Advanced Listening and Vocabulary Development

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TED Talks


Below are groups of TED Talks, curated from and organized roughly by level and topic. You should do a full group (divided across several sessions if desired) and see if the integration makes them easier to understand (especially the later ones).  Be sure to interact with them--don't just watch all of them straight through. However, you can do all or parts of some more intensively than others. Use your best judgment, and return to previous class notes as needed. Note that you are provided with the following information about the talk:

  1. length

  2. the overall speed in words-per-minute (WPM)

  3. the vocabulary profile by percent of words at set frequency levels of the British National Corpus (3K, 5K, 10K, and more than 20K (off-list=OL))

  4. Accent (US, British, etc.)


  6. Brief description of the content (from the TED website)

Depending on your vocabulary level and knowledge of the field, you should look for 95% or more coverage (e.g., if you think you know about 95% of the first 5000 words of the British National Corpus (see, then material at or above that percentage for 5K should be a good fit)

Please remember to pick just one group at a time and listen to all the videos in the order in which they appear. Use subtitles and transcripts as needed to support specific objectives.

NOTE: The final group below (Being Green, added 3/1/15) uses the new Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA-25) at and only provides 3K and 5K results as these seem to be the most useful.

Group 1: Creativity. Overall time 38:35

1. Gever Tulley: "Gever Tulley teaches life lessons through tinkering."

  1. length: 4:08

  2. overall speed (WPM): 91

  3. vocabulary profile: 3K-91.4%; 5K-95.4%; 10K-97.9%; OL-1.3%

  4. accent: US standard

  5. comments: Short, clear speech, but with some good vocabulary to learn.

  6. Gever Tulley uses engaging photos and footage to demonstrate the valuable lessons kids learn at his Tinkering School. When given tools, materials and guidance, these young imaginations run wild and creative problem-solving takes over to build unique boats, bridges and even a roller coaster!

2. Andy Hobsawm: "Do the green thing."

  1. length: 3:25

  2. overall speed (WPM): 135

  3. vocabulary profile: 3K-92.2%; 5K-95.1%; 10K-98.2%; OL-1.5%

  4. accent: British standard

  5. comments: “great creativity” is repeated a number of times

  6. Andy Hobsbawm shares a fresh ad campaign about going green -- and some of the fringe benefits.

3. Adora Svitak: "What adults can learn from kids"

  1. length: 8:13

  2. overall speed (WPM): 154

  3. vocabulary profile: 3K-94.2%; 5K-96.6%; 10K-98.4%; OL-1.2%

  4. accent: US standard

  5. comments: the speaker is just 12 years old

  6. Child prodigy Adora Svitak says the world needs "childish" thinking: bold ideas, wild creativity and especially optimism. Kids' big dreams deserve high expectations, she says, starting with grownups' willingness to learn from children as much as to teach.

4. Amy Tan: "Creativity."

  1. length: 22:49

  2. overall speed (WPM): 164

  3. vocabulary profile: 3K-96.5%; 5K-97.6%; 10K-98.8%; OL-0.6%

  4. accent: US standard

  5. comments: tells stories about her life; references to quantum mechanics

  6. Novelist Amy Tan digs deep into the creative process, looking for hints of how hers evolved.

Group 2: Humor. Overall time 39:13

1. Colin Robertson: "A TED speaker's worst nightmare"

  1. length: 3:50

  2. overall speed (WPM): ~90 during the short time he is talking

  3. vocabulary profile: 3K-92.2%; 5K-97.1%; 10K-97.1%; OL-2.9%

  4. accent: US standard

  5. comments: discusses "crowdsourcing": outsourcing tasks to a large group of people, such as customers or volunteers

  6. Colin Robertson had 3 minutes on the TED stage to tell the world about his solar-powered crowdsourced health care solution. And then...

2. Twirlr: "Gel: Gotta share"

  1. length: 3:20

  2. overall speed (WPM): 110

  3. vocabulary profile: 3K-90.3%; 5K-91.1%; 10K-91.4%; OL-7.6%

  4. accent: US standard

  5. comments: Most of the off-list items are references to various social sharing applications (Twitter, Facebook, Vimeo, Myspace, FourSquare, Tumblr, Reddit, Digg, Skype...), so this is easier to understand if you are familiar with them.

  6. At the onstage introduction of Twirlr, a new social-sharing platform, someone forgets to silence their cell phone. And then ... this happens.

3. Charlie Todd: "The shared experience of absurdity"

  1. length: 12:04

  2. overall speed (WPM): 172

  3. vocabulary profile: 3K-94.7%; 5K-97.1%; 10K-98.4%; OL-1%

  4. accent: US standard

  5. comments: this is connected to the previous two talks; speech is fast at times

  6. Charlie Todd causes bizarre, hilarious, and unexpected public scenes: Seventy synchronized dancers in storefront windows, "ghostbusters" running through the New York Public Library, and the annual no-pants subway ride. In his talk, he shows how his group, Improv Everywhere, uses these scenes to bring people together.

4. Liza Donnelly: "Drawing on humor for change"

  1. length: 6:43

  2. overall speed (WPM): 152

  3. vocabulary profile: 3K-94.9%; 5K-98.4%; 10K-99.5%; OL-.5%

  4. accent: US standard

  5. comments: her cartoons illustrate the points she makes; references to growing up in the 1950s and 60s; glass ceiling

  6. New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly shares a portfolio of her wise and funny cartoons about modern life -- and talks about how humor can empower women to change the rules.

5. Jim Toomey: "Learning from Sherman the shark"

  1. length: 14:15

  2. overall speed (WPM): 167

  3. vocabulary profile: 3K-90.8%; 5K-94.5%; 10K-97.4%; OL-2%

  4. accent: US standard

  5. comments: names of fish and other ocean creatures are mentioned--try looking these up on Google images. He draws cartoons to support what he is talking about; see also

  6. Cartoonist Jim Toomey created the comic strip Sherman's Lagoon, a wry look at underwater life starring Sherman the talking shark. As he sketches some of his favorite sea creatures live onstage, Toomey shares his love of the ocean and the stories it can tell.


Group 3: The Brain.  Overall time 40:22


  1. length: 4:00

  2. overall speed (WPM): 182

  3. vocabulary profile: 3K-94.3%; 5K-96.4%; 10K-97.9%; OL-3.2%

  4. accent: US standard

  5. comments: there is a reference at the beginning of shrinking a ship and injecting it into the bloodstream, see:; fMRI = functional magnetic resonance imaging--a way to view the brain in action.

  6. Neuroscientist and inventor Christopher deCharms demonstrates a new way to use fMRI to show brain activity -- thoughts, emotions, pain -- while it is happening. In other words, you can actually see how you feel.


  1. length: 3:50

  2. overall speed (WPM): 160

  3. vocabulary profile: 3K-92.9%; 5K-94.2%; 10K-95%; OL-3.5%

  4. accent: US standard

  5. comments: key vocabulary - neurological, epidemic, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, cancer, incidence

  6. Biochemist Gregory Petsko makes a convincing argument that, in the next 50 years, we'll see an epidemic of neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer's, as the world population ages. His solution: more research into the brain and its functions.


  1. length: 14:30

  2. overall speed (WPM): 117

  3. vocabulary profile: 3K-92.3%; 5K-95%; 10K-96.6%; OL-3.2%

  4. accent: US standard

  5. comments: there are times when the speaker is quiet and the audience is viewing--actual speech rate is higher

  6. Al Seckel, a cognitive neuroscientist, explores the perceptual illusions that fool our brains. Loads of eye tricks help him prove that not only are we easily fooled, we kind of like it.


  1. length: 18:02

  2. overall speed (WPM): 150

  3. vocabulary profile: 3K-92.9%; 5K-95.3%; 10K-97.9%; OL-1.6%

  4. accent: US standard

  5. comments: very emotional story; key vocabulary = schizophrenic; stroke (of the brain)

  6. Jill Bolte Taylor got a research opportunity few brain scientists would wish for: She had a massive stroke, and watched as her brain functions -- motion, speech, self-awareness -- shut down one by one. An astonishing story.


Group 4: Being Green, with a Focus on Plastic.  Overall time 37:46


  1. length: 6:03

  2. overall speed (WPM): 181

  3. vocabulary profile: 3K-93.3%; 5K-96.0%

  4. accent: mixed New Zealand and US? (clear and accessible)

  5. comments: graphics provide good support for her points--be sure to watch and not just listen.

  6. In a short, funny, data-packed talk at TED U, Catherine Mohr walks through all the geeky decisions she made when building a green new house -- looking at real energy numbers, not hype. What choices matter most? Not the ones you think.


  1. length: 8:36

  2. overall speed (WPM): 190

  3. vocabulary profile: 3K-94.7%; 5K-97%

  4. accent: UK standard (London)

  5. comments: includes some useful restaurant vocabulary

  6. If you've been in a restaurant kitchen, you've seen how much food, water and energy can be wasted there. Chef Arthur Potts-Dawson shares his very personal vision for drastically reducing restaurant, and supermarket, waste — creating recycling, composting, sustainable engines for good (and good food).


  1. length: 10:49

  2. overall speed (WPM): 188

  3. vocabulary profile: 3K-95.6%; 5K-98%;

  4. accent: US standard

  5. comments: vocabulary is easy but parts are a bit fast

  6. Less than 10% of plastic trash is recycled -- compared to almost 90% of metals -- because of the massively complicated problem of finding and sorting the different kinds. Frustrated by this waste, Mike Biddle has developed a cheap and incredibly energy efficient plant that can, and does, recycle any kind of plastic


  1. length: 5:08

  2. overall speed (WPM): 181

  3. vocabulary profile: 3K-95.8%; 5K-96.2%

  4. accent: US standard

  5. comments: key vocabulary = 'gyre' means a spiral, but here it refers to massive “islands” of plastic trash that have collected in the ocean due to the action of currents

  6. Artist Dianna Cohen shares some tough truths about plastic pollution in the ocean and in our lives — and some thoughts on how to free ourselves from the plastic gyre.


  1. length: 7:10

  2. overall speed (WPM): 154

  3. vocabulary profile: 3K-86.5%; 5K-88.9%;

  4. accent: US standard

  5. comments: vocabulary is challenging in this, including slang like 'diddly squat' and 'girly man' (google these). About 6% of the words are proper names of people and places. Also, the speaker appears to be reading the full presentation rather than presenting from notes.

  6. Capt. Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation first discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — an endless floating waste of plastic trash. Now he's drawing attention to the growing, choking problem of plastic debris in our seas.


Last modified March 1, 2015, by Phil Hubbard