Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Wordle and the Inauguration

Remember Wordle? Extremely popular last July, the site makes word clouds from text passages. As the introduction on the site's homepage explains:

Wordle is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes.

Don’t dismiss it though. For English teachers, Wordle is far more than just a simple “toy.” It’s a great analysis tool, as I reported last year.

A post last week on the ReadWriteWeb blog reminded me how wonderful the tool is at providing a snapshot of the key ideas behind a message. Author Marshall Kirkpatrick shares word clouds for President Obama’s inaugural address alongside clouds for George W. Bush’s, Bill Clinton’s, Ronald Reagan’s, and Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural addresses.

Take a look at the largest words in the images, and the issues that each president focuses on are obvious:

President & Speech Most Frequent Word
Obama 2009 nation
Bush 2005 freedom
Clinton 1997 century
Reagan 1981 government
Lincoln 1861 Constitution
Lincoln 1865 war

The words alone are only part of the story, but they can point student readers toward the speeches with more information. The Wordle clouds are a remarkable prereading tool. First look at the map with students and discuss the words that stand out. Why would the speaker focus on those words? How do they predict the speaker will use them? What senses of the words will the speaker avoid? As they begin reading the addresses, students can look for the key terms and see whether their predictions were accurate and make note of how key words are used in different contexts within the text.

If you have already discussed Obama’s address with the class, why not try the Wordle clouds for inaugural poems? There have been four poems written for U.S. presidential inaugurations, and there are a number of resources available for teaching these poems, including an Education World lesson, a Teacher Vision lesson, and a BITs post.

Begin your exploration of the poems with Wordle images like this one of Alexander’s poem, or one of the other images linked below:

Wordle: Praise Song for the Day by Elizabeth Alexander

Ask students to explore how the words that stand out in the clouds for the poems might predict the themes and symbols that will be developed in the poems. As students analyze the poems more deeply, connect the poets’ use of repetition and word choice affects the message of the poems.

No matter how you use Wordle images, they're a great tool for exploring the ways that writers use words—and if the analysis engages students in a bit of fun, that’s okay. Go ahead and call Wordle a toy. That won’t stop students from engaging in a good bit of critical thinking!


FManning said...

Tania I remember reading & then writing about a great post that showed the Obama vs the McCain acceptance speeches. http://tinyurl.com/ccjky4
Wordle can be an excellent tool to assist in analysing text. Especially good in helping to teach critical literacy skills.
Thanks for your post that gave even more ideas as to to use these 'toys' for sophisticated learning activities

Anonymous said...

I used the inaugural poem prior to even reading this. The kids thought it was "cool". Once they analyzed it I we viewed Alexander reading her poem to show them how their understanding may have changed.

Traci Gardner said...

Found another GREAT resource for this activity. It's word clouds for all the inaugural addresses from the NYTimes.

Susanne Nobles said...

I have used Wordle all year after reading your ideas for it in the summer. My students LOVE it and really learn from it. We looked at Obama's speech Wordle, and they loved seeing the tool in contemporary use (they saw that it was not just crazy English lovers who did such analysis). Here is something I have done with Wordle: http://snobles.blogspot.com/2008/08/textual-analysis-and-wordle.html

carmey said...

I have been using the Wordle for the past couple of months, and my students really enjoying it. They like how they can vary the words choices. They look lovely on the walls in my classroom. The most impressive way the word clouds have helped is that my EL students often read the walls and ask me questions about the vocabulary and its meaning. The more I can get the EL students to converse with me in English, the better it will be for them to learn the language. Thanks for the idea; it's a winner.

tengrrl said...

Here's another good resource for using Wordle in the classroom: Sixteen Interesting Ways to use Wordle in the Classroom" http://bit.ly/DPKtT

The examples are of younger kids, but the ideas are useful for any classroom.