TED Talks as Authentic Listening Materials: Turning Points and Near-Death Experiences

Last month, NYS-TESOL’s Applied Linguistics Winter Conference included an excellent workshop led by Samar Aal of CUNY’s LaGuardia Community College on developing content-based lessons using authentic materials from the Internet.  Near the top of Samar’s list were TED Talks, a cornucopia of riveting short talks on an enormous array of topics, available on the TED website.

TED Talks are also at the top of my list of authentic listening materials. For advanced students, they provide an unparalleled opportunity to hear some of the foremost thinkers of our day speak on hot topics in the fields of science, business, technology, design, and global concerns.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO whose new book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, has stirred renewed controversy over gender inequality in the workplace, first aired many of her ideas in a 2010 TED Talk. Her TED Talk became the centerpiece of a lesson on women in the workforce in my Business English class last year.

But TED Talks aren’t only for advanced students. There are many short and engaging talks that are within reach of low-intermediate students. One of my favorites is Ric Elias’ 5-minute TED Talk, 3 Things I Learned While My Plane Crashed.

Ric was sitting in seat 1D on U.S. Airways Flight 1549, the plane that crash-landed into the Hudson River in January 2009. In his TED Talk, he describes what was going through his mind as the plane filled with smoke and he prayed for a quick death. He then draws some fascinating life lessons from his near-death experience.

His experience invariably leads to intense, small-group discussions about turning points in students’ own lives and experiences they have had that have changed the way they look at themselves and at the world. I usually couple this with an in-class writing assignment in which students describe risks they have taken or grave dangers they themselves have encountered. In a class full of immigrants, there is never a shortage of risk-takers with awe-inspiring stories of their own to tell.

Finally, for homework, I invite my students to explore the TED website and to listen repeatedly to any TED Talk that interests them.  (For students with weaker listening skills, subtitles are available in English. Subtitles are also helpful for students who want to use the TED Talks at home as a pronunciation tool and spelling aid).  Back in class, we try to make time to watch short segments of TED Talks that students chose for their listening work at home because they found them especially interesting or deeply moving.  In what becomes a kind of cycle, students are inspired by their classmates’ recommendations to listen to additional TED Talks.

Recently, a young Mexican man in my class introduced us to a talk given in December 2012 by a young woman from Afghanistan, Dare to Educate Afghan Girls. My intermediate-level class of students from Central and South America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East was riveted by the speaker’s harrowing tale of obstacles that girls have faced in getting an education in her country.  They needed no English subtitles to understand her inspiring message.

What TED Talks have you used in class?

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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2 Responses to TED Talks as Authentic Listening Materials: Turning Points and Near-Death Experiences

  1. Jason Wolfe says:


    I came across this article looking for scholarly articles that document the use of TED talks in the TESOL/ESL/EFL classroom. Can any share any publications?

    Some TED talks that have worked in my classes are Weekday Vegetarian, anything by Dereck Sivers (2-3 mins).


  2. Amy Tate says:

    Thanks for the suggestions!

    Just this week I used Joachim de Posada’s talk, “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow,” with my high intermediate class. It’s about delayed gratification and success, and had really cute (although low quality) clips of young children trying to resist eating a marshmallow. It sparked a good discussion.

    Best, Amy Tate

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