How to plan an ESL lesson around a TED talk


If you’re an ESL teacher, then you’ve probably used TED talks in class once or twice before. Whether to provide variety, or simply to practice listening skills with authentic materials, these videos are great resources with endless teaching potential. Though there are plenty of ready-to-use, TED talk oriented lesson plans available online, sometimes you just want to cater to your students’ specific interests and language level and prepare one yourself. If that’s the case, here are five tips to help you create interesting, tailor-made lesson plans based on TED talks – or any other online video, for that matter.


1. Choose a relevant topic

Getting started is often the most difficult part of getting something done. When selecting a TED talk or video to base a lesson on, give yourself some time to browse. If you have a specific topic in mind (be it artificial intelligence, design or terrorism), try finding it on the list of topics on or use the search bar at the top right corner to see what comes up.

If, however, you’re running low on topic ideas or looking for a little bit of inspiration, either scroll down the main page to get to the newest (or trending) talks, or skim through TED’s various playlists, either by topic or video duration.

Another way to avoid an inspiration dry spell is to plan ahead: keeping a bookmark folder on your Internet browser designed specifically for lesson planning is a good way to never run out of ideas. And don’t forget, social media is your friend! Create a teaching board on Pinterest, divide it into subsections and start following other teachers. You’ll start receiving recommendations in no time. (For subsection ideas, you can also follow my teaching-themed Pinterest board).


2. Watch the first five minutes of the talk

Now that a particular title or description has piqued your interest, it’s time to give the video a go. I’ll be honest: on a good day, I hit the jackpot and find an interesting (and level appropriate) talk on my first try; but, nine times out of ten, it takes a while to find one that suits both my students’ interests and language level.

The most time-effective strategy is to watch the first five or so minutes of the video, just to get a general sense of the speaker’s vocabulary level, enunciation and speed. As you do this, keep your students’ overall level in mind: is the speaker too fast? Does he/she have a more pronounced accent that students could have trouble following, due to unfamiliarity?

Of course, no one’s stopping you from watching the whole TED talk and making a decision then. But I’d say it’s best to trust your instincts: if you’re unsure after the first five minutes, move on to another video. Time is money, people! Especially when you have Drag Race episodes on queue. (Or is it just me?)


3. Make the most of your time with effective prep notes

Speaking of time-saving tricks: if you take notes in a time-effective way, you only need to watch a full TED talk once to have enough material for a complete lesson plan. No, seriously.

Take a blank sheet of paper and divide it into two columns. As you watch, write down challenging vocabulary items or expressions on the right side, and content notes on the left. By the end of the video, you’ll have a list of essential words or expressions to pre-teach on the right and ideas for pre-viewing, comprehension or post-viewing questions/activities on the left. Here’s an example of the notes I made while prepping “How AI can enhance our memory, work and social lives” (click on the link for the full lesson plan).


I personally find that students have a harder time keeping up if the vocabulary list is more than fifteen items long. A challenging lesson can quickly turn into a frustrating one if you’re not careful, so use your common sense. Are there any challenging, yet non-essential, words or expressions that could be left out? Should area-specific vocabulary, e.g. medical, military, etc., be taught in a separate activity?


4. Create a lesson plan (finally!)

With your valuable notes in hand, it’s time to get creative. Design a lesson plan to fit your time constraints, making sure to include a warmer, a vocabulary pre-teaching activity, questions for guided viewing and a consolidation activity to wrap things up – by the end, you’ll have yourself a well-rounded, engaging lesson.

  • Warmers can both create interest and allow you to determine how much the students already know about the topic. You can do anything from word association, to vocabulary races, or guessing games – if you’re running short on ideas for interesting warmers, check out this page on
  • TED talks are often jam-packed with new and challenging vocabulary, so it’s best to pre-teach as much as you possibly can before showing the actual video. In doing so, students will be able to get the gist of it without the extra hurdles. Simply elicit the words or turn it into a game (like taboo or jeopardy), though this requires extra prep time. Here’s a handy resource with several vocabulary-based games to choose from.
  • Watching videos can easily become a passive activity, so make sure to always give your students at least two questions to guide their viewing. These should be straightforward and objective, enough for them to jot down some notes as they watch and not lose track of what is being said on screen.
  • After watching the video and asking students to share their notes and impressions, you can move on to a consolidation activity, if there’s time. This can be a debate or role-play, or even a quieter reading/writing activity that’s related to the lesson topic. Additionally, if there’s a particular grammar item the TED speaker makes repeated use of (e.g. conditionals, future forms, modals etc.), this stage could also have a grammar focus. The possibilities are endless.


For convenient, ready-made, TED talk based resources to draw inspiration from, check out my TED lesson plans, and these coursebooks.

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