At Comics in Education, we conceptualize visual narrative as a broader category than what we think of as traditional comics and graphic novels. Its implications and applications for the K-12 classroom are likewise also broader. Take, for instance, the three novels below whose first chapters are rendered as Wordles. It turns out that these tag clouds can generate some exciting activities:
Novel #1, Chapter 1
Novel #2, Chapter 1
Novel #3, Chapter 1
Think about the great thinking and problem-solving activities that students can engage in with these Wordles. They can be used as a pre-reading activity in getting students to consider what the works they are about to study might deal with. Consider the following:
You can see that activities during and after reading also suggest themselves, and that analyzing the word distributions here can be a fantastic springboard into a fuller investigation of the styles of the three authors.
No doubt, some of you are yelling at your laptop or handheld and calling out the names of the novels as you read this. If that's you, then Tweet your answers to me @teachingcomics or @GlenDowney. The first person to get all three correct will be immortalized for their victory in this very blog post!
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Using Wordle as an Analytical Tool Can Make a Big Difference!
In addition to using Wordle.Net to analyze poetry, music lyrics, and the like (to identify key words that serve to reveal prevailing themes, for example), wordles can be used to look at the completed draft of an essay and provide valuable information about it. Here are the top five things students should look for after putting their essay into a wordle.
1. The largest word in the cloud
Typically, the word "the" will be the largest word in the cloud. That's not surprising since it's the most common English word. In the example above, however, the student has written a personal reflection, so it's not surprising that "I" is the most frequently occurring. What students should make sure of, however, is that there isn't an unusual word that is the most frequently occurring because this will likely indicate the unnecessary repetition of a word in the paper. However, to do a proper check, the student must go to the language tab and tell Wordle.Net not to remove commonly occurring words. The Java program removes them in its default setting.
2. The relative distribution of words
Other than commonly occurring words like "a," "the," and some of the basic pronouns and conjunctions, the other words in the essay should have a distribution about them that makes sense. If the name of the book a student is writing about is a bit larger than the other "less common" words in the cloud, that makes sense. However, if such a word is dominating the wordle, it's a source for concern. The more evenly distributed words are in a wordle in terms of their size, the more likely that the student has found an acceptable balance in his or her use of diction in the essay.
3. The size of the word "and."
If the student cannot see the word "and" in the wordle cloud, this is a big problem. It means one of two things: (1) The student has used primarily simple sentences with few coordinating conjunctions and has likely written a very stilted essay, or (2) The student has constructed a significant number of comma splices and/or run-on sentences.
4. The size of the word "because"
If the word "because" is very tiny or virtually invisible in the cloud after the student cuts and pastes in a persuasive essay, this is also a big problem. The word "because" is one that we use when we are attempting to prove or explain something. Without it, how is the student effectively making their case? How are they proving or explaining what needs to be proven or explained?
5. The use of the verb "to be"
Younger writers who are still developing tend to overuse forms of the verb "to be." If words like "is," "was," "were," and "are" seem very large in comparison to the next most frequently occurring verbs, there can be a significant issue. The student should reread their paper and try to find better and more appropriate verbs when these are called for.
It was great to present these ideas at CITE2014, and to talk about the application of other technologies to benefit student writing. If you couldn't make it to the workshop, here's the handout!
Tag Clouds Are Powerful Learning Tools that Draw upon the Power of the Visual!
One thing that comics taught me was the power of a visual medium to tell me something that I needed to know about a story, its plot, its characters, and how to make meaning of a narrative. It also got me thinking that other visual devices must be similarly effective, even when applied to other kinds of texts. I had also always been fascinated by Discourse Analysis, a branch of literary and textual studies that examines how discourse unfolds in everything from a series of comic books to a website devoted to spoiler updates about that series of comic books!
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.
2. Once you hit "Go," Wordle will take the student's text and create a word or tag cloud out of it. By looking closely at the Wordle, a student can glean a lot of information!
So What Is This Important Information?
Before we get to that, make sure that the student goes to the Language tab and clicks on "Remove Common English Words" so that it is unchecked. This will allow the student to see all of the words in the Wordle. Now get the student to find the important information about his or her writing below:
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!
Dr. Glen Downey is an award-winning children's author, educator, and academic from Oakville, Ontario. He works as a children's writer for Rubicon Publishing, a reviewer for PW Comics World, an editor for the Sequart Organization, and serves as the Chair of English and Drama at The York School in Toronto.
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