Tag Clouds Are Powerful Learning Tools that Draw upon the Power of the Visual!
At www.wordle.net, however, you can find an immensely powerful visual tool. Now if you've worked in education you've seen these over and over again. No doubt your state or provincial governing bodies for education have distributed materials containing tag clouds like the one above that contain key terms. In these clouds, words that appear more frequently are larger in size. As it turns out, though, there is significant application in the English classroom for these.
Here's something you can try (actually, you should have your students do this as a regular habit):
1. Prior to submitting an essay or writing assignment, have students cut and paste the assignment into a Wordle. The students go to www.wordle.net (they can also use the website Tagxedo, but Wordle is quick and effective). The student cuts and pastes their writing by clicking on the Create tab.
So What Is This Important Information?
- Have them look at the largest words in their Wordle. Are the words what they would expect them to be (i.e. "the," "a," "of," "to," etc.)? Chances are these will be the most common words, along with perhaps the name of an author or work they are discussing. However, if there is an unusual word that is among the largest, this could be a potential problem (e.g. words like "would," "did," "happens," "fact," etc.). Having a great number of iterations of these slightly less common words might indicate they are being significantly overused by the student.
- Get them to look for the words "and" and "because." If they can't see them in the Wordle or they are very tiny, then chances are what the student has written consists of several simple sentences. When kids find this happening, they should check their work to see if there is sufficient sentence-length variety and not a succession of short stilted sentences.
- Generally speaking, have the student look for relative word distribution in their writing. To show them what this means, get them to put the lyrics of a folk song from someone like Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan, or Joni Mitchell in a Wordle. Then have them take a look at "Halo" by Beyonce. They'll quickly be able to see how dominant the word "Halo" is in the latter's song, and how in ballads and songs that tell stories, the words are much more evenly distributed.
Try this great visual activity with your students and let me know how it goes. Watch, too, to see if some of the "language" of talking about Wordles begins to rub off on how they talk to one another about their writing during peer editing and revision sessions (e.g. "I notice in your Wordle that you use the words `due' and `fact' a lot; you might be saying `due to the fact that' too much and should replace it with `because'"). In my experience of using this activity, I find that their language will start to change a bit!