5 Easy TED Talks for ESL Students to Listen To

Every ESL teacher has seen at least one TED Talk at this point.

It seems like there are millions of those videos out there.

And our colleagues never stop sharing them!

They cover every single topic you could imagine—technology, finances, personal growth, life inspiration, career development, language learning, teaching.

This massive collection of short videos shows people on stage at conferences around the world, talking about any subject they care about—as long as they’re experts in their fields, and as long as the subjects are compelling and engaging.

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.

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 there’s bound to be 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.

You don’t have to trawl through those thousands of TED Talk videos to find one that’s just right—we’ve done some of the work for you and provided some easy-to-understand TED Talks below.

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 Them on FluentU

TED talks can get difficult, depending on the topic. Provide your students with some additional support on the FluentU program, where native videos like TED talks, informative videos, vlogs, movie clips and other authentic content gets a learning boost.

The videos include interactive subtitles that students can click on any time they get stuck on a word or phrase. They also have complete transcripts that you can print out for them or access them online for similar interactive features.

When students 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.

FluentU can be just the program you need to take video learning to the next level and bring it both to the classroom and student homes. And since the content on the program is engaging, you might even find that students keep learning with FluentU beyond their assigned work.

ESL Talks! 5 Easy TED Talks for ESL Inspiration

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 into 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 languages 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 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.

How to Inspire Your Students with Easy TED Talks

It’s not just about having English material to play in class.

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

TED Talks can be incredibly inspirational.

That’s what makes them such 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!

Emma Thomas is an ESL teacher in Bangkok with more than five years of experience in teaching students of all ages. You can read more about her experiences as a teacher in Thailand at Under the Ropes.

Enter your e-mail address to get your free PDF!

We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe