The popularity of word clouds remains pretty constant in education, and it’s not difficult to see why. They’re a great way for students to distil and summarize information. They help students get to the crux of an issue, sorting through important ideas and concepts quickly in order to see what’s important. And “see” is the operative word here, because word clouds are certainly nice to look at. They speak fantastically to humans’ affinity for the visual, and are particularly useful for visual learners.
However, it’s important to remember that the process of creating word clouds is just as important as the resulting resources. They’re fun to make and so do a great job engaging reluctant learners. Word clouds have tons of potential to be used in all types of ways.
Far from just an assessment tool, creating word clouds can be useful in promoting critical thinking, relationship building, and even as a great kick-starter. To help you get started with this wonderful tool, we’ve put together a few of our favorite ideas on how to get the most from word clouds in your classroom.
As educators, we’re well aware that words are the building blocks of comprehension and cognition. In fact, research shows that students who have broad vocabularies achieve better scores on standardized tests and classroom assessments than students who have limited vocabularies.
Word clouds are an excellent way to help our students develop their vocabulary. And while the benefits of this will go far beyond ELA, it’s certainly a great place to start.
One Edudemic reader commented on the previous version of this article to explain how she used word clouds as a way to encourage her students to come up with a bank of synonyms and antonyms that could be used when approaching particular topics.
This method is particularly useful when analysing characters in books. For example, how many times have you seen Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird referred to as brave? Wouldn’t it be nice to see her called courageous, bold, dauntless, or unafraid?
Ask your students to write a list of traits for characters in the novel you’re studying. Then, ask them to use a thesaurus to come up with a list of synonyms, and feed them into a word cloud generator to create an excellent point of reference. You could do the same for antonyms, too.
It doesn’t have to stop at characters, either. Use word clouds to show synonyms of overused words like “said” and put them up around the classroom for constant referral.
Using peer and self-assessment in the classroom have many benefits, including helping students take responsibility for their learning, encouraging engagement with assessment criteria, and boosting reflection on their own performance. But did you ever consider including the use of word clouds in these all-important tasks?
As we’ve previously established, a broad vocabulary is great, but sometimes students will get caught up using so many words that they don’t really say anything at all (that episode of Friends with Joey and the thesaurus springs to mind).
Word clouds are a great way to help your students develop a carefully considered vocabulary, so that they’re able to use words that are truly fit for purpose.
One way of doing this is by having your students make a short list of the main ideas they’re trying to get across in an essay that they’ve written. Then, have them plug their essays into a word cloud generator so that they can see whether these ideas actually came across as important (in the sense that they’re oft-mentioned).
Once they’ve done it, they can cross check these lists to see if what they thought they were writing about actually made it into their writing.
This tip comes from another one of our readers, and is, we think, a particularly useful and innovative way to use word clouds. How? In activating strategies.
The importance of tapping into prior knowledge should never be underestimated in the classroom, because it helps students to make relevant connections to the new information they will be learning. Word clouds, then, can be used to brainstorm words that students think are relevant to a topic they are being introduced to.
Ask your students to write down anything they can think of that might be related to a subject or even a concept. This will stimulate their thinking, and the resultant clouds can then be revisited at the end of a topic, and either amended or added to according to their knowledge.
Your class could also work together to come up with two separate clouds at the beginning of a new project, illustrating what they think they know, and what they want to know. Each student should submit a question as an “entrance ticket” (another great tactic for boosting engagement) and these can then be referred to throughout the learning process, and then again at the end. Naturally then, it’s time to create a “what I learned” cloud, creating a quick and easy resource for revision purposes.
This can also be done backwards, if you like, and is a great way to encourage critical thinking. Another reader commented with this useful word cloud tactic:
“Many word cloud generators allow users to ‘remove’ words. This allows either teachers or students to create word clouds about any subject (famous person, country/province/state, element on the periodic table), and then remove the key identifying words. The object then is to have others identify the subject and organize the words in the cloud.
For example, go to website and collect hundreds of words about 10 U.S. states. Select all of the words on the site and then copy and paste them into a word cloud. Remove key words (state name, capitol city, etc.) and you have a great activity for kids to do some critical thinking.”
A great activity at the beginning of the year is having your students use word clouds to get to know each other, your subject, and even you! This is particularly good for shy students, who might find it easier than standing up and introducing themselves at the beginning of the year.
Ask each student to write a list of words to describe themselves: what they like, what they did over the summer, things they’re good at, things they’re interested in, etc. Once they’ve fed these lists into a word cloud generator, they can be used to demonstrate to others what they’re all about, and for students to see what everyone else is all about, too. This is a great way to challenge preconceptions, something that can definitely prove useful in the classroom.
To further this activity (particularly for SEL) you could try asking students to give each other positive adjectives which can be collected and collated into individual word clouds. These could then be hung up so that everyone can see them, as a constant reminder of each person’s good qualities for a great confidence booster.
As well as for getting to know themselves and each other, you can also use word clouds to set your expectations. At the beginning of the school year, ask your class to help you come up with a list of classroom rules and interpersonal expectations (feel free to add your own where you see fit!). Plug these into a word cloud generator and you’ll have a visual reminder of what is expected in your classroom each day.
When it comes to assessments, half the battle is making sure your students understand what they’re being asked, and once again, word clouds can help them do this.
Start by handing over a rubric that articulates your expectations and lists assessment criteria, as well as describing levels of quality from excellent to poor. Make a word cloud from this document, but keep it from your students until they’ve completed the following task.
Ask your students to each make a list of the key words from your rubric, demonstrating what they understand the assessment criteria to be. They can then each put these lists into a word cloud, which can be compared and contrasted with yours so that they’re able to see where they’re lacking in understanding.
Have them use your word cloud while they are working, or ask them to look at their work (or a peer’s) alongside it before handing it in.
The uses for word clouds are as creative as they are abundant. We’d love to know how you use them in your class. Let us know by commenting below, mentioning @Edudemic on Twitter, or by leaving your thoughts on our Facebook page.
Editor’s note: This piece was originally written by Katie Lepi and ran on June 25, 2014. A lot has changed since then, so we’ve had author Siobhan Tumelty update this piece with the latest techniques and innovations.