One of my secret weapons in English classes is quickly becoming a not-so-secret weapon.

Long before I started teaching English, I began watching TED talks for my own education and entertainment. I watched talks on all subjects, given by speakers from around the world, just because so many of them are fascinating, moving, and—equally important—not very long.

For the uninitiated, TED talks are 18- to 20-minute lectures filmed at the annual TED conference and its spin-offs. The speeches are then posted online for anyone and everyone to watch. TED’s slogan is “Ideas worth spreading,” and its speakers, more than being famous or powerful, are interesting and have ambitious visions of world change. TED’s mission is to spread its speakers’ ideas around the world, at the conferences and through the internet—and not only to English speakers.

One of the amazing features of TED talks is that almost every talk is subtitled in dozens of languages, including English. The fact that most lectures are available to watch without subtitles, with English subtitles, and with subtitles in many other languages makes them perfect teaching tools for ESL students of all levels.

Here in Colombia, I have mostly taught intermediate to advanced students. For my high-levels students, an un-subtitled TED talk makes a perfect (and easy) lesson plan. The videos and the lively discussions that inevitably follow help students’ listening comprehension and speaking skills and always introduce new vocabulary and grammar points. The talks, by their nature, are very intelligent but also casual, so they combine advanced vocabulary with colloquial expressions, challenging students without intimidating them. For students who won’t understand everything spoken in English, putting on English subtitles lets them listen and read simultaneously, helping both their listening and reading comprehension at once. On top of that, TED’s website provides transcripts of every talk. Print out the transcript and you and your students can review the speech in text after watching it, catching or clarifying things they didn’t hear or didn’t understand while watching.

To give examples of TED talks I have used to good effect, here are three I recommend—though remember that there are hundreds of great ones. Ken Robinson, a British educator, gave a talk that is one of the most funny, heartwarming and popular on the site. The talks by writer Malcolm Gladwell and psychologist Barry Schwartz are both very interesting and excellent teaching tools, and their arguments are nice counterpoints to each other, so those talks make for good consecutive class lessons.

When I began using TED talks in my lessons, I thought that students would be amazed by the speeches. And indeed they were—for a while. Like me, they found the talks captivating. And they learned as much from the talks as I hoped they would. But more and more, I’m finding that my students have already heard of and seen TED talks before I introduce them to the classroom.

Though I’ve lost the opportunity to wow my students with TED talks, my classes have benefited from my students’ familiarity with and interest in the speeches. I still use them, and my students still love them.

But I wonder if I’m missing something. I don’t know how other English teachers use TED talks in their lessons. And I don’t know whether there are similar materials available to everyone that I haven’t found yet.

So I’m curious to hear from other English teachers: Have you used TED talks in class? If so, how have you used them, and have they been helpful? Or have you used other, similar materials? Are there other videos out there that I haven’t heard of that make great teaching tools and discussion starters?

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Peter Martin

Peter F. Martin was born and raised in New York City.  As an undergraduate at Yale University, he devoted himself to journalism, working as a writer, photographer, and editor for The Yale Globalist and the Yale Daily News. Peter first taught English while in college, teaching a weekly writing course to inmates at the Cheshire Correctional Institute in Cheshire, Connecticut. His work as an editor for campus publications required him to teach writing technique daily, correcting small mistakes and helping writers construct sentences, paragraphs, and pieces better.  He moved to Bogotá, Colombia, and worked there as an English teacher and editor. Peter blogs and shares his writing and photography on his website.   Website:   Twitter: @petemartinnyc