Using Word Clouds in the Classroom

Karen M. Bromley

Words are the essential building blocks of comprehension and cognition. Research shows that students who have broad vocabularies achieve better scores on standardized tests and classroom assessments than students who have limited vocabularies (NAEP, 2011; Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986). These findings are reflected in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS, 2011) in which vocabulary is considered basic to reading, writing, speaking, and listening, as well as other forms of language use. At the heart of the standards is the ability to read complex texts and learn from content materials, so acquiring general vocabulary and content-specific words is critical for students learning content and achieving the standards. The K-12 standards specifically require students to be able to acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases and to demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge.

Today technology, including digital media, has increasingly important roles both in and out of the classroom. Thus all students need opportunities to become proficient at using electronic tools (Lapp, Moss, & Rowsell, 2012). Like vocabulary, technology is one of the basic elements of the CCSS. The standards require K-12 students to use technology and media strategically and capably to enhance their language use in all forms and on all levels.

Students in Grades K-5 should explore and use a variety of digital tools to produce and publish writing. Students in Grades 3-5 should be able to add visual displays in presentations. Students in Grades 4-12 should be able to use the Internet to produce and publish writing and should demonstrate command of keyboarding skills.

Thus both vocabulary and technology are important elements of the CCSS. This tip introduces an internet site that allows students to develop their vocabulary, technology, and presentation skills by creating word clouds.

Word clouds have great potential for motivating students to use technology and develop their vocabularies (Bromley, 2012). A word cloud is a collection of words related to a particular concept that have been taken from a text on the topic. The words in the cloud differ in print size, giving greater prominence to words that appear more frequently. You have probably seen a word cloud on the internet or in newspapers, magazines, or other print media.

You can make word clouds at Wordle (www.wordle.net), a free internet program that converts text into a piece of digital word art. For example, I created a word cloud by cutting and pasting the text from this article into Wordle (see Figure 1). I chose the font Kenyan Coffee and the horizontal layout. Looking closely at the cloud, you can see that the program uses only the longer subject-specific words that are key to understanding the text, omitting common English words like a, and, and the.

Figure 1. This word cloud shows the vocabulary I used to write this article.

Wordle allows students to experiment with words and manipulate technology in several ways. Students can tweak their clouds with 33 different fonts; upper or lowercase letters; layouts including horizontal, vertical, or combinations of the two; and various color schemes. Especially useful for English language learners, the site creates word clouds in different languages. Students can print the images they create, save the images either to their own computer or to the Wordle Gallery to share with others, or use their word clouds on blogs, T-shirts, or wallpaper. Making a word cloud is easy, just go to www.wordle.net and follow these steps:

  1. Click on the Create tab at the top of the page.
  2. Paste your text in the box or type something directly in the text box.
  3. Click Go or Submit to configure your cloud with a specific design and color scheme.
  4. Change the design of the word cloud by clicking Randomize or another option.
  5. Customize it by using the Font, Layout and Color tabs above the word cloud.
  6. Save your word cloud to your computer or the Wordle Gallery and then print it.

Word clouds help students reinforce and learn key vocabulary. Students can create word clouds that identify important words on topics they are studying in science and/or social studies. To do this, students need to cut and paste a famous speech or a section of their subject area text into the Wordle box and watch the program display the important words. Word clouds allow students to see how an author uses language: for example, which words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, and/or adverbs) the author uses most and least often. From the resulting word cloud, students can then write their own poem, notes, report, or essay using the key vocabulary identified in the word cloud.

Students can also input their own writing. They might choose to input a report on a specific topic, a biographical sketch of an important figure in history, or a description of a character in a book. Used this way, the word cloud can become a self-assessment tool for students as they see how they use and/or overuse certain words in their writing. Of course, when they input their own writing students must be aware of and use standard spelling to make an accurate word cloud.

Completed word clouds can add interest and content to a presentation or other type of school project. For example, Tori, a third grader, researched eagles in science and gave a presentation to her class using a word cloud she created from a short selection on eagles (see Figure 2). Tori chose the Telephoto font and a vertical layout. She gave all her classmates a copy of the word cloud and had them underline and pronounce the five largest words and circle the five smaller words in the next highest group as she gave definitions and used the words in sentences. This involvement gave the class an opportunity to practice identifying words, pronouncing them, and connecting a meaning to each word. Class members also had a copy of the key vocabulary on eagles to study and/or use in their writing.

Figure 2. Tori, a third grader, used this word cloud as a handout when she gave a report to her class on eagles.

As well as supporting students in their word learning, writing, and presenting, you can use word clouds in a variety of other ways to enhance your instruction. The visual displays of words you create for use in pre-reading and post-reading lessons can promote your students’ word recognition, usage, definitions, and standard spelling. For example, to review material from a previously read selection, create a word cloud yourself and use it to reinforce key vocabulary. Or use a word cloud to introduce key vocabulary before students read a selection. Word clouds also make interesting bulletin board displays and can be helpful references for your students in their writing. They can be used as interesting gifts for parents or other family members when students use their own words to describe a particular person, place, or thing. For more ways to use word clouds in your instruction, visit "45 Interesting Ways to Use Wordle in the Classroom" (http://edudemic.com/2010/07/45-interesting-ways-to-use-wordle-in-the-classroom/).

Word clouds are a motivating and creative way to involve students in identifying and learning key vocabulary as they use technology to explore language use. Word clouds are a unique way to enhance instruction and engage students as they have fun with words. Challenge your students to try them!

Karen Bromley is a Distinguished Teaching Professor at SUNY Binghamton and a former member of the IRA Board of Directors. Her most recent book is The Next Step in Vocabulary Instruction: Practical Strategies and Engaging Activities That Help All Learners Build Vocabulary and Deepen Comprehension(Scholastic, 2012).

References

Bromley, K. (2012). The next step in vocabulary instruction. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Common Core State Standards Initiative.(2011). Implementing the common core state standards. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/

45 interesting ways to use Wordle in the classroom. Retrieved from http://edudemic.com/2010/07/45-interesting-ways-to-use-wordle-in-the-classroom/.

Lapp, D, Moss, B., & Rowsell, J. (2012). Envisioning new literacies through a lens of teaching and learning. The Reading Teacher, 65(6), 367-377.

National assessment of educational progress (NAEP). (2011). The nation’s report card. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/.

Stahl, S. A., & Fairbanks, M.M. (1986). The effects of vocabulary instruction: A model-based meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 56(1), 72–110.

Wordle. Retrieved from www.wordle.net.