Thursday, 30 January 2014

Word clouds: a great way to focus on form?

Podcasting, as illustrated by MyBrainshark, the topic of my last post, clearly has a lot of pedagogic potential and I'm pretty enthusiastic about it just now.

In today's post, though, I'd like to look at the idea of "Word clouds" and their potential to help language teachers focus learner attention on vocabulary and language forms. The first tool I'd like to review is Wordle, a free Internet-based application which allows you to input texts and then generate "word clouds" based on them. 

So here is one I prepared earlier, based on the transcript from the podcast I gave last time:

I've chosen to display words horizontally, but several display options exist (e.g. vertically, 50/50, "any which way"). I've also reduced the number of words shown from the 150 most common within the overall text to the top 30. This gives the key words from the test the greatest visual prominence; the most frequently occurring words are the largest of all. A significant variety of fonts, layouts and colour schemes for background and text is also available.

Relevance and rationale
Reading activities in ELT textbooks are often preceded by a short introduction focusing learner attention on the topic, topic vocabulary, or both. Wordle makes it easy for teachers to do the same with authentic texts in a way that is visually appealing.

Compared with a number of other tools, an advantage worth noting is that the images generated by Wordle are essentially yours: you don't need to sign up for an account or provide an e-mail address in order to use to the tool.

Propensity to promote language learning
In its basic form, Wordle is easy to use, and that's a definite plus for teachers who can experiment until they find designs that best suit their purposes. It's visually appealing, too: much better, you might argue, than a mere word list for teaching vocabulary! In a separate post which also looks at other "word cloud" tools, Shelly Terrell suggests ways in which phrases may be grouped together for such a purpose, or even overlaid on an image.

Wordle can also support reading lessons, as Russell Stannard points out. Word clouds can be used for the purposes of predicting what a text will be about. You can also elicit from students what they think key words mean. At higher ability levels, you can also use the tool to help students look for dominant motifs in "serious" discourse (see Teachers First for this, and other more challenging suggestions).

Russell is also right to point out that Wordle can also be used to support peer review of students' writing. It may help raise awareness of how the use of synonyms and a greater variety of language can improve one's style.

There are a few limitations, unfortunately. Once a "wordle" has been created, you cannot really modify the words; "randomizing" the design also does not allow you to go back to what you had earlier.

In addition, you cannot specify the canvas size or shape using the tool. Posters (e.g. Glogster) or web pages such as this blog may require more flexibility. I did find a way round this problem using a combination of Jing and Screencast to get the image shown here the size I wanted it, but I had to teach myself how to use another tool to achieve the end result.

Overall, though, Wordle looks like a good tool and worth using in a number of ways to focus learner attention on key words in texts you're showing them or in their own compositions. It doesn't have the "thesaurus" capability of Wordsift (another good tool), but it's a colourful way to do something akin to concordance analysis and looks nice: used well, I believe it can engage learners. I'd like to give it a try next time I have the opportunity.


  1. Really enjoyed this entry Philip. I came to the same conclusion, and really enjoyed the logical layout of the entry as well as your writing style, that goes for the whole blog as well, keep it up!

  2. Cheers, Chris! I also like the way you've been putting your blog together. I'll try and leave a comment or two once I've caught up with you.