Using TED Talks

TED is an organisation that encourages people to share their ideas in short talks.


There's a huge library of videos these talks on the TED website, and you can choose talks according to topic area, language, and length.



They're a great way to improve your listening - and therefore your speaking, too.  Below are some suggestions of ways to use TED talks in self-study.  You don't have to do all the exercises for each talk - just choose one to start with.



Remember that these talks are mostly given by native speakers, for native speakers.  You will probably find it difficult to follow them, especially if your English is elementary or pre-intermediate level, or if you usually only read English.


Lower your expectations, especially the first few times you listen to a talk.  Maybe you'll only hear a few words.  Maybe you'll just catch one main idea towards the beginning, or just the conclusion.  That's OK!  You have to start somewhere.  Don't get discouraged, just listen again and try to understand a bit more next time.


Don't try to understand every single word.  You will just get frustrated with yourself and you won't be able to focus on the overall meaning.


Remember that some speakers are easier to understand than others - try different talks by different people, who may have an easier accent or a clearer style of presentation.

Choose a Talk

To start with, I'd recommend that you choose a talk on a topic that interests you.  You will be more likely to be motivated enough to keep listening even if it's difficult.  You'll also learn new vocabulary related to that topic, which you'll find useful later.


Later on, you might like to listen to talks relating to a topic that you've studied recently, or on a topic that is less familiar but that you would like to learn more about.


From the TED homepage, go to the "Watch" menu and then click "TED talks".  You can select the topic area you want - in the menu there are the most popular ones, such as technology, business, and so on, but also click on "see all topics" to get a huge list of topics.  There's everything from adventure to virus, and dinosaur to piano.


Choose English as the language, and to start with, choose 0-6 minutes for the length.  If you find the short talks easy, you can always move on to longer ones later.

Listening Exercise 1


- Listen to the whole talk, without taking notes or writing anything.

- Afterwards, write down as much as you can remember about the talk (even just single words is good, if you didn't catch much of it).  Leave plenty of space after each sentence you write, so you can add to it later.

- Listen again and add more notes in the spaces while you listen.

- Listen one final time with the transcript (available underneath most TED talks) and while you listen, write down any new information that you didn't hear or understand before. 

Listening Exercise 2


- Read the introduction to the talk before you listen to it.

- Write a list of words that you think the speaker will use in the talk, and a list of five questions that you hope the talk will answer.

- Listen to the talk and tick the words that were actually used.  Also, write down the answers to your questions (if you can).

- Listen again and try to write down at least 10 other important words connected to the topic.

- Write 5 questions based on the talk.  If you have a friend studying English, you could share them with her and challenge her to listen to the talk and answer the questions.  If not, writing these questions will still help you to listen carefully to the talk and understand it.

Speaking Exercise 1


- Watch the talk, without worrying about understanding anything at all.

- Notice how the speaker uses these features to make the talk more interesting and easier to understand:

  • hand gestures
  • facial expressions, including eyebrows
  • eye contact
  • body movement (e.g. walking around)
  • pauses
  • stress
  • intonation

- Watch again and choose one sentence where the speaker is doing something particularly interesting with her body or voice.  Watch that sentence several times over, noticing the details of how she moves or talks.

- Now try to copy the way she said that sentence.  If you can't remember the words, just say "da da da da da da".  Focus on the voice and the body.


Reflect on how this style of speaking is different to your style.  Do you think it is effective?  Does it feel strange to you? Could you try to use this style in your speaking?

Speaking Exercise 2


- Watch the talk and try to write down some of the main ideas.

- Choose one sentence that you think is particularly important - maybe the first or last sentence, or one that carries an important idea, or introduces a change.

- Look at the transcript of the talk (available underneath most TED talks) and find the sentence.  Read it to yourself - first silently, and then aloud.

- Listen to that single sentence again, two or three times.  Notice the speaker's intonation, stress, pauses, and body language.

- Now try to copy EXACTLY how the speaker says that sentence.  Practise it three or four times until you can say it perfectly.

Vocabulary Exercise


- Watch the talk and try to write down 10 key words and 3 main ideas.  You have to have exactly 10 and 3, so at the end, if you have more than this, you'll have to decide which ones were the most important.

- Look at the transcript (available underneath most TED talks) and write a list of ALL the words that you don't know.

- Go through your list and mark the words like this:

X  if you think you don't need to understand this word to understand the whole talk

?  if you can guess what this word means

>  if you think this word is necessary to understand the whole talk and you need to look it up in a dictionary

- Now look up the words that you marked > and write down their meanings.

- Watch the talk again without the transcript, and without writing anything.

- Look at your list of key words and key ideas - would you change them now that you have understood the talk better?

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