Learning English With Steve Jobs

The commencement speech that Steve Jobs gave at Stanford University in 2005 has been watched more than 11 million times on the TED Talks website, and it is a perennial favorite in my classroom.  Students from all over the world are invariably powerfully moved by the life lessons he draws from his adoption, his decision to drop out of college, his experience of being fired at age 30 from the legendary company he founded, and his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.   This semester, one of my students told me that he often watched the 15-minute speech in the morning to give himself the courage to set aside his fears of making mistakes in English when he speaks.

The speech, entitled “How to Live Before You Die,” lends itself to wide-ranging class discussions.  Some of the topics we have considered this semester include:

  • Do you think that the first set of prospective adoptive parents who declined to adopt Steve Jobs because they wanted a girl ever came to regret their decision? Why or why not?
  • Jobs tells his audience to “live each day as if it were your last.”  What do you think of that advice? Is it realistic for most people? If today were the last day of your life, how would you want to live it?
  • Which of the three stories that Jobs tells in his speech resonates with you the most? Why?

But aside from these discussion opportunities, this speech lends itself to two communicative grammar exercises that I like to do with my students. The first helps them practice accurate question form.

I ask my students to imagine that Steve Jobs has been resurrected from the dead and that they are journalists to whom Jobs is going to give an exclusive interview.  I ask them to work with a partner to come up with three questions they would like to pose to the reincarnated Steve Jobs at a press conference.  Then I ask the students to write their questions on the board so that we can determine whether they have used correct question form in their questions.  Before launching into the press conference, we review the questions together and students help each other correct the form of the questions.

Then the press conference begins.  I invite three volunteers to sit at the front of the room and pretend that they are each Steve Jobs.  A fourth student serves as a moderator of the press conference and calls on the different “journalists.”  My students had a field day with this activity, asking Jobs what his next product is going to be (“That’s a commercial secret,” one student impersonating Jobs answered coyly) and whether he considered himself to be a genius.

The other grammar activity I like to do with this speech is a “Verb Tense Hunt.”  Like so many of their peers, my students find the usage of the present perfect tense to be particularly challenging.  So, using a transcript of the speech, we go hunting for instances of Jobs’ use of the present perfect.   Some of my students’ favorite examples of the present perfect come from this passage that occurs around minute 9:20 in the speech posted on TED:

[F]or the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.  Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. (Steve Jobs, 2005)

In a single paragraph, my students can observe a key use of the present perfect—to describe experiences that started in the past and continue into the present—and its frequent co-occurence with the words “for” and “ever,” and can practice formulating their own sentences using Steve Jobs’ memorable language as a model and as an inspiration.

Do you have any favorite speeches or videos for classroom grammar activities?


About Alexandra Lowe

Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught Speaking & Listening in the Intensive English Program, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Accent on Fluency and a wide range of ESL levels. She has also served as a consultant to the Community College Consortium on Immigrant Education, which is based at Westchester Community College. Her primary interests are bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom, connecting ESL students to the supportive resources available at many community colleges, and promoting self-directed learning strategies that ESL students can use outside of the classroom to accelerate their learning and enhance their speaking skills.
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5 Responses to Learning English With Steve Jobs

  1. Charly says:

    Hi Alexandra! I just wanted to let you know how great this method of teaching English is. I’d love to show my students commencement speech videos now, not only to teach them English but to inspire them to be their best as well.

    If you don’t mind, here are some of my favorites I’d like to share. I think you may find these inspiring as well!

  2. Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

    Thanks for your kind words, Hsin-jung. Yes, songs are also a great way to help students remember certain grammar structures. Just last night, my students and I listened to – and sang along with – the Beatles “When I’m 64” to help them remember to use the Simple Present in time clauses with an independent clause in the future. You can find the link here, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntn6XiXX1AQ

  3. xia says:

    Hello Lowe,
    I am a novice TESOL teacher, but right now I prefer to regard myself as a student.
    I love the website of TED and I usually watch some speeches on it. I think it is great from an intermediate English learner’s perspective because I can observe how those successful speakers presented, their intonation, their gestures.But I never think that how to use the resource on it to teach grammar. However, in my understanding, teaching is not limited for grammar learners, it is also for learners who have already finished, like me. i use these speeches to make an immersion environment for myself. My suggestion may not be helpful, but I hope it is good for intermedia level learners who wants to improve both speech ability and listening.
    Thanks a lot

    • Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

      Thanks for your insightful comment, Xia. Yes, TED talks are useful not only for students but for anyone who is interested in keeping abreast of developments in a variety of field – technology, business, urban planning, education and more. I often find interesting TED talks to show in class by virtue of following my own interests onto the TED website. And you can sign up to get periodic updates about new and intriguing talks. The TED updates are a great way to identify new talks to use in class.

  4. Dear Ms. Lowe,

    Thank you for having always contributing brilliant teaching ideas and strategies on the blog. You’re surely a dedicated teacher.

    I love the activities you used with Jobs’ speech. Here’s my answer to your question. When it comes to practicing grammar, I used songs much more often than speeches. Songs are shorter and easier to remember. Very often the target pattern repeats. For example, “The Rose” is a good song to practice relative clause and the cleft sentence.

    The Rose: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zxSTzSEiZ2c

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