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Four Ways to Use Tag Clouds in Classroom Lessons

Posted in Knerds on February 16, 2011 by

Back in the days before the Internet, when teachers needed to give students important lists of facts or vocab words, they had few options other than handing out boring, photocopied sheets of paper. Needless to say, technology has progressed a bit since then.

Looking for a 21st-century way to spice up your lessons and engage your students? Check out tag clouds.

Tag clouds are similar to the “word clouds” that many news sites use to show the trending topics; they can scrape a website and pull all the terms that are used, and weight them by how many times they’re used. Tag clouds have one advantage over word clouds, though; they are all separate links to more information. There are several programs that can be used to create these tag clouds — I recommend Tagul because it’s easy to use and free for the first 20 clouds!

Soon I’ll post a step by step guide to creating tag clouds — but for now, check out these four awesome classroom applications. We’ve made all our tag clouds holiday-themed to help break up those mid-winter doldrums! Be sure to click around to get the full experience.

1. Valentine’s Day: SAT Vocab List

Vocabulary is one of the easiest, but most effective pedagogical uses of Tagul. Throw your favorite word list into the system, weigh the words by their importance, or difficulty, and link each word to its definition in your favorite online dictionary — I used Check it out below: hovering over any word highlights it, and clicking on it takes you directly to the definition. You’ll have the snazziest vocabulary list your students have ever seen (and then, of course, you can teach them to make their own!).

Go further:
• Use the cloud for prefixes or suffixes and link to word lists.
• Create clouds for names, terms, dates, ideas.
• Have each student answer a survey and make a cloud of the results, link to an appropriate site so that other students can research the answers.

2. President’s Day: Matching Influence to Size

This tag cloud contains the names of all the U.S. Presidents. Sure, it looks good; but what does it do? Well, for one thing, it’s organized by time in office. The Roosevelts (Theodore and Franklin) have a combined 6 terms of elected office, while lowly Garfield and Fillmore have but one. Secondly, every name links to the Wikipedia page about the president. Have your kids never heard of President Arthur? By the time they finish clicking through this tag cloud, they’ll know so much about him they’ll be calling him Chester! This tag cloud would be a great discussion piece for a social studies classroom.

Go further:
• Size the states by electoral representation
• Size the world leaders by the population of their country
• Size countries by their number of nuclear weapons (or Nobel prizes, or literacy rates, etc.)

3. Black History Month: Parse a Famous Speech

This tag cloud takes the text of the “I Have a Dream” speech and sorts it by word popularity. Tagul lets you scrub out common English words (“that”, “with”), so you’re left with pure semiotic history. You can see King’s religiosity (Isaiah, mountain, faith), his hopefulness (hope, justice, that giant freedom) and the historical details of the time (Alabama, Georgia, urgency, segregation).

Go further:
• Parse several speeches or articles and compare the clouds. Do certain words come up more often based on the speaker?
• Use this cloud method on short stories for close-reading.
• Consider politics and rhetoric; parse a speech or article from the past and a current one about the same topic.

4. The Egyptian Revolution: Media Literacy/Current Events

In this tag cloud, we’ve scraped the NY Times topic page on Egypt, which updates in real time as news about the country is published. If you click on an individual word in the cloud, it links to Google news search results for that word. This is a great way to illustrate the important players and themes in an ongoing news story.

Go further:
• Watch how current events develop over a day by rebuilding the cloud.
• Parse a sales website and see what words are used for persuasion.
• Teach digital literacy and politics; how can you parse a site to determine the “talking points” behind