offers a treasure trove of material which only requires a little creativity and imagination.


TEDxESL offers ESL lessons built around TED Talks. Most of the lessons are grammar and vocabulary heavy with some communicative tasks and activities, but they are a great place to start if you are looking for ways to exploit TED.


TED Talks serve as a great way to anchor any lesson, whether it is grammar, vocabulary, speaking, writing, etc. Anchoring a lesson means putting your lesson into an interesting, meaningful and relevant context. It builds interest, motivation, and helps to activate (or build) background knowledge. In other words, anchoring a lesson lays important groundwork for learning.

If you can find a connection between what you are teaching and a TED Talk, then the talk can serve as a great way to build background knowledge and interest in your topic. It could serve as a springboard for generating discussion, as context for several grammatical points of vocabulary, or as a muse for essay idea generation.

Grammar Study

The sky’s the limit when it comes to grammar. You can find most grammar points, simple and complex, used throughout the hundreds of hours TED Talks. The transcripts will really help with this. The question becomes which to focus on? My recommendation would be to find a highly interesting talk and pull out the grammar points that you think the students a) need to review, b) need to learn, or c) will struggle with. Another idea is to have students follow along with the transcript and underline any grammatical structures that cause confusion. Have them write the sentences on some slips of paper and give them to you. You now have a week’s worth of lessons and ideas. You could also use the translated subtitles to offer translation practice (for budding translators, or as another method of grammar learning) or compare the grammar and nuanced meaning of the two languages. Need to find grammar points fast? Try the TED Corpus Search Engine or analyze a script with AntConc!

Vocab / The Academic Word List

Just like grammar, there is a plethora of vocabulary that can be gleamed from TED Talks. You can focus on common words or words from the academic word list. I would copy and past the script into the Vocab Grabber and focus on less common words. And like grammar, you can also have students generate the lessons. Have them choose some words from the script. They can then look them up and teach them to their group members. Afterwards, they can write a dialogue or script using those words and perform their script for the class. They can also recycle this vocabulary into presentations or essays.

Audacity / Audio Editing

Because TED offers the audio-only version of any talk, these talks lend themselves to audio editing. Using Audacity, you can quickly pull out excerpts, speed up or slow down the audio, or create loops of specific words or sounds you want students to focus on.

Listening Journals

I am a big fan of listening journals – getting students to do both extensive and intensive listening practice while at the same time reflecting on their listening experiences. TED Talks make excellent sources for listening journals. I couple the extensive listening of TED Talks with gap-fills or transcription activities from the students’ favorite parts.


There are a lot of different speakers from all over the world on TED. You can help students explore and be exposed to different accents by listening to various TED speakers. Listen to a different one each week or get them to explore TED accents on their own. Here is a list of 25 videos featuring different accents

TED Corpus Search Engine

Yoichiro Hasebe, a professor of linguistics from Japan, has create the multi-lingual, multi-modal TED Corpus Search Engine, which allows you to search for words or phrases and see these words in their textual context as well as their aural/visual context (i.e. you can see the part of the TED talk they actually come from). In addition, you can select translations (taken from TED subtitles) which can be displayed alongside the text. There is probably a lot you can do with this, from analyzing lexical and grammatical items, noticing usage patterns, or hearing a word’s pronunciation in context.


Gap fills may seem like a traditional activity, but they have stuck around so long because they are effective at helping students work on their decoding skills. I get students to do gap-fills along with their listening journals, but there is no reason why they couldn’t do it in class, especially if you get students to reflect afterwards on why they misheard certain words. I typically make it so my gaps can be one or more words, which forces students to focus not just on single words but on multiple word utterances that may have gone through so elision or another connective process.

Likewise, TED Talks would be very useful for transcriptions and dictoglosses and I would definitely use these in any class that has a listening focus.


Any TED Talk could be used to help students with their pronunciation. These talks may serve as an excellent model from which students can practice individual words, thought groups, word stress, etc. I would choose a short excerpt (10-20 seconds, perhaps one they have completed for a gap-fill) and have students do a mimicry exercise where they try to record themselves saying the exact same thing in the exact same way as the speaker. I have had students actually record themselves first play the clip, hit pause, say their part, and repeat – but getting them to do the whole thing at once is better. This mimicry exercise is great because it gets them (hopefully) to not only pronounce their segmentals clearly, but has them practicing suprasegmentals such as word stress, elision, intonation, pauses, etc. In addition, it gets them to analyze their own pronunciation by comparing it to the model and judging whether or not it is similar/intelligible enough.


No EAP class would be complete without note-taking practice. TED, while straying from the format of the traditional academic lecture students may encounter, does give students a chance to listen and take-notes, hopefully following the Cornell method.

Academic Speaking Circles

This is an idea I have modified from Tyson Seburn’sAcademic Reading Circles“. In the original concept, students read an academic text and are given specific roles with which they to use to have a discussion following the reading. The roles include a leader (they gauge groups understanding, ask comprehension questions), a contextualizer (they research topics and concepts from the text), a visualizer (they find things from the text that could be visually represented), a connector (they ask questions to draw connections between the text other lessons, courses, or everyday life and experiences), and a highlighter (they focus on interesting linguistic structures like grammar and vocab).

Seburn’s Circles talk about a “text” and in ELT jargon, a “text” is not something read but it is a form of input. Clearly, TED Talks are a form of input and thus a form of text. Therefore, it would be very easy to adapt Seburn’s idea to Academic Discussion Circles based on a TED Talk (I am trying this out this term). Some modifications might be to alter or combine the role of visualizer (since TED often includes visuals) and add pronunciation features to what the highlighter should be looking for.

Presentation Skills

I have stopped getting my students to do presentations in my classes because 1) I don’t really feel it prepares them for the few classes they may have to give presentations in while at university and 2) I don’t feel like I have enough time to teach good presentation techniques. However, for those who do wish to teach these skills, TED offers a number of great speakers who students can watch, analyze, and model. Getting students to do a TED-style presentation would be very fun, very rewarding and most likely payoff down the line of students’ academic careers.

Mindsets and Meta

Fall, 2014: I had just learned about the fixed vs growth mindset and found a wonderful talk by this concept’s main researcher, Carol Dweck. I used this TED Talk not only to practice some listening at the beginning of the term, but also to establish the concept of fixed vs growth mindset. For some of my students, this was their last term before they would possibly enter university and they needed to make progress. Figuring out those who had a fixed mindset and instilling into them the idea of a growth was an important first week challenge. In the first week of class, we learned (or relearned) about the power of errors, mistakes, and failing – and that they could in fact achieve their goals and make their English grow. Throughout the term I constantly referred to the fixed/growth mindset and for some of my students, I could see that it really hit home.

TED could be an excellent source for this kind of metacognitive priming, and it could be using as a reference (and inspiration) point throughout a course. A colleague of mine told me about a gaol-setting video she had her students watch. When she saw students struggling, she would refer back to the video and get them to focus on a specific goal in order to overcome their struggles. This seemed to work well for her.

TED has many, many inspirational talks that can be tied directly into helping change a class’ mindset, perspective, or way of learning.

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