Word Clouds as Revision Tools

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Word clouds highlight the most frequently used words in a text, using larger font sizes for the words used most often and smaller sizes for those used less often. The word cloud below, created with Wordle, highlights the most frequently used words in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:

These word clouds can become analytical tools as students look at the words used most frequently and notice which ones stand out.

In my technical writing class, I had students create word clouds using the text from their job application materials (like the example below), and then asked them to think about whether the words that stand out lead to the impression they want to make.

Students noticed some obvious repetition, like the university’s name and cities where they had lived and worked. They also identified words that they repeated too frequently. In the image above, for example, the word enjoy was larger so the student checked her job application materials to decide if she should revise for more variety. The analysis can also help students recognize use of buzzwords or jargon.

Want to try word clouds as revision tools in your classes? Here are the instructions that I gave students. Just adjust them for your students.

  1. Go to the Wordle site and read a bit about how the tool works. Wordle is a free, Java-based tool that can make a word cloud out of any text that is pasted into a form or by using the text on a webpage. It includes some choices for formatting, so that you can change the color and layout of the words. You can also omit commonly used words. The final cloud can be printed or saved.
  2. Click the Create link, and you’ll end up at a form where you can analyze some text.
  3. Go to your job application materials and copy the text. You might copy your résumé and cover letter or the information from your LinkedIn profile, for instance. Ideally, do not copy your name, address, or other contact information to protect your privacy.
  4. Paste what you’ve copied into the form on the Wordle site.
  5. Click the Go button, and the site will present you with a Wordle word cloud, using a random format.
  6. Use the commands under the Layout menu to create a design you like. In particular you might want to change the maximum number of words and whether they words show up as horizontal, vertical, or both.
  7. Use the Color menu to modify the color palette if you’d like.
  8. Get a copy of your Wordle word cloud that you can share by using one of these methods:
    1. Take a screenshot and crop it to just the word cloud.
    2. Print a PDF of the word cloud.
    3. Save to the Public Gallery and grab the URL to your word cloud. If you included your name in the word cloud, this probably isn’t the best choice.
  9. Look over the word cloud and evaluate what you have found: Which words are the largest? Are they the words that you want a recruiter to notice? Does the word cloud inspire you to make any changes?

I had students post their word clouds and observations in the online discussion forum for our class. Once they posted their own word clouds, they reviewed the clouds of their classmates and let them know what stood out in the clouds.

Overall, it was a simple and successful way for students to see their drafts from a different perspective. Do you have a revision strategy that helps students see their drafts from a new point of view? I’d love to hear from you. Just leave me a comment below, or drop by my page on Facebook or Google+.

About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.