Friday, June 15, 2012

The Wonderful Ways of Using a Word Cloud

One of my most recent and enjoyable discoveries is word clouds.  Those not entirely familiar with them, may want to find this very interesting.  Word clouds are program-generated images that display the words within a specified text in proportion to how often each word comes up.  Ultimately, it visualizes according to size, the most common words within a text.  (Also, just to clarify, most of these programs will automatically remove prepositions and other such small structured words; some will allow you to put them back in).  Using a word cloud opens up opportunity to consider meaning and interpret the text differently than we might otherwise do.
Jefferon' s Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence

 An example I used recently was to compare the original draft of the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson to the finished draft that was signed in July 1776.  This proved a great example on numerous levels as it showed students how a text can change as something enters into a group process.  It also allowed for students to see tonal changes that they might not have seen otherwise.  The visualization of the text helps make connections that students might not otherwise been able to conceptualize.  

This has been a very useful tool in opening up discussion and helping students to see (as well as look for) patterns.  Usually, when students hit the wall with a hard or unfamiliar text, they grow resistant or just frustrated in trying to make sense of it.  However, word clouds offer a lifeline of ideas without necessarily "giving it away."  The word cloud gives a different view, but it does not give the students the answer on how to analyze a text, which is good.  It helps, but it doesn't do the work.

 The applicability of this tool can be addressed in many different disciplines such as history (consider using this for unlocking primary sources), literature (measuring symbolic value vs. word value), politics (all those speeches and texts to use), and even math (discussing probabilities, frequency, etc of word usage).  Not all word-cloud generators are the same and there are often restrictions to the length that you can play with them.  Two of the more popular word cloud generators are Wordle and Tagxedo.  
Final Draft of the Declaration of Independence

Worlde is a simple program than Tagxedo.  You can copy and paste a text or add a RSS feed, or enter a user name.  The generated word cloud can be manipulated in limited ways in for layout, font, color scheme, and choice of words, etc.  It's a very clean and simple tool for the neophyte and allows for the user to get accustomed to working with word clouds.  Tagxedo is a bit more robust.  You have a lot more options from the beginning, including using Twitter, RSS feeds, URLs, internet searches, and news.  Additionally, once the word cloud is created, you can reformat in numerous more ways than Wordle.  However, that being said, the fact that you can copy and paste a large chunk of text into Wordle rather than just use a website can be more useful to some people.

Regardless of which one you enjoy, I encourage you to try them out and let me know what your results were.  

Have you used word clouds before and to what effect?  How do you foresee word clouds being useful in your class?  What could a word cloud do to unlock your students understanding of the material?