TED: Helping students realize the power of the English language

Hiroaki Umehara, Rikkyo University

Quick guide

  • Key words: Motivation, real-world, thought-provoking, listening, note-taking skills, varieties of English.
  • Learner English level: Intermediate and above 
  • Learner maturity: High school to adult 
  • Preparation time: 30-60 minutes 
  • Activity time: 60 minutes 
  • Materials: TED.com, computer with Internet connection, projector

Many English classes conducted with a video clip have students complete worksheets emphasizing vocabulary and grammar. This type of activity can divert attention from the content and turn the activity into a structural drill. In order to avoid this pitfall, I make great use of TED Talks. TED is an open forum for all sorts of ideas that can change attitudes, lives, and even the world. TED invites influential people from all over the globe to talk on various topics for 3 to 60 minutes. All talks are English subtitled! It is easy to find a short but illuminating talk to improve students’ listening and note-taking skills.



Step 1: Go to TED.com. At the top of the homepage are links, such as Talks, Speakers, and so on. Talks is the best place to search for suitable videos for classes.

Step 2: Click Talks and a sidebar appears on the left to help choose a talk based on five criteria: (1) available subtitles, (2) TED event names, (3) talk length, (4) description and rating, and (5) topics. It is always a good idea to look for a video rated either persuasive or informative so you can use the video for a follow-up discussion.  

Step 3: Click the video you want to show. You can obtain an English transcript by clicking the link marked Show Transcript under the video screen.

Step 4: Read through the transcript and check whether there are too many words unfamiliar to your students.



Step 1: To activate students’ schemata, give the title and topic of the video. Ask students what they think the speaker is going to talk about and have them write what they know about the topic. 

Step 2: Have students get into groups of three and share what they wrote. Call on a few students to tell their thoughts to the rest of the class.

Step 3: Introduce key vocabulary necessary to understand the gist of the talk. 

Step 4: Play the video and ask students to jot down main ideas. Tell them they do not have to write down every word they hear and that they will have two more chances to watch the video. 

Step 5: Instruct students to look for supporting ideas during the second viewing. Play the video again. Then, allow students some time to share their notes with others around them.  

Step 6: Instruct students to make more detailed notes during the last viewing. Play the video. 

Step 7: After showing the video, have students form pairs and summarize the video while referring to their notes. 

Step 8: Elicit summaries from a few groups. Write these on the board. 

Step 9: If you chose a video rated persuasive, ask students to think about possible opposing views. If you chose a video rated informative, ask students to think of questions the speaker has to answer to make his/her point. Call on a few students and have them write on the board.

Step 10: As a class, discuss if the idea is worth spreading or not and why. 



If you have already shown a few TED Talks and students are familiar with TED Talks, you can ask students to critique the presentation style (e.g., slides, tone, styles, etc.), analyze the variety of English the speaker speaks, and think about why the talk is important in today’s world.



This activity is useful for helping students realize the utility of English while motivating them and providing authentic opportunities to hone note-taking skills. Owing to the nature of TED Talks, content and delivery are fascinating, so students pay great attention. Many of my students have mentioned they watch TED Talks just for their amusement outside of class and want to be able to understand the videos’ content without Japanese subtitles. This activity is a good way to demonstrate how English competence is meaningful and productive.