The best TED Talks for the ESL classroom

Meeting the demands of the 21st century student can be a formidable task, and with the average language student being younger and younger, ESL teachers need to become more savvy with their lessons in order to engage their digital-native student: hence, the popularity of TED Talks for the ESL classroom. They are a great resource and can bring a listening comprehension lesson alive and make a once boring lesson much more dynamic. But where to start with TED Talks? Here are a few things I’ve picked up over my years of using TED Talks, as well as the best TED Talks for the ESL classroom.

Things to keep in mind when using TEDtalks 

  1. Language 

How easy or difficult is the language being used? Often these are experts in their field and as such they tend to use high level vocabulary. You need to spend a good chunk of time before playing the video teaching vocabulary so that the student doesn’t feel overwhelmed. I’ve also found, sometimes, you just have to tell the students “don’t worry if you don’t understand all the technical mumbo jumbo; I don’t get it either.”

  1. Length 

TED Talks are great in that you have a variety of topics and length. My suggestion would be to use a video no longer than 10 minutes MAX. Anything over that even at the upper-int+ level and the students will become bored and disengaged. Let’s be honest, concentrating on anything for 10 minutes straight in another language is tricky. I’ve definitely had some goldfish students and I can see their eyes glazing over after a few minutes, so do them (and yourself) a favour and keep it short and sweet. 

  1. Speed and accent of the speaker 

As mentioned earlier, TED employs experts in their respective fields to give thoughtful and insightful talks. It’s the beauty and appeal of the talks. Having said that, not all speakers are native English speakers, and this is both a gift and curse. Most ESL students in their language journey will not exclusively encounter native speakers. They are likely going to be interacting more frequently with non-natives than natives, so this exposure to a variety of different accents and ways of speaking is an important skill to develop. On the flip side, some students really struggle to comprehend different accents. For example I once had a Russian student complain that they struggled to understand their French-speaking colleagues. It’s always good to have a listen through to see if the accent will pose more of a problem than a good challenge. 

Recommended TED Talks for varying levels

Here is a list of some great TEDtalks you could incorporate into the classroom. These are a few I’ve used with various levels and they have seemed to garner the greatest results. 

I forgot my phone (all levels)

Now, hear me out. Why would a video with no words be of any use for an ESL classroom? Well, this video is actually found on TED ED via YouTube, and whilst there are some words (casual conversations in the background) it’s the content of the video which is of value. A great modern commentary of our obsession with recording everything. This video could be used for a plethora of things, from the basics of daily routines and free time activities to an in-depth discussion on addiction. Who says you need dialogue to watch a video?

8 secrets of success (high level pre-intermediate and above)

This one is an oldie, but a goodie. This talk from 2005 is short and to the point. The speaker is clear and concise with his language and uses relatively simple language. This talk would pair great with say English File’s intermediate unit on success and failure. Both Lesson Plan Digger and iSL collective have great lesson plans and activities to accompany the talk. 

Try something new for 30 days (intermediate and above)

Clocking in at just under 3:30, this TEDtalk from 2011 has over 13 million views on the TED website, and it’s easy to see why it’s so popular as it’s a great video with an even better message: the idea of new challenges and pushing your limits. The speaker is a native English speaker and speaks fairly clearly and at a good speed. A quick search online will equip you with many different lesson plans related to the video. Personally, I love ELT resourceful‘s lesson plan as it can tie in beautifully with present perfect. 

The hidden power of smiling (upper-intermediate and above)

This video is just fun and makes for a nice, positive lesson. The accompanying video that the speaker uses is also really cute, with lots of graphics and pictures to keep students interested. The speaker isn’t a native English speaker and some of the language use can get a bit advanced, but it can yield a lot of interesting conversations. ESL Brains have a fantastic free lesson on the talk. 

Other resources for Ted Talks

Here are a few other great resources for TED Talks that you could use:


This website is great in that you can watch a variety of TED Talks (they also offer animated talks on lots of different topics). The website has lessons and comprehension questions already uploaded so even a learner could use this outside the classroom. 

National Geographic Learning Keynote course book series. 

They have written a whole course book series from Beginner to Advanced using TED Talks as the unit content. Honestly, it’s a brilliant idea and they have taken even the most complex of videos and moulded it to be a great learning tool for all levels of students. 

Keynote – NGL ELT Catalog – Series PRO0000008503

Click here to learn more about how to get the most out of listening activities and here on how to best build your vocabulary from TED talks and other sources.

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