Stop thinking TED Talks are just for high-level adult ESL students! I’ve successfully used them with students from high-beginner and up, and you can, too! I’m going to share with you twelve ways you can use TED talks to help your students develop their proficiency in the four language domains, make connections to their lives, and cultivate critical thinking. Keep reading!
1. Dive into Vocabulary with TED talks!
Did you know that many TED talks have transcripts that you can download? Scan through the transcript to pick out keywords that are crucial for getting the gist of the talk. Get them on a handout or just write them on the board. Invite students to work with a partner or in small groups to discuss what the words mean and any connections they have.
They’re going to hear a LOT of vocabulary. Make sure they understand this and that they are NOT supposed to understand it all. I always liked telling my students that I would be THRILLED if they didn’t understand most of it because it ensured I still had a job. That tended to keep them from feeling pressured to grasp it all.
Although I almost always had them to vocabulary discussions before watching a video, I also always encouraged them to write three words they heard and didn’t have a clue what they meant. Why just three? Why not let them write as many as they want? Well, if I left it up to them, they’d spend so much time writing words they weren’t 100% positive about that they’d miss the talk. By that, I mean they wouldn’t be able to describe the main idea. They’d be unable to say what the key points were or what the purpose was. They wouldn’t be laughing at the jokes, picking up on body language, or feeling interested in learning more about the topic.
2. Sharpen note-taking expertise.
When I’m showing a talk during class, I actually forbid my students from taking any notes! I make them clear their desks and leave their phones where I can see them. Why? While they’re taking notes, they’re spending a lot of time looking at their paper. They’re much more focused on exactly WHAT is said. They miss out on facial expressions, body language, gestures, and tone of voice.
So when it’s time to take notes, I just tell them to take notes, right? Nuh-uh. Unless I’m dealing with very high-level students who have already had a lot of note-taking practice, that won’t go well. I like to give them some support in the form of outlines or graphic organizers. These help students follow along with the talk and listen for and identify the main idea, the supporting ideas, specific examples, exact numbers, etc. I also often embed key vocabulary words to circle, underline, or highlight when/if they hear them. Want something very basic as a starting point?
3. Prompt class discussions with TED talks.
The subject matter of TED Talks can spark discussions as students relate to and question what they’ve heard. I personally loved these discussions the most when the classroom was full of students from many different countries and cultures. I loved how it diversified the reactions and connections. Not everyone always heard the same TED Talk, even though I had only played one video.
Of course, I always created my own discussion questions while previewing the video. However, some of my favorite questions usually weren’t mine. They were questions that the students themselves came up with while listening to the talk. Yes, I always asked permission before stealing a question to use the next time I showed the talk. 🙂 Want themed discussion topics that are NOT based on TED talks?
4. Make connections to students’ lives.
If you’ve chosen a TED talk specifically because you know that it will speak to your current students in one way or another, it’s usually fairly easy to predict the types of connections they will make and even gently guide them if necessary. Just don’t be too surprised when they make a completely different and perhaps even opposing connection than expected!
When students hear a talk on a topic or theme relevant to their lives, they will often have much more to say about and go deeper than they would have if you’d just introduced it as a discussion topic without the video. Somehow, listening to a well-spoken person speak about what has bearing on your life or about current events validates that it is worthy of discussion. It’s also often easier for your students to disagree with a speaker they don’t know than a classmate (or their teacher).
5. Make connections to topics in the text.
The first time I taught unit 1 in Academic Connections 3, my students were completely intimidated by and uninterested in the topic, “Brains and Gender.” None were keen on biology or even had much interest in science at all. One of the lectures included in the unit was called Different Genders, Different Medicines? I knew that to awaken their curiosity, I had to find a way to connect it to them. And yes! I found a TED talk related to that! After watching Alyson McGregor’s Why Medicine Often Has Dangerous Side Effects for Women, they wanted to know MORE about gender and the brain.
6. Provide background to upcoming topics.
When teaching Academic Connections 1, I overheard my students say that the unit on stress made them feel stressed. I immediately wanted to take that stress away, and skipping the unit was not an option. So, I turned to TED. I found the most amazing talk to share with my students BEFORE we started the unit! Yes, Kelly McGonigal’s talk How to Make Stress Your Friend not only helped alleviate my students’ stress, but it made them look forward to studying the unit and learning more. This is also a great time to use a KWHLQ chart.
7. Season summarization skills using TED talks.
I rarely had classes with students who excelled at summarizing texts or lectures. Utilizing TED talks became our favorite way to practice this skill. Before choosing a topic, we’d decide if we would practice summarizing in writing or in speaking. I also loved how a focus on summarizing skills gave them new directions in note-taking. We also didn’t necessarily summarize the content of the talk. Sometimes we centered our attention more on how the speaker gave the talk. Do you want a simple page that can work with almost any talk? Take a look at my Summarization Graphic Organizers.
8. Draw out their interests.
Assign students the task of finding a TED talk they want to share with the class. (They’ll have to watch a lot to find one that speaks to them enough that they want to share with the class.) I’ve sometimes had them give a short presentation on the talk they chose, write a review, or summarize it. But, what has always led to the greatest success was our breakfast/coffee club time. They’d sit together in groups and discuss what they heard/saw, why it appealed to them, and why they thought their group members would enjoy the talk while snacking and drinking coffee.
9. Introduce your “guest speakers”.
You can’t really tell much about a person just by looking at them. When I realized that many of my students assumed that all the TED talk speakers were native English-speakers who were professionals speakers, I realized that they would not feel inspired into thinking that they, too, could one day give a talk like that. Give your students that mental image of themselves! Look up information about the speaker and introduce that person like you are introducing a guest speaker you invited to come to your classroom and speak. Find out something about their personal background to share that will let your students see that the speakers are quite often really just people like them. This also builds some background and gives students a reason to trust what they are about to hear, respect the person who is speaking, and see themselves one day doing the same.
10. Flip it!
For long talks, Have your students watch the talks at home (after doing vocabulary dives in class and while using supportive graphic organizers for note-taking). Then, discuss in class. This also allows your students to challenge themselves on an appropriate level. They may wish to re-listen to parts or pause to look more closely at any images or graphs. They might feel more comfortable using that little gear icon to slow down the rate of the speaker’s speech or to speed it up if they feel the speaker is speaking too slowly. If they are especially interested, they might even want to stop the video to take more extensive notes at different points.
11. Use Google Docs to curate watchlists for your students.
Set up Google Docs where you add hyperlinks along with a teaser of the video….something that will make the student relate to the talk and want to hear it. This is where you put all those talks you come across that are just too hilarious or shocking NOT to share but don’t really work well as something to do in class. This is also where you can share talks that belong to a very narrow niche. These talks also won’t work well for most of your class but will be EXACTLY what one or two students need/want to hear. You could even make a special Google Docs where students contribute their favorite talks.
12. Grade the presenters!
To help prepare my students for their own oral presentations, I like to have them critique TED talk presenters. When they watch and listen to the presenters, they see lots of models to emulate and get ideas on what they might not want to do. (Not all the speakers are 100% wonderful.) To help them with this, I like to have them occasionally fill out a rubric to grade a speaker on his/her presentation. This helps point students towards what makes a successful oral presentation and helps them judge what doesn’t. By grading the presenters, they gain insight into what future professors or audiences might want/expect to hear and see from them.
Some Caveats to Consider with TED talks:
- Before starting any video, remind your students that understanding every single word is not the object. Instead, they put together what they already know about the topic and the context of the talk to get the gist.
- Watch the whole video before showing it to your students. Do they really need to see the whole thing, or will just part of it suffice? Timestamp any relevant parts and only show those parts. Provide a hyperlink for anyone curious enough to watch the whole thing on their own.
- Be wary of using captions. Students will reflexively zero in on the words at the bottom of the screen and miss out on facial cues, voice cues, and body language. If you really want to include them, try playing the video at least once without the captions first.
TED talks have a myriad of uses!
As you now know, you have multiple ways and reasons for implementing TED talks in your adult ESL classes. What are you waiting for? Try it!
Ready for your freebie?
Remember how I said that you could let your students grade the presenters? How would you like a rubric to just print and give them instead of trying to find or come up with one on your own? How about a fully editable one? Click the image below to grab this Google Doc for free.