Not only do word clouds look pretty, there are also a number of ways they can be used in the ELT classroom to help our students learn. In this post we’re going to be looking at how.
Now, there are lots of word cloud generators out there such as wordle and tagxedo. However, not all these tools were created equal: there are word clouds and then there are word clouds! One which really caught my eye recently is Wordsift, created by Kenji Hakuta of Stanford University.
What’s the basic premise of a word cloud? Well, it’s an image made up of the words used in a text with the size of each word indicating its frequency in the text it was drawn from. A quick glance at the word cloud on the right reveals that ‘freedom’ is the most common word in the text and you can probably guess which famous speech these words come from. Word clouds are quick to make: copy the text, paste it into the generator and let the program do the rest.
Let’s think about how we might use a word cloud in our ELT classes. Pasting in a text we are about to read is an option, but only if we have a digital copy. The transcripts from a listening exercise or even a video exercise are another possibility. Before diving into an exercise we normally start with a warmer and a common warmer is to have students make predictions. Promoting speculation is good practice in general: it gives students a reason to read or listen, namely to check their predictions and it also generates vocabulary. This word cloud was made with the transcript from a video: any idea what it’s going to be about? Which words make you think that? *Answers at the bottom of the page!
What else could we do? At lower levels we might ask our students the words they know: better than starting with the words they don’t. What about asking students to explain links between words: how could training be torture? Maybe we could get pairs of students up to play splat up on the board (to check the vocab they know): splat the opposite of failure! Splat a synonym of start! Knowing what the keywords are, a teacher might consider pre-teaching some of them to make the reading/listening/video exercise easier to follow, though we should of course be judicious here as we want our students to develop strategies to deal with unknown words too. Once students have done the listening activity or read the text they will have heard or seen the words in context: why not get them to make a lexical set, improving their ability to talk about a given topic.
The activities above could be used with most word clouds, but what does Wordsift bring to the table? One of the features I really liked, was providing all contexts any given word appeared in a list. I myself had forgotten how many ways ‘just’ could be used! It’s a quick way of drawing our students’ attention to how the same word can have multiple meanings.
We can also open out this box so that we see where the same word appears in the text: in case we want to look at the wider contexts around the word to work out the meanings.
If we click on any of the words in the cloud, the link to the Visual thesaurus gives us a number of related words, antonyms and synonyms – useful for broadening our students’ vocabulary in general. And of course, getting the questions right in a reading exercise often depends on our students spotting opposites or synonyms.
Wordsift also links to google images and videos whenever we click on a word. Can our students identify the word from the picture? Which picture best represents the word?
Overall it’s a great tool with lots of useful features. Why not try it yourself? Think about this article: what were the key words and concepts? Does wordsift agree? Highlight the text from the article, paste it into the generator and find out!
*The cloud was made with a video transcript from the Speakout series and the video is about the rise of the British tennis player, Andy Murray.
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