14 Easy TED Talks for ESL Students to Listen To

Every ESL teacher has seen TED talks for English language learners at this point.

They’re not only some of the best videos on the internet, but some of the best video resources for ESL classrooms, too.

Both ESL students and teachers will find things to love about TED Talks.

That’s why you should be using them in your ESL classroom. And, as it turns out, it’s not too hard at all to show these to your students in a meaningful, productive way.


1. “4 Reasons to Learn a New Language” by John McWhorter

English is one of the most commonly spoken languages in the world. Why bother learning another language if most people can communicate using just this one?

Plus, instant translation technology could soon render language learning obsolete!

To dispute these ideas, McWorter talks about how languages not only give us insights into their respective cultures, but also shape the way we think.


Discuss Why are you learning English?

A short, five-minute discussion of the question gives a simple introduction to this topic, which all ESL students will be able to relate to.

List — The benefits of learning English

This can be done after watching the video. In small groups or pairs, have your students list the benefits they have gotten, or expect to get, from learning English. How do they think English will change their lives?

Compare — English and other languages

Ask your students how English differs from their first language or any other language they have learned. Then, you can introduce the grammar needed to form comparative sentences, such as:

  • English is more difficult than French
  • Chinese is spoken by more people than English

Superlatives – What’s the most difficult language in the world?

You can then move on to superlatives. After teaching the grammar, you can turn it into a pop quiz. Have students create superlative questions in groups, then ask the rest of the class. You could branch out from language and make world knowledge questions, like these:

  • What’s the biggest country in the world?
  • What’s the fastest animal on land?

2. “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy” by Emily Esfahani Smith

A lot of people say that happiness is the meaning of life, but is that really true? In this video, the speaker argues that we should build more meaningful lives, instead of just happy ones.


Discuss – What’s the meaning of life?

Introduce the topic by presenting this question and asking your students to give a one-word answer.

Rank – What’s important to you in life?

Whether it’s money, family, happiness, travel or food, your students will have different ideas about what’s important. Give them a list, and ask them to rank them by number to show what their priorities are. Then, they can compare with a partner.

Write – SMART Goals

After watching the video, revisit students’ priorities from the previous activity. Ask them if the amount of time they spend on each item matches its ranking. Chances are, it doesn’t. You can turn this into a writing activity by asking them to write out some life goals.

Teach them about the SMART model to structure their goals—this is an invaluable lesson to learn for goal-setting and life in general.

3. “Why Do We Sleep?” by Russell Foster

This video uses excellent visual aids to turn what seems like an arbitrary question into a fascinating subject. This also makes it much easier to understand, giving students something to support their listening.


Brainstorm – The purpose of sleep

Start your lesson off by asking your students what they think the purpose of sleep is. After watching the video, they can see if this matches up with what they’ve learned.

Grammar – How long? / How many? / How far?

This is a good opportunity to teach how to make “how” questions, which ESL students often mix up with other types of questions. Your students can then use this grammar to make questions, such as:

  • How many hours do you sleep per night?
  • How long have you studied here?
  • How far is it from here to your house?

4. “A Tribute to Nurses” by Carolyn Jones

This TED Talk is more personal. It’s one woman’s story of how a nurse changed her life and why nurses are so important to her. She speaks relatively slowly, pausing between sentences to make it easy to listen to.


Discuss – Difficult jobs

Before introducing the video, ask your students to have group discussions about which jobs they think are the most difficult and why.

List – Duties and responsibilities

After the video, have students write what they think the responsibilities of a nurse are.

This will test their understanding of the basic verb-noun agreement. Ideally, they should come up with something like the following:

  • A nurse takes care of patients.
  • Nurses give injections.

From there, they can do the same for the other jobs they spoke about in the first activity.

5. “Before I Die I Want To…” by Candy Chang

If you’re looking for a short video activity, this is perfect. In only six minutes, your students will hear about the creative way in which one woman got her neighbors to open up about their life goals.

It’s clear, concise and easy to understand.


Read – Inspirational stories

Give your students a story about an inspirational figure to read. It could be a biography or someone famous, a story you’ve plucked from the news or anyone you think your class might relate to.

After reading, ask your students to discuss who inspires them and why with a partner.

Write – Bucket lists

Introduce the concept of a bucket list and have students write their own. If there’s time, they can present them at the end of the class.

6. “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation” by Celeste Headlee 

This talk is about 12 minutes long, which makes it a good option for a short class period. The speaker explores the importance of face-to-face communication and teaches the audience how to excel at speaking.

Every ESL student can benefit from this video.


Write – Video review

After watching the video, ask them to write their answers to these questions:

  • What does a conversation require?
  • How many texts do teenagers send a day?
  • What do you think “interpersonal skills” means?
  • Should you nod and repeat back what someone says to show you’re listening?
  • What are the 10 ways to have a better conversation?

Discuss – Free conversation

After watching the video, ask your students to pick a partner and have a conversation using the tips mentioned by the speaker. They can take turns practicing their listening skills and communication skills. 

7. “How to Talk so People Want to Listen” by Julian Treasure 

This is another presentation that’s centered on communication. Here, the speaker focuses on making sure people listen. This speech is just under 10 minutes, making it ideal for a short lesson. It also includes some vocal exercises that could be quite fun for your ESL students!


Rank – What not to do when speaking?

After the video, list the “seven deadly” sins of speaking and discuss them as a class. You can then ask to rank each of them and ask for their reasoning. 

Discuss – Review and reflect

You can also follow up the video with these questions:

  • What are the four “cornerstones” of powerful speaking and what does “HAIL” stand for?
  • Do you think it’s possible to wish someone well and judge them at the same time?
  • What do you want to improve about your speaking?

List – Why is it important to speak clearly?

Ask your students to do a quick writing exercise listing the reasons why it’s important to be good at speaking. If there’s time, a few students can present them at the end of the class.

8. “How Languages Shape the Way We Think” by Lera Boroditsky 

The video is about 14 minutes long and is a little more scientific. It explores how we speak and communicate and the role language plays in the way we think. This talk is more suitable for higher-level language classes, where you can dive into fun topics like perceptions and stereotypes.


Compare – Differences between English and your native language

Put your students into groups, then ask them to share their thoughts on the video, then compare how English differs from their native language.

Here are some questions to guide the discussion:

  • Do you agree or disagree that language shapes the way we think? Why?
  • What was the most interesting thing you learned from this speech?
  • Does everyone in the world count the same way or think of color in the same way?
  • Does English have gendered words?

Write – Kuuk Thaayore language 

Find a few research papers or articles on the Internet about the Kuuk Thaayorre language and hand them out to your students. As a homework assignment, ask them to find examples in the text showing how their language shaped their way of living and thinking. 

9. “What Makes a Good Life?” by Robert Waldinger 

Get your students thinking about living and how to live a healthy and happy life. This video is about 12 minutes and offers advice on how to live your best life. It covers a decade-long study that looked at what makes people happy. Your students are sure to be interested in this topic and the ensuing conversation.


Write – What makes you happy?

Start your lesson off with a writing exercise. Have them answer the following questions in their journal entry:

  • Do you have a good life?
  • What makes you happy?
  • What would you change about your life?
  • Do you feel like you have a good balance between screen time and people time?

After watching the video, they can see if this matches up with what was mentioned in the talk.

List and Share – Life goals

Have students list their life goals, then ask them to find someone in the classroom who has at least one life goal in common. Let them share their life goals with each other, then have them discuss the two major life goals young adults have, based on the video.

10. “How to Find Work You Love” by Scott Dinsmore 

This 18-minute talk is especially useful for ESL learners who are in high school and university. The speaker tells the audience that it’s okay to do work you love and in fact, it leads to a more fulfilling life.


Discuss – What do you like to do?

Start off by asking your students to discuss in a group what they like to do and identify why the enjoy certain activities.

Write – Dream job

Using the framework discussed in the video, ask your students to write a short essay on what their dream job would be. Make sure they list their unique strengths and values that will help them be successful in this dream job.

11. “Want to Be More Creative? Go for a Walk” by Marily Oppezzo 

This is a short five-minute talk that explores the idea of creativity and how to brainstorm more effectively. It may appeal specifically to business English language learners or any students who need to keep their minds sharp and fresh.


Brainstorm – What do you do to be more creative?

Start out with a quick discussion asking your students if they are creative and if so, in what way.

From there, can move on to asking them how they get their creative juices flowing. Write their ideas on the board. After watching the video, compare the findings with the brainstorming session at the beginning of class. 

Discuss – Review and reflect 

Have the students get into small groups and discuss the following questions: 

  • How many more creative ideas did the “treadmill group” come up with than the “sitting groups?”
  • What are the five tips the speaker recommends for brainstorming?
  • Do you think this method of brainstorming would work for you? Would you try it?

12. “Where Did English Come From?” by Claire Bowern 

This is a fascinating video on the origin of English. It’s about five minutes and offers a brief history of the language, which is interesting for ESL learners perpetually confused by English’s inconsistent rules and exceptions.


Brainstorm – English words in other languages

Before watching the video, ask the students if their native language uses any English words. Have each student write their words down on the board.

Discuss – Video review 

Have a class discussion on the video to test their comprehension. Some questions you can ask are:

  • Where did English come from?
  • What language family did “Old English” belong to?
  • Did the Vikings add any words to English?

Research – What’s your favorite word in English?

Have a quick 5-minute discussion asking your students what is their favorite word in English and why. As a homework assignment, you can ask them to look up the origins of their favorite words and share their findings with the class the next day.

13. “Where Do New Words Come From?” by Marcel Danesi 

This six-minute, animated talk shows how new words are created and how English has adopted words from other languages. It’s a great video to go along with any lessons where you’re trying to relate English to your students’ first languages.


Discuss – Video review 

Ask a few questions with straightforward answers to test your students’ listening skills. 

  • How many new words are added to the dictionary every year?
  • How many words are currently in use in the English language?
  • Approximately how much of the English language has been borrowed from other languages?
  • What does the word “obsolete” mean?

Grammar – Create a new word

Have students create a new word and write the definition. Along with the definition, ask them to create at least three different example sentences using different tenses.

This can be an in-class activity or a homework assignment.

14. “The Myth of Prometheus” by Iseult Gillespie 

This presentation is under five minutes and tells the story of Prometheus. It’s filled with short illustrated clips which are ideal for any ESL students interested in English literature.


Brainstorm – Myths

Before the video, briefly describe what a myth is with the class. Ask them if they know any myths and write them on the board. These myths can also be potential research projects or homework assignments.

Discuss – Video review 

Ask your students these questions to test their listening comprehension:

  • What does the name “Prometheus” mean?
  • What did Prometheus do to help humans?
  • How did Zeus punish Prometheus?

Write – Do you think Prometheus was a trickster or a hero?

As an in-class activity or homework assignment, ask your students to write a short essay to answer this question. The length of the answer can be adjusted according to the students’ learning level.

How to Use TED Talks for ESL Lessons

Practice Listening

A TED Talk can be a great ESL listening tool for young students and adult students alike. You have thousands of diverse videos to choose from, so you can find videos that work for all age levels, English skill levels, interests and classroom themes.

You can play them with or without subtitles—since TED Talks most often have precise subtitles to accompany them—or even print-outs of their full transcripts from the official TED website. Both of these options can facilitate listening.

With beginner and intermediate ESL students, just make sure you avoid videos in which the speaker talks too fast or uses very complicated vocabulary.

Use Subtitles Wisely

Every video on the TED Talk website comes with subtitles in several languages. While it’s okay to use these subtitles—especially when they’re in English!—they shouldn’t be relied upon.

Students will generally stop listening and paying attention to cues like body language and revert straight to reading the subtitles alone.

A good tip is to play the video once without subtitles and check how much they understood, then allow them to watch it again with subtitles to see what else they can pick up.

Encourage Understanding of the Gist, Not Every Word

It’s best to preface any listening activity by telling your students not to worry about understanding every single word they hear. Instead, encourage them to understand the gist by combining what they can understand with context.

That takes the pressure off.

Elicit Vocabulary

These videos are also a great way to elicit new vocabulary. They use living, breathing language, not robotic conversations that have been specifically created for ESL learners. That means that your students will be able to pick up lots of new words, whether they’re technical terms, slang phrases or just words that you’d never thought to teach before.

Fuel Discussion

The best thing about TED Talks is their interesting subject matter. That means that when you use them in your lessons, you can turn them into debate classes by having students share their thoughts about what they saw and heard.

Either allow organic conversations to take place amongst the whole class, or split students into teams and assign them “sides” of the issue to discuss and defend.

Watch TED talks with full immersion  

TED talks can get difficult, depending on the topic. If you want to provide your students with some additional support, you can use a program like FluentU where they can watch native videos like TED talks, vlogs, movie clips and other authentic content with interactive subtitles. 

Students can click on these subtitles at any time they get stuck on a word or phrase. You can also print out complete transcripts for your students or access them online for similar interactive features.

Your students can learn with FluentU videos and complete the accompanying exercises and quizzes. Their progress is recorded and their scores go straight to your dashboard, so you can see how everyone is doing.



Teaching English isn’t just about having English material for class.

It’s about inspiring your students to study more, learn more and speak more English.

That’s why TED Talks are great ESL teaching tools.

It can be hard to get your students energized and excited at times, but with these lessons, you can inject some motivation into your classes and get your students more motivated to learn English.

Maybe you’ll even end up hosting your very own TED Talk about teaching English someday!

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