Tech for Teachers
Wonderful Word Clouds
ASCD Express's Tech for Teachers column is written by guest columnist Jason T. Bedell, who uses both text and a tutorial video to encourage teachers to infuse technology into their practice in simple but meaningful ways to help increase student engagement and learning.
Tagxedo is a Web 2.0 tool that allows people to create word clouds. Word clouds visualize textual data so that an image depicts the size of the words in proportion to how many times they appear in a text.
For example, the word cloud below represents an article about teachers using social bookmarking, social networking (Twitter), and blogging to help students.
Word Cloud Example
Looking at this word cloud, you can quickly see that the words Twitter, people, bookmarks, blogs, students, and teachers were used the most. The cloud gives the viewer an overview of the article's focal points.
I like Tagxedo because it allows users to analyze more types of web data and represent it in more ways than many of its competitors, such as Wordle, ABCya, and WordItOut. For example, Tagxedo can analyze a blog feed, a website, original writing, news topics, and more. The user can also choose from a variety of image shapes for free, whereas other word cloud sites typically charge a fee for this feature.
Visualizing Writing Priorities
As a former English teacher, I think one of the best uses of this tool is to help students reflect on and refine their writing, and Tagxedo allows far more choices of colors, fonts, themes, layouts, and options for saving and sharing finished word clouds.
Visually representing their writing can benefit students in several ways. Here are a few that I have used with my English students in the past.
First, taking a step back from the writing and looking at the picture of it as a whole makes it easier for students to realize which words they are overusing or relying on too heavily, because the size of a word-cloud word is proportionate to its use.
Second, one skill that some of my students were having trouble with was keeping their writing focused on a topic. Looking at a word cloud of their writing, we could see and discuss which subtopics they covered adequately, which they did not cover at all, and which they discussed but that were not related to the main theme.
Obviously, a close reading of the text can also develop these revision skills. In that sense, external tools are not strictly necessary. However, when we recognize that students learn differently and might benefit from approaching writing using a different modality, we see that word clouds can help students analyze their writing visually—and in an engaging and novel way.
Tagxedo can also help in teaching literature. So many of the works taught in the classroom are available for free online in places such as Project Gutenberg. It is simple to just copy and paste the text from a book or short story into Tagxedo. Depending on the type of work, you can use a word cloud to analyze the text for a theme or topic.
Triggering Class Discussions
Similarly, in social studies students could use the news and Twitter search functions to look at important current events. The first word cloud below, resulting from President Obama's Twitter account, shows the various topics that he has been publicly addressing through his feed.
President Obama's Twitter Word Cloud
The second cloud, derived from a Tagxedo search on the word "election," shows what is currently being discussed on the web about the presidential election. I chose to make this word cloud in the shape of the United States; depending on the topic, presenting a word cloud in the shape of a specific image can contribute to creating or finding meaning.
Election Word Cloud
Both of these word clouds could make great class conversation starters about current presidential politics or the democratic process.
Finally, the most frequent way that I use Tagxedo is also the most simple. Often I like to start class with a question that will prompt students' thought and discussion. After giving students time to think, I will have them type in or share an idea and collect their input in Tagxedo, creating a depiction of what the class as a whole is thinking about that morning. The results can serve as the foundation for a stimulating discussing.
For example, I am starting an online school newspaper with my 5th grade students. They were excited about the idea but not many are avid newspaper readers. We used Tagxedo as a way to brainstorm about what types of things are written in a newspaper and then used that as a starting point to discuss what would be relevant to include in our own newspaper.
Thoughtful technology integration in education can make the curriculum so much more accessible to many students and allow them to express themselves and their learning in ways that might not be possible without it.
Literacy is a key to all subjects, and although word cloud tools like Tagxedo alone may not revolutionize the classroom, they can open a door to help students understand, analyze, and unpack textual passages in a novel but meaningful way.
Jason T. Bedell is an instructional technology consultant and a library media specialist at Belmar Elementary School in New Jersey. He explores how effective technology integration can deepen student learning and make the school environment more student-centered.
ASCD Express, Vol. 7, No. 10. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.