You can use a TED Talk without looking at the picture – try it!

In my previous post, I wrote about playing TED Talks without the sound as a simple hack to control language level. But what happens if we leave the sound on and turn off the pictures? Does that have the opposite effect and raise the level of the input? Not necessarily. As teachers, we’re in the habit of assuming that listening input is, by definition, spoken language. However, especially at lower levels, we can go beyond spoken language and make use of a wider range of input – music, background noises at various locations, or other non-verbal sounds. In the same way that images are full of language even when you’re not hearing or reading English, audio material, too, is full of language that we can activate in class.

Remember, input doesn’t, in itself, have a level. Teachers and materials writers control the level by controlling the activity that learners do in response to the input. Imagine, for example, playing a bit of a Shakespeare play, a newscast, and the coverage of a football match. All three might be considered high level, difficult listening. But what if the task is simply for students to say which is which? Without understanding a single word, listeners could use other clues to differentiate the three bits of input from one another.

An example from a course book

Keynote 1 (A1–A2), unit 4 features Tom Thum’s TED Talk The orchestra in my mouth. In the talk, Tom introduces himself and talks about his work, but parts of the talk are the music that Tom creates as a beatboxer, using his mouth to make sounds – not words, a microphone, and a digital recording device. The book doesn’t suggest listening to the talk without the images, but it does get the earners to engage not only with what Tom says, but also with the music he makes. The students listen and then talk about the type of music they hear, and also engage in the critical thinking activity of synthesis, comparing Tom’s music with the music they listened to in unit 1: Who do you think is more talented – Tom Thum or Sleep Man Banjo Boys? Discuss with your partner. This is based not on the spoken language input from the two TED Talks, but on the music.

Tom Thum Beatboxer, TED Speaker

Try this!

Choose a short TED Talk or part of a longer talk and with your students, and listen to it without looking at the images. What questions can you ask your learners about what they hear? In the case of Tom Thum, if you listen to 9:50–10:20, you might think it’s an actual jazz band. Students could name the instruments they hear, and come up with words such as audience, clapping, trumpet, music, jazz, etc. Other TED Talks that are interesting to listen to without watching: Julian Treasure: The 4 ways sound affects us (5:40); Daria van den Bercken: Why I take the piano on the road … and in the air (9:30). Remember, listening can include all kinds of sounds, not just spoken words. Have fun with it!


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.


  1. Very nice, practical, meaningful and usable!!!! Thank you so much for sharing your passion for teaching!

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