Using TED Talks to Build Large-Group Discussion Skills

Cherie Brown and Carlos Budding, Akita International University

Quick Guide 

  • Key words: Large-group discussions, confidence, self-management, strategies
  • Learner English Level: High intermediate and above
  • Learner Maturity: Senior high school and above
  • Preparation Time: Minimal, since the activity is student led. Teachers should view and approve TED talks chosen by learners
  • Activity Time: 30-45 minutes
  • Materials: TED talks (online), viewing summary template, seating plan with learners names, PowerPoint and projector facilities/whiteboard

Encouraging students to use English in large group settings is a challenge. This activity, when repeated (and varied) over time, has been used successfully in university EAP speaking and listening programmes to scaffold learners into confident large group discussions using explicitly taught conversation strategies, stimulating learner selected themes and resources, and self-managed presentations, participation and reflection.


Step 1: Instruct the class to divide into self-selected groups of four. Outside class, each group selects a TED talk from the Internet (9 – 15 minutes) relating to a theme being studied. Set dates for each group’s discussion and inform students.

Step 2: Groups prepare introductions to their talks that recap key points, without summarizing everything, and three questions designed to stimulate discussion. They should attempt to raise controversial issues and provoke differing opinions. Give the URL links to the class. 

Step 3: Everyone watches the talks outside class time, prior to the dates set for discussion. (N.B. From the beginning of the semester, allocate class time to introduce and practice a range of strategies/functions, one by one. Model these, then practice in pairs, small groups and finally with the whole class. Select practice topics, beginning with less controversial ones, and, as students gain confidence, moving to more ‘sticky’ issues. Each practice session lasts 15 minutes. Tell students they will earn points during the TED talk discussions for using these strategies and for participation, which contribute to their overall grade).


Step 1: On discussion day, distribute quiz sheets. Allow five minutes for students to write a short answer to a pre-set question to check viewing homework was completed (see Appendices). Collect these and record homework completion.

Step 2: The presenting group outlines their introduction (three minutes), sharing equal responsibility for this. They open the discussion to the whole class by displaying/asking their first question. Groups may use PowerPoint or the whiteboard, but each question should be visible for the duration of the relevant part of the discussion.

Step 3: Presenters invite class members to respond to the first question (and subsequent questions) and to comment on each other’s contributions. During the discussion, the teacher sits behind the class, keeping a tally of each individuals’ contributions on a prepared seating plan, and allocating a score for speaking quality (according to use of speaking strategies/functions previously taught) (see Appendices). The teacher does NOT participate, since presenters are responsible for self-managing the discussion. In fact, all class members should know that everyone has a responsiblity to participate, to ensure respectful involvement, and to prevent articulate students from dominating.

Step 4: After 20 minutes, the presenting group closes the discussion. The class breaks into small groups/pairs, while the presenting group remains together. Everyone discusses the strengths and weaknesses of the discussion (five minutes), then students report back to the whole class, beginning with the presenters. The objective is to improve the quality of future discussions. The teacher makes final comments and suggestions. After calculating scores, grades can be distributed in a subsequent lesson. 


For discussions to work well, teachers should explain that everyone’s contribution is important, that mistakes are acceptable, as are different opinions. Encourage students to express their opinions honestly and hold their ground in a setting of respect and mutual support. If a speaker is having difficulty expressing an idea, other presenters should ask if someone can offer a suggestion to enable the speaker to complete what they wish to say. Alternatively, the speaker may briefly use their first language, which should be translated by another class member, then reiterated in English by the original speaker, provided they have not already been interrupted with a polite (but assertive) interjection!


The appendices are available below.