You can use a TED talk without the sound – try it!

A simple hack to control language level
In the first post of this blog series TED Talks work for all levels: Try it!, I talked about how TED Talks can be used in the classroom for students at any level, as long as the activities that support them are level-appropriate. I suggested choosing TED Talks with lots of good visual information, and pointed out that students can learn plenty of English even if they don’t understand everything a speaker says.

In this post, I’d like to talk about a simple way to control the level of the language input that a video provides – by turning the sound off. When TED Talks are such an obvious way to practice listening, it may seem odd to do away with that element of a lesson, but think about it: one reason video is great for the language classroom is the pictures. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a moving image must be worth ten thousand. Many TED Talks are visually rich – full of language even if you aren’t listening to someone speak.

You can use a silent video to elicit language that learners already know simply by asking them to say what they see. Or you can turn a silent video into an information gap by having one student in a pair sit with his or her back to the monitor while the other student explains the images. The students who didn’t see the video then work together to describe it, based on what their partner said.

An example from a coursebook
Keynote 1 (A1–A2), unit 2 features Jessi Arrington’s TED Talk “Wearing nothing new.” In the talk, Jessi describes her love of second-hand clothes, and shows pictures of some of her favorite outfits. The book doesn’t suggest watching the talk without the sound first, but a very easy first step would be to show the first minute of the talk in silence, and to ask learners simply to say what they see, and then to guess the topic of the talk. The lesson has students match short descriptions of outfits from the talk with pictures, and then to reflect on the question of whether you need to spend a lot of money to look great – a low-level critical thinking activity.


Try this!
Choose a short TED Talk or part of a longer talk and with your students, watch it with the sound off. Use the images to elicit from learners the language they already know, and to teach new language – even words that the speaker doesn’t actually say. Choose your own TED Talk or use one (or more) of these: Sanjay Dastoor: A skateboard, with a boost (4:20); Yves Rossy: Fly with Jetman (14:48); Zaria Forman: Drawings that show the beauty and fragility of Earth (7:14); Shao Lan Hsueh: Learn to read Chinese … with ease! (6:10). Remember, even with the sound off, a TED Talk is full of language. Have fun with it!

Lewis Lansford is a co-author of National Geographic Learning’s Keynote and Perspectives which both feature TED Talks. Through National Geographic Learning’s partnerships with National Geographic and TED, students develop the language and skills they need to develop their own voice in English, and to be successful global citizens and leaders.

Join us on October 25th for a webinar presented by Lewis Lansford and TED Speaker Hetain Patel.

Register here: Identity, voice and collaboration: Tips for bringing big ideas from TED Talks into the classroom


Author: Lewis Lansford

Lewis got his first taste of teaching English in Barcelona in the late 1980s. The experience inspired him to get a Master’s in TESOL, after which he taught at a university language center in Arizona and then a manufacturing company in Japan. In 1995, he took an editorial job with a major publisher in Hong Kong developing materials for Asia, and in 1997 became a freelance editor, project manager and writer in the UK. He has worked on books, videos, tests, audio materials, worksheets, apps and online materials for English learners of all ages across the world. Lewis is an author for National Geographic Learning’s Keynote and Perspectives series.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.