Wednesday 3 September 2008

Using Word Clouds in EFL ESL

I've just discovered Wordle, which is a really useful site for creating word clouds. The word clouds are created by entering either a text, URL or user name into a field. The site then generates a word cloud based on the frequency of key words in the text or webpage.

Here's what a word cloud based on the URL of this blog looks like.

The word clouds are really easy to create and can be printed up for classroom use or saved to a gallery on line. To see how this is done watch the tutorial movie below.
How to use this with EFL ESL students
This is a wonderful flexible tool to use with students.
  • Revision of texts - You can paste in short texts that your students have studied recently. Show them the word cloud and see if they can remember what the text was about and how the words were used within the text. You can build up a bank of word clouds over a semester and pull them out at random to get students to recall the texts they have studied and the key vocabulary in them. You could also see if they could rewrite or reconstruct the text based on the word cloud.
  • Prediction - You can create word clouds of texts before the students read or listen and ask them to make predictions about the content of the text based on the word cloud. They could also check any new words from the word cloud that they are unsure of before they read or listen.
  • Dialogue reconstruction - You can create a word cloud of a dialogue students are studying and use it as a prompt to remember or reconstruct the dialogue.
  • Short poems / Haiku - You can generate a word cloud from a short poem or Haiku, then ask students to create their own work based on the word cloud. They could then see how close they came to the original.

  • Text comparison - You can create word clouds from a number text genres (news article, poem, story, advertisement, dialogue etc.) and then see if the students can decide which genre each is from and why. You could also do this with a small collection of poems short stories or articles. Then students could read the complete texts and match them to the word clouds. Here are two poems. One is from Shakespeare and the other is from Robert Frost. Try to decide which one is from Shakespeare. How did you know?

  • Personal information - You could get your students to each create a text about themselves and then turn it into a word cloud. You could them put the clouds up around the class and see if the students could identify each other from the cloud. They could exchange clouds and use them to introduce each other.
  • Topic research tasks - You can create a word cloud based around a topic you want students to research. You could use a page from Wikipedia to do this, then use it to find out what students already know about the topic by asking what they think the relevance of each of the word is to the overall topic. They could then go to Wikipedia and find out more. Then report back on their findings using the key words as prompts. Here's an example I created by cutting and pasting the intro text on Cairo

  • Learner training - This is a good tool for students to use regularly to help themselves. They can regularly make copies of the texts they study and pin them up to revise them or keep them in their gallery on the site. They could even create word clouds of their study notes to help them revise.

What I like about it
  • It's free, quick and very easy.
  • You don't need to register or part with an email address so it's a low risk site to get students using.
  • The word clouds are very attractive and will stimulate more visual learners.
  • Having key word prompts is a great way to support more fluent language production, but avoids having students just reading texts.
  • It's nice that the students or you can customise the design and choose colours and fonts that they like.
What I'm not so sure about
  • Would be nice to have a more effective embed code for blogs (There is one, but it's not very effective) I've used a work around to embed these ones.
  • Saving the word clouds as PDF is possible, but again a bit tricky unless you have a MAC (That's another good reason for getting one)
I've really enjoyed trying out this site and creating word clouds. Hope you do to. I'm sure the list of suggestions above is by no means exhaustive, so if you have any ideas for how to use this with your EFL ESL or other students, by all means post a comment and share your ideas.

Related links:
Activities for students:

Nik Peachey


Anonymous said...

Hiya Nik,

This would be a great tool for an IWB - Interactive White Board - too.

A great way for teachers to introduce subjects that they wish to study with the students.

You could tell the students what the subject is for the lesson, give them a few minutes to work in pairs and predict words that they expect to read / hear about in the subject, then show them the word cloud to see how many of the words they predicted.

It would also act as a great way to identify any vocabulary that is frequently mentioned in the text that needs to be pre-taught.

A great find, thanks!


Nik Peachey said...

Hi Seth

Nice idea. Yes they would look great on an IWB or even on presentation slides instead of bullet points (hate those bullet points)

Thanks for the suggestion.



Anonymous said...

I save Wordle word clouds in as pdfs in Windows using CutePDF Writer.

I must admit, I have a Mac, but use it in Windows. :-)

Anonymous said...


I thank you and I curse you for sharing this great site! I've already spent far too much time messing around with Wordle...

Another use for Wordle that I want to explore is using it to create sentences/phrases. If you add tildes (~) between words, and delete the spaces, you can make Wordle generate phrases/sentences. It then jumbles the sentences.

This would be great for activities like reconstructing a story or putting a dialogue in order.

A quick way to get the tildes between each word is to paste your sentences into your word processor and then use "Find and Replace" [Find: (add one space); Replace with:~]

On a Mac it is Command+F and on a PC, I think it is Control+F
and then click "Replace all". Voila! You have your sentences. Unfortunately, Wordle doesn't do punctuation...

I hope that makes sense.


Nik Peachey said...

Nice idea Jim

I'll give it a try.



Anonymous said...

I love Wordle too ... matter of fact, a couple weeks ago I made a Wordle T-Shirt for Second Life avatars to wear.

META T-shirt here.

You can get a free Wordle T-Shirt for your avatar at this SLurl, Mexico English Teachers' Alliance in our Second Life training facility. SLurl: META Second Life


Nik Peachey said...

Hi Frank

Great idea!



Anonymous said...

Hey Nik,

Nice blog!

BTW - if I may ask, what was the work around to get the images into your blog? Would love to know if it isn't top secret.

I recently stuck on of these clouds into a powerpoint presentation (for a video) and in the end my workaround (which took HOURS to figure out) was printing it, then scanning and making it into a photo, enhancing in photo if there's a better way of handling these things would love to know it ;-)

Here's the link to the one I did on high frequency words (for the slideshow/video)- anyone can use this in any way they wish, if interested, it's here:
(there are different colour versions too).

Anyway, I agree Wordle's an excellent tool for pre-teaching a text and simple versions can be done in a matter of minutes - here's one I made based on a businessweek article about the rising popularity of Facebook and social-networking sites in general, it's here:

We discussed the general implications of social networking, using the vocabulary in the wordle, and then students read a variety of different articles written about social-networking -each reported back on what they'd learned. Articles:

Nik Peachey said...

Hi Karenne

Thanks for the message and the links. I'll check them all out later.

I got the Wordle images onto my blog by capturing them with Skitch. I use skitch for all the images on my blog. It's a fantastic free tool and really quick and easy to use, but for MAC users only I'm afraid. There are PC alteranatives though I'm sure.



rosa ochoa said...

Hi Nik,

This is how one of my ESL studnets used wordle in her blog:
I love this song.

I had told them about it here:
The essence of written texts.
It's a great simple tool!

Nik Peachey said...

Hi Rosa

Thaks for those they are great. Really nice use of the tool.



Anonymous said...

Does anyone know if there is a way to manually customize colors on a wordle (I know you can to a different color palette) but can you actually click on words and make them specific colors (eg, if I want all the positive words to be in blue)?

Anonymous said...

Hi there!
I've been using Wordle for a while in my lessons. Everytime we study a short story(I teach primary,ages8-10)we create word-clouds in the class using the key words of the story and then get a print and hang it in the classroom. Kids love it and they create their own. Very good for remembering the words since the posters stay on the wall for a while.
Sebnem, English Teacher,Istanbul

Nik Peachey said...

@ Sebnem

That's great. Should be more writing on similar tools to this coming soon.



Moomin said...

I simply LOVE your idea about using Wordle for text prediction!

Your blog rocks! Thank-you.

Fifth Business said...

Hello Nik,

Great blog, as per usual...

1. I think Wordle is also good for detextualizing vocab for English for Specific Purposes.

Using specific purpose blogs as a corpus, you can find all sorts of common vocab with an auth. source.

Find new words, then search for them in context... instant vocab lesson personalized for the students.

Pity Wordle can't be trained to recognize "chunks"...

2. For the window users, there is always the very simple option of pressing the screenprint button, then opening and cropping the wordle in paint.


Nik Peachey said...

Hi Matt

You can get Wordle to chunk words together by adding ~ between the words you want to keep togther in your graphic. Of course it would be better if it just understood chunks and collocation, but that is asking a lot.



Unknown said...


These are great ideas! I'm taking a grad class on educational technology and we just went over Wordle. I teach adult ESL and I find that many of my students stick to the same sets of words. If I can have better, more reliable access to the computer lab, this would be a great resource. My students could paste their short essays and see which words they are using most frequently and then try to make a list of synonyms to replace those words.

Thanks for the post!

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