Teaching English Using TED Talks

Teaching English Using TED Talks

Teaching English Using TED Talks

We EFL teachers today are indeed a very fortunate group of people. Due in large part to the Internet, there are a plethora of easily accessible English language learning materials for us to choose from for use in our classes. Yet, in many ways the internet is a double-edged sword, precisely for the same reason. With so much material readily accessible, we can find ourselves overwhelmed by the sheer number of items that are available. Even worse, after we have found something online which seems promising, we may struggle to come up with a way to have our students use it so that it will be beneficial to them as they endeavor to learn English. It for this reason that I was thrilled when I found TED Talks online.


What Are TED Talks?  

For those who are unfamiliar with TED Talks, they are a series of public speeches made by both notable and not so famous people. Although many of the “talks” have been freely available online since 2006, I personally did not listen to my first TED Talk until 2013. However, once I did, I knew that this was going to be an invaluable teaching tool. In this article, I explain the two primary reasons why I like using TED Talks in my classes. Then, I reveal some possible problems EFL teachers need to be aware prior to introducing any of the talks to their students. Finally, I show how I have been using TED Talks in my listening and speaking classes.  


TED Talks Topics Are (almost) Endless

One of the most impressive things about TED Talks is that there are simply so many of them. At the time this article is being written, a quick check of the TED site reveals that there are “2200+ talks to stir your curiosity.” Based on feedback received from my students, they found listening to people speaking about various subjects each week to be both interesting and educational. One such talk that many of them liked is titled “Special Olympics let me be myself-a champion.” The speaker, Matthew Williams, is a young man with an intellectual disability who has won metals by competing in sports competitions. Several students thought that his speech was inspiring, and many of them expressed a desire to learn more about the “Special Olympics” after listening to him. Another talk which was received positively was given by the British chef and TV personality, Jamie Oliver, who in his speech, “Teach every child about food,” discussed the problem of obesity among American people. Some students said they liked Oliver’s speech because they were familiar with him from television shows, while others felt that obesity was an important issue because it was starting to become a problem in Taiwan. Finally, “Our campaign to ban plastic bags in Bali” is a speech given by two teenage sisters, who talk about the problems that trash and plastic bags are creating on their beautiful island of Bali. This speech was very well-received by students because it was comparatively easier for them to follow, both in content and in the vocabulary the girls used, than some of the other TED Talks. They also admired the hard-work these girls put forth to help their country.


TED Talks=Authentic Material

As a long-time EFL teacher on the small, yet interesting island of Taiwan, I try to expose my students to as much authentic material as possible. One reason why TED Talks can absolutely be considered to be “authentic,” is due to the fact that the speakers are not simply reading a script which has been written by someone else, as is often the case with a lot of language learning material. Instead, TED speakers always share their own personal stories, passions, ideas and desires with the audience. Also, TED Talks are sometimes given by people whose native language is not English, which is exactly what EFL students are likely to encounter in real-life situations. Thus, anyone who listens to a TED Talk may hear people speaking English with a number of different accents, such as German, French, or Korean, and they do not always have perfect pronunciation when they speak. This is useful for English language learners because it may help them to realize that they do not have to be afraid or feel embarrassed about making mistakes when they are speaking English.  


Possible Downsides to Individual TED Talk Speeches

While TED Talks do make a valuable contribution to the field of English Language Learning (ELL), there are some potential downsides which EFL teachers must take into consideration prior to asking students to listen to any particular speech. After I have found a possibly good speech for my students, I find it extremely useful to ask myself the following questions:

  • Does a non-native English speaker use comprehensible English?
  • Do I need to give the class any background information about the speaker or the topic?
  • Is there any speaker who uses profanity, or language which may be considered to be inappropriate?
  • Does the speaker actually speak too fast?
  • Is the vocabulary used in the speech too difficult for many of the students to understand?


How EFL Teachers Can Use TED Talks

Each TED Talk has a transcript of a particular speech. Since each speech ranges in length from under 5 minutes to a maximum of 18 minutes (although some go beyond that time frame), teachers should make a decision as to whether a particular speech is too brief or long for the class they are teaching. A very helpful feature TED Talks offers on their website is listing the speeches into different categories based on “Topics” and “Duration” (0-6, 6-12,12-18, 18+), “Languages” (these speeches have the transcripts written in more languages than simply English), “Events,” and one can even find a category for specific “Speakers.” The following information explains how I often incorporate TED Talks into my speaking and listening classes.


Step 1: Out-of-class Listening and Speaking Practice

Every week, I give my students the name of a speech and the speaker, along with the specific webpage where the speech can be located. Students begin by reading the entire transcript, and finding out the definitions and meanings of any words or phrases which they may not understand. Then they listen to the speech while reading the transcript. During this first listening, it is especially important for students to pay close attention to a speaker’s pronunciation since many of the TED Talks speakers use vocabulary words which may be unfamiliar to them. For the 2nd listening, students are encouraged to try to listen to a speaker without reading the transcript. They are told to focus more attention on the ways in which a speaker uses intonation and how stress is put on certain words. Finally, students must make their own recording of the same speech, and send the audio clip assignment to me.


Step 2: In-class Oral Practice

After students have had the chance to listen and record one of the speeches at home,  that speech is shown to everyone during class by using an overhead projector. At that time, different students will be chosen to read a sentence from the speech. If any errors have been made in pronunciation, I will then tell everyone how to say the word/s correctly. Then the whole class is asked to read that same sentence. Also at this time, students are chosen to verbally give their own definition of certain words in the speech, and they are told how they should use intonation and word stress when speaking. This activity is usually concluded after the whole class has read between two to four paragraphs.


Step 3: In-class Discussions

After in-class oral practices, I try to engage students in discussions about meaningful subjects. For instance, in the speech previously mentioned in this article, “Special Olympics let me be myself- a champion,” my students were asked to respond to various questions, such as “Do you think a medal won by someone competing in the Special Olympics is as impressive as someone who had won a medal in ‘The Olympics’ for non-disable people? Explain to your partner why you feel the way you do.” For the speech “Teach every child about food,” students worked in pairs discussing questions like “What foods should a person eat on a regular basis in order to maintain good health? Then, after a period of time talking with each other, I asked them to report back their thoughts or findings.

What I like best about incorporating TED Talks into my language classes is that I know I am having students do meaningful and interesting work, which is very important to their growth as English language learners. If you are an EFL teacher, do you think you would like to try to use TED Talks in any of your classes? If you are an EFL student, have you have tried to use TED Talks to help you learn English?


TED Ideas Worth Spreading (Official TED Site)   https://www.ted.com/talks

History of TED https://www.ted.com/about/our-organization/history-of-ted

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  • John Allan says:

    Mark, thanks for raising awareness of this concept. Have you considered using TED Ed Lessons as well? If so were they successful? There are so many possibilities when you combine the TED Talks and TED Animations with TED Ed Lessons. I have found that the TED offering are always motivation for my students.

  • Mark Mallinder says:

    Hi John,
    Thank you for the information about TED Ed Lessons. I was not familiar with them before you wrote to me. After hearing from you, I have been watching them and trying to see how best to incorporate them into my classes. The variety of subjects which are offered on TED Talks is what I like best about them.
    John, I hope to hear from you again. Take care. Mark

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