Improve your listening comprehension with TED

If you are learning English and you have never heard of TED Talks, you need to stop what you are doing take a look at it right now.  It is a fascinating collection of talks on a huge variety of subjects, each talk with subtitles in a number of different languages, and a transcript to follow with clickable links to navigate your way around the talk.  This makes it an excellent tool for improving your listening comprehension.

Tips for listening with TED.

If you are an advanced learner, all of the talks are accessible.  If you have a lower level, you may find that many of the talks are too long.  You used to be able to search for talks by length, but for some reason this function has been removed.  However, many of the short talks (under 6 minutes) have been tagged « short talk », and you can access a list here (or select view all tags/short talks from the home page).

An example:

One of my engineering students put me onto a short TED Talk entitled How to Start a Movement, by Derek Sivers. Let’s look at how you might use this video for a listening comprehension activity.

1. First activate the English subtitles

TED subtitles for listening comprehension

2. You can also view the whole transcript from the drop-down menu « show transcript ». This becomes especially useful when you want to focus on specific vocabulary in the talk.  For example, in this talk you will hear the word « guts ». After watching the video once you may want to go back to the point in the video where this word was used.  Simply  select ctrl + F (PC) or cmd + F (Mac), type « guts » in the « Find » field, and it will highlight every instance of the word in the transcript. To return to the exact point in the video, simply click on the word « guts », and it will return you to the right spot.

TED talks find key words

What can you do improve your listening skills with this talk?

Focus question:

What are the qualities of a good leader?

Make a list of the top ten qualities, thinking about good and bad leaders you have known.  Now watch the video, and make notes on the following question:

How do the principles in this talk relate to leadership?  What qualities of good leadership are mentioned?

You will notice that there are a number of idioms and phrasal verbs in this talk. For example:


  • to have the guts (courage and fortitude; nerve; determination; stamina)
  • lone nut (an eccentric person)
  • tipping point (the crisis stage in a process, when a significant change takes place)
  • to be part of the in-crowd (a group of people sharing similar interests and attitudes, producing feelings of solidarity, community, and exclusivity)
  • recap (short for recapitulate)
  • over-glorified (to honor with praise, admiration, or worship; extol.)
  • gain momentum

Phrasal verbs

  • stand out
  • stick with
  • join in

How are these expressions used in the talk (use the « find » function mentioned above to locate where in the talk they are used)?  Can you guess the meaning from the context?  If not, you can use a good online dictionary such as to check.

For further vocabulary work, watch the talk again, and make a list of no more than ten new words or expressions, under one of the following categories:

  • the ten words/expressions I find most interesting
  • ten words/expressions I didn’t understand
  • ten words/expressions that summarise the talk

For some writing practice, use the comments below. You could comment on the following:

The first follower is an underestimated form of leadership in itself.

  • Do you agree with this statement?
  • Do you think that leadership is over-glorified?
  • Would you revise any of the qualities of leadership that were mentioned in the beginning?

Finally, note that you can also download the talks to your hard drive for later viewing. This way you won’t have the option of using subtitles or the transcript, however.

Happy viewing!

For more articles related to listening comprehension:

How to use automatic captions to improve your listening skills.  There are many ways of using video clips to improve listening skills. YouTube automatic captions uses voice recognition algorithms to create subtitles.

To learn a language, listen to it first.   The best means to learn a language is through frequent exposure to its sound patterns, even if you haven’t a clue what it all means.

Ecrire un commentaire