How to reach students whose heads are in the clouds

Michael Holsworth, Temple University Osaka – M.S.Ed. Student

Have you ever looked out at your class and seen students whose heads seemed to be up in the clouds somewhere? How on earth can you reach them and get them interested in what you are teaching? Students need to be engaged in what they are doing or learning simply does not happen. Through the creative use of two online tools, teachers can modify any written text and create more appropriate and engaging versions for students in the form of word clouds.
What is a word cloud?
You may be asking yourself what on earth is a word cloud? It is a visual representation of written text presented through an algorithmic formula based on word frequency within that text. In other words, the more times a word appears in a text, the larger it appears in the word cloud. The image below is an example of a word cloud created from this article. Adjustments were made to include only the top 50 words, to be horizontal, and for a few words to be removed for clarity. Through the use of word clouds in L2 learning, teachers can help to make a potentially intimidating text more approachable for students. According to Nation (2009, p. 177), “Without simplification, the strands of meaning-focused input, meaning-focused output, and fluency development become impossible for all except advanced learners.”
The most popular website for creating these word clouds is <> (Feinberg, 2009). This website lets you create word clouds for free. Other sites include: TagCrowd, TextTagCloud, Tagxedo, Tagul, Tag Cloud Generator, and Many Eyes.With Wordle you can select from many options to create the word cloud suited to your needs. There are options to adjust color, font, number of words, and vertical, diagonal, or horizontal layout. You can also remove specific words as you see fit. Wordle also allows teachers to view detailed word counts from the text that is used.
Adjusting the text to suit your needs
The second online tool that will help teachers use word clouds more effectively is VocabProfile (Cobb, 2010) found at <>. This website lets you cut and paste text, or simply type in text, from which it produces a color-coded version of the text based on the frequency of words in the English language. Using this tool, teachers can review their materials, identify words that may be too difficult for their students, and make any adjustments to the text accordingly. Once the adjusted text is ready, one can simply copy it from the VocabProfile site and paste it into Wordle to create the word cloud. Below is the output from a graded reader of Toy Story (1995) showing the color-coded data on how many words fall into the first 1000 most frequently used words, the second 1000 words, and off-list words such as proper nouns. Lextutor also generates frequency data for every word in the text.
How to use your word cloud
Now that you have this wonderful word cloud in front of you, just how do you use it in class? The potential applications are limited only by your imagination. Here are four examples of how you can use word clouds.
Word clouds can be presented to students prior to reading new materials. This method is more motivating and engaging, and less intimidating than a lot of plain text for students. According to cognitive research based on the schema theory, “Comprehension involves going beyond the givens in a message” (Anderson et al., 1976, p. 6). Students can see which words will appear the most often in the text and try to extrapolate the meaning of the story. This makes for an excellent group discussion to see if student assumptions about the story are correct.
Vocabulary building
With word clouds, students can create their own individual study lists, and teachers can then use these to create a master list for the whole class to use. The master list can then be used for test and review purposes. Below is an example of a word cloud created by a class of third-year junior high students. The topic given to them was What do you think about life in Tokyo? A single word cloud was created from the combined written work of one class. The class analyzed the word cloud and discussed the new vocabulary and the meaning of key words.
Using written work from students to create word clouds is a good method for providing feedback. This will allow both teachers and students to evaluate their own work, identify potential weak points, and then work together to negotiate a plan of action. This can be seen in an action research paper by Baralt, Pennestri, & Selvandin (2011), where the use of word clouds was shown to be very effective in helping students develop both vocabulary and grammar skills in their writing assignments.
Vocabulary Selection
In contrast to the first three suggestions, this point is for teachers. Word clouds give teachers the ability to review new materials quickly and identify words that may need to be pre-taught in order to facilitate better learning in class. It can save you a lot of time, and even help you spot new words that may not already be identified for you.
As teachers, we can easily fall into the trap of relying simply on textbooks to teach our students. I hope that this article has sparked some interest in you to investigate these free online tools, and to use your imagination in their application. Remember, in order to reach those students whose heads are in the clouds, you may have to join them with clouds of your own.
Anderson, R., Reynolds, R., Schallert, D.,Goetz, E., (1976). Framework for comprehending discourse. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne.
Baralt, M., Pennestri, S., & Selvandin, M. (2011). Action research–using wordle to teach foreign language writing. Language Learning and Technology, 15(2), 12-22.
Cobb, T. (2010). VocabProfile Home: Classic Version VP English v.3. Retrieved from <>.
Disney (1995). Toy Story. London, UK: Ladybird.
Feinberg, J. (2009). Wordle. Retrieved from <>.
Nation, I. S. P. (2009). Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. UK: Cambridge University Press. (Original work published 2001).