A word cloud, also called a tag cloud, is a graphical representation of text data.  In a word cloud the more a word is used in a group of words or a document the larger it will appear in the graphic.  Below is an example of a cloud representation of the TLT Services website:

So how can word clouds be used to help students improve their writing and reading comprehension?  The written word is geared toward the verbal learning style.  Displaying text in a word cloud can allow the visual learners to see text in a whole new way.(1)  It also allows all learning styles to view the text in a different way.

Improve Writing:

Students can use word clouds to analyze their own writing.  By running the text of a paper through the cloud generator a student can easily see if the main points displayed in the cloud match the main points they hoped to cover or convey in their writing.  Dr. Chris Warnick, Assistant Professor in English,  uses word clouds to help students accomplish this goal.  Warnick says, “With Wordle (a word cloud generator), I ask students to run a draft of their essay through the program to identify their key terms.  Before the exercise, they write down what they think are their essay’s key terms and then they run it through Wordle, checking to see if the two match up.  If they don’t match up, they have to write about what steps they’ll take to make their essay more focused..Several students have told me they used these tools to draft and revise their essays, and not surprisingly these students tended to write stronger essays.”(updated 8/21): Jen Welsh, Assistant Professor in History, also uses tag clouds to improve writing.  Jen says, “I was introduced to Tag Crowd while I worked at the Writing Studio up at Duke; it was presented as one of the tools that would be useful for getting students (particularly first-year students taking the required writing seminar course) to think about their writing in a new way. It’s really difficult to get students to think about their drafts as _drafts_– one of the big high school-to-college transitions is moving away from the “write something, boom, done, turn it in” model. Tag clouds are really helpful as a tool that gets students to break their work down and see aspects that they could change. It’s also visually more interesting, which really helps make it a useful exercise for perceiving new things about what you’ve written. Putting a draft into a tag cloud means that you can see if the actual composition of your text matches what you want it to say (if it’s about the Mongols and Marco Polo, does the tag cloud reflect that– or are the most frequent words “road” and “Europe, or something like that). I’ve also found tag clouds to be useful in my own  work, for much the same reason. Putting your words into cloud form gets you looking at them from a new angle, which is terrific when you’ve been writing something for weeks and have lost perspective.”

Improve Reading Analysis:

Word clouds can be used to help all learning styles gain a better understanding of text by emphasizing the main points in an easy to understand graphic.(2)  Speeches, news articles, websites, book passages, etc. can be entered into the word cloud generator to generate a text analysis that can reveal biases, trends, keywords and concepts.  Students can also create word clouds from their own texts.  “They can see what words they use most often and perhaps then edit their text to include more synonyms, resulting in a more varied piece of writing.”(3)

Other Uses and Examples:

Writing Prompts:  Have the student paste in a chapter or a passage from their favorite book to generate a word cloud then write a story using the top 10 keywords.(3)  Many classics can be found digitally and for free at Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/) making it easy to copy and paste.

Understanding:  Present a word cloud at the beginning of a class or topic displaying vocabulary or terms from the topic.  Have the students speculate on the theme and identify words they don’t know. (3)  This is a great way to start conversation about a concept before it is covered.

Pre-Reading:  Prior to reading a chapter paste the text into a word cloud generator.  Ask the students to predict what the text is about.  It also allows them to identify the major themes of the chapter before they read.(3)  Of course, this only works if the text is digital and paste-able.

Character Analysis:  Type in 5-10 words into a cloud generator that describes the character.  Typing them more makes the word larger to indicate a stronger characteristic.(3)

Speech Analysis:  Create word clouds of inauguration speeches from the past 20 years and compare the main themes.  The New York Times has a wonderful timeline of word clouds to take you from Obama’s to Washington’s inaugural speeches.

Word Cloud Generators

If you think word clouds are a worthwhile endeavor you will need to choose a word cloud generator.  There are several available and all are online and free.  My favorite is Tagxedo followed by Wordle but I’ve included others so you can decide for yourself.

Tagxedo:  http://www.tagxedo.com/

  • This generator allows you to create a cloud from a URL (web address), Twitter ID, News keywords, Keyword search, RSS feed and copy and pasted text.  Once it is created there are multiple formatting options including text orientation, color, theme, and layout.  You can even create shapes, great for K-12 uses.   There are a lot of customizations.   You can keep or remove common words and can combine related words, remove numbers and set the maximum amount of words in the cloud.  You can also choose words to skip so they won’t appear in the final cloud.
  • The final cloud can be saved as an image, printed, saved to the gallery,  shared on Facebook and Twitter or on merchandise.
  • It is online, free and no account is required.

Wordle:  http://wordle.net/

  • This generator allows you to create a cloud from copy and pasted text, URL (web address), or an RSS feed.  Great for foreign languages.  You can remove common words from English as well as 29 other languages.  You can set the maximum amount of words in the cloud, remove numbers and can customize the look of the cloud including orientation, color, theme and layout.
  • The final cloud can be printed or saved to the public gallery but can’t easily be saved to the desktop as a graphic.
  • It is online, free and no account is required.

Wordsift:  http://www.wordsift.com/

  • This generator allows you to create a cloud from copy and pasted text only.  You cannot put in a URL (web address) or an RSS feed.  Wordsift generates a more utilitarian word cloud and appears to have a 50 word maximum regardless of the size of the text.  By default it filters the common words and you cannot seem to turn them back on.  However, for some needs and some students it provides an easy to read representation of the text and isn’t cluttered by all of the options in some of the other products.
  • The final cloud doesn’t appear to be easily shareable or printable.
  • It is online, free and no account is required.

Tag Crowd:  http://tagcrowd.com/

  • This generator allows you to create a cloud from copy and pasted text, a URL (web address) or from an uploaded file (.txt only) which is handy for paper evaluation.    You can choose the maximum number of words to show as well as typing in words to not show.  The cloud is again, rather utilitarian but very easy to read and the final product isn’t overshadowed by the formatting
  • The final cloud can be shared on Facebook, Twitter or Google+.  You can also embed it in a webpage, print it or save it as a PDF.
  • It is online, free and no account is required.

Tagulhttp://tagul.com/

  • This generator allows you to create word clouds in shapes but it requires a login account and it was very technical to use.
  • I didn’t like it at all and it didn’t offer anything of value that the other easier products offered.
  • It is online, free and requires you to sign up for an account and login.

As always, if you try one of these ideas or already use it in your class please let us know via the comments feature below.

References:

(1) Good Writing – Using Word Clouds to Determine the Main Point of an Essay, Jose M. Blanco, http://ezinearticles.com/?Good-Writing—Using-Word-Clouds-to-Determine-the-Main-Point-of-an-Essay&id=4750445

(2) Action Research: Using Wordles to Teach Foreign Language Writing, Melissa Baralt, Susan Pennestri, Marie Selvandin (June 2011), http://llt.msu.edu/issues/june2011/actionresearch.pdf

(3) Wordle, TED Teacher’s Network,  http://tedteachersnetwork.pbworks.com/w/page/30355297/Wordle

(4) Summer PD: New Teacher Boot Camp Week 1 – Using Wordle, http://www.edutopia.org/blog/new-teacher-boot-camp-wordle-lisa-dabbs

(5) Word Cloud Analysis of Obama’s Inaugural Speech Compared to Bush, Clinton, Reagan, Lincoln’s, Marchall Kirkpatrick (1/2009), http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/tag_clouds_of_obamas_inaugural_speech_compared_to_bushs.php

 

 

 

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