Verbs worth spreading or how I work with TED talks

I have inexplicably taken a special liking to verbs recently. What’s inexplicable is why recently. Verbs are a powerful part of speech and deserve special attention. In this post, I want to show how I bring powerful verbs to my students’ attention with the help of TED talks.

Verbs are one of the reasons why English is so easy to start speaking. I am talking about basic verbs, like do / get / have / make. You can often substitute any verb with one of these and construct a correct, meaningful sentence. However, as you move along in mastering the language, these verbs turn into an obstacle. Because you can express almost anything using the basic ones, your brain resists using any others. These are, after all, correct. As a result, you get trapped - you want to progress to the next level, but your language lacks any verbal variety whatsoever and sounds disappointingly simple.

But enough chit-chat. Let’s see some powerful verbs in action.

I work with TED talks a lot. I work with advanced students a lot. Here is what I started doing with both recently.

I choose a TED talk for my students, we watch and do the usual listening for gist / listening for detail stuff. But then I give them a portion of the talk with gaps and say, “Try to fill in the gaps from memory. All the missing words are verbs, by the way.” They remember the ideas so what happens is they come up with verbs that suit the sentences, but the verbs are 'bland', like do / get / have / make / give / say. We then listen to check and our jaw drops at the diverse verb choices the speakers go for. To make sure the verbs remain engraved on my students’ minds, I ask them to give me the main idea of the passage using the verbal phrases* from the talk. After a couple of such jaw-dropping exercises, my students are on the constant lookout for powerful verbs and even engineer them into their speech.

Now you try. Here is a ted talk by Ben Cameron “Why the live arts matter.” He is talking about the changes that live arts are undergoing due to technological progress. First, listen to the talk to get some context. Then read the two portions of the text and think of verbs you would use in the gaps. (Alternatively, you can try to fill in the gaps without listening first). Then listen to compare.

Portion 1 6:23-7:18

This double impact is occasioning a massive redefinition of the cultural market, a time when anyone is a potential author. Frankly, what we're seeing now in this environment is a massive time, when the entire world is changing as we move from a time when audience numbers are ________________________. But the number of arts participants, people who write poetry, who sing songs, who perform in church choirs, is ____________________ beyond our wildest imaginations. This group, others have called the "pro ams," amateur artists doing work at a professional level. You see them on YouTube, in dance competitions, film festivals and more. They are radically ___________________ our notions of the potential of an aesthetic vocabulary, while they are challenging and ________________________ the cultural autonomy of our traditional institutions. Ultimately, we now live in a world defined not by consumption, but by participation.

Portion 2 10:37-12:15

Especially now, as we all must confront the fallacy of a market-only orientation, uninformed by social conscience; we must seize and celebrate the power of the arts to ____________________ our individual and national characters, and especially characters of the young people, who all too often, are subjected to bombardment of sensation, rather than digested experience. Ultimately, especially now in this world, where we live in a context of regressive and onerous immigration laws, in reality TV that ___________________ on humiliation, and in a context of analysis, where the thing we hear most repeatedly, day-in, day-out in the United States, in every train station, every bus station, every plane station is, "Ladies and gentlemen, please ______________________ any suspicious behavior or suspicious individuals to the authorities nearest you," when all of these ways we are encouraged to _____________________ our fellow human being with hostility and fear and contempt and suspicion.

The arts, whatever they do, whenever they call us together, invite us to look at our fellow human being with generosity and curiosity. God knows, if we ever needed that capacity in human history, we need it now. You know, we're bound together, not, I think by technology, entertainment and design, but by common cause. We work to ______________________ healthy vibrant societies, to ______________________ human suffering, to ____________________ a more thoughtful, substantive, empathic world order.

How many verbs did you get right? Did you come up with some powerful verbs? Was your verb use diverse?

*I am focusing on verbs in this post, but verbs should be memorized as part of a phrase, in combination with a noun. I have highlighted the examples of such phrases in Ben Cameron’s talk.


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