Sunday, July 4, 2010

Word Clouds, Key Concepts and Historic Proclamations

Recently, a blogger sent me a link to Jonathan Feinberg's Wordle website, a free program that transforms raw text into seemingly endless stylized arrangements. Words are sized in proportion to how often they occur in the text.

To create this image of the Declaration of Independence (original text) I set Wordle to display a maximum of 60 words and to ignore common high frequency words (e.g., a, the, and, for). Then, I pressed "Randomize" repeatedly until I saw an arrangement I liked.

Teachers could use this type of word cloud to inform lesson planning, on the premise that recurring words might be important. (Vocabulary Brief offers more details on selecting words worth teaching).

A word cloud might also prompt conversations. Hopefully, peers would discuss patterns in word placement and linkages across words and in doing so would make associations across concepts. A word cloud might help students see the big picture and understand essential ideas. It is a type of concept map.

The Declaration of Independence proclaimed colonial liberty from English rule, and we celebrate this on the Fourth of July, but we need to remember another war and several more proclamations. In Texas especially and increasingly throughout the nation, Juneteenth is a day of celebration commemorating the abolition of slavery. This word appears to be a blend of June and nineteenth, named so because on the 19th of June, 1865, Union soldiers finally reached Galveston, Texas to proclaim the long war over, the slaves free. Imagine the shock, the tears, the jubilee. Note that the message did not reach the Gulf shores until two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. For nearly 150 years, former slaves and their descendants from the Galveston area have kept this day in living memory. On Juneteenth we can also celebrate the adoption and proclamation of the Thirteenth Amendment.

Along those lines, another proclamation of sorts: Here are the top 20 words in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (original text). If I were a history teacher, I could use this Wordle to decide which vocabulary words to pre-teach. We could discuss why Lincoln chose to return again and again to these particular words and why this speech was so effective.

Teachers might also use a word cloud to illustrate the value of word choice, the power of connotations, to foster word consciousness, and to help students monitor repetition in writing samples. Teachers and students might create and publish word clouds from coursework, famous poems, essays, speeches, short stories, etc. Thanks to open source texts (see Project Guttenberg, for example, or Page By Page Books) we can easily copy and paste text into any program that creates clouds. No need to insert the entire text--it can be interesting to see what comes of a few paragraphs.

This free technology is applicable to younger children, too. Readers may know the children's jingle, illustrated below. The riddle is only two sentences, so I did not exclude common English words. Click image to expand. 
Wordle: Chucking Wood
Enjoy the day!


  1. Anonymous7/07/2010

    Word clouds combine learning with art & literature, they pull us in by creating interest in the visual art of the word cloud itself while amplifying the general idea or intent behind the written word. This should be both fun and useful in the classroom. Thanks for sharing the web-site used for creating your word clouds. Good post.

  2. Yes, they do indeed "pull us in" as you say! They are interesting, yes? Interest is a motivator.

    I like your phrase about "amplifying the general idea or intent behind the word." If we can do that with complicated text and also motivate students towards deeper processing, we have done well.

    Thanks for the feedback.

  3. Just had to share something: The other day, a reader (Bob Maulucci) created a Wordle from the list of 20 most common prefixes in the English language. He used the advance features of the program to type in the frequency percentages for each prefix. Click the link to see the image in full size. It's fabulous!

  4. Recently, I heard from two bloggers who tried to post comments last week, about Wordle, and could not do so. I think Blogger was "experiencing technical difficulties" but at any rate, I am happy to know that so many people are enjoying the program.


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