5 Ways to Use Word Clouds in the Classroom
Try these strategies for creating and using word clouds to help students better understand a topic and see it from a different angle.
Can a word cloud promote student engagement? If you’re looking to boost student participation and increase motivation, a word cloud might be a great fit for your classroom. But first...
What Is a Word Cloud?
A word cloud is a visual representation of information or data. It shows the popularity of words or phrases by making the most frequently used words appear larger or bolder compared with the other words around them. A word cloud contains a set of data such as a list of words, text from a blog post, or a collection of written items like a series of articles.
Even if the term is new to you, you may have come across a word cloud in a few places. For example, sometimes a news article will include a word cloud to show a high level of interest in a topic.
Why Are Word Clouds Useful?
The word cloud graphic is a visual representation that supplements a section of text to help readers better understand an idea or approach a subject from a different angle.
A word cloud shows off trends. For example, if you run the text of five articles about sharks through a word cloud generator, some of the biggest, boldest words in the word cloud might be ocean (where sharks live), large (their size), or boat (where research is taking place). You can also use word clouds with student-submitted words or phrases.
How to Create a Word Cloud With Students
A word cloud generator is a tool that lets you copy and paste a selection of text, and then it automatically pulls out the words that appear most frequently and makes them larger or sets them in bold. Although there are a few different tools you can use to create a word cloud (if you look up “word cloud generator” you’ll see what I mean), I like one tool in particular, Mentimeter, because you can use it for doing things beyond word clouds, including setting up brain breaks where you might want students to answer quick questions. While you have to create an account, it’s free to use—I only use the free plan.
If you set up a free account, you’ll see a button at the top of the screen where you can share the word cloud maker with students, and you’ll decide what type of activity to try out.
5 Word Cloud Activities
1. Start off with a do now: Do a pulse check, a quick read of the room so that students can share ideas at the beginning of a lesson. Use a prompt like one of these:
- Choose two words to describe how you’re feeling today.
- How would you describe the character we read about yesterday?
- Skim this article and add two words that jump out at you.
For this activity, give students a word bank to choose from by posting suggestions in a shared space. Ask them to brainstorm some words as a group or turn and talk to a partner before adding to the word cloud. A do-now activity can feel low stakes for students but gives you useful information or examples you can point back to during a lesson. There are a few more word cloud prompts in my new book, EdTech Essentials: The Top 10 Technology Strategies for All Learning Environments, along with more strategies for using digital tools with students.
2. Spotlight a challenging vocabulary word: Just like a do-now activity, this is ready for you to customize for grade level or subject area. After discussing a new topic, reviewing a concept, or reflecting on a previous activity, ask students to choose one or two words that were particularly challenging. Try a prompt like the following:
- Which words did you struggle to pronounce, spell, or wrap your head around?
- If another student is studying this topic, which words do they need to know and use?
- Which words have you been using more in your own writing or conversations?
Depending on the results in the word cloud, you can start a conversation with students about how to tackle challenging words, or you might decide to revisit these words in upcoming units of study.
3. Share an action word: This can be a word connected to what students plan to do next or a goal they have. Share examples such as:
- Meet (I will meet with my group today)
- Research (I will research where pandas live)
- Ask (I will ask my partner for feedback on my writing)
Similar to the first activity on the list, you can give students a word bank to refer to or a handful of examples to get their wheels going. Like all of the activities on this list, a “think aloud,” where you model your thinking for students, can be particularly useful for introducing the new word cloud routine.
4. Reflect on an experience: With this activity, you might use a prompt like the following:
- After teaching about an event in history: “Who would you like to learn more about?”
- When the class has accomplished a big goal: “What does it feel like now that we’ve reached this milestone?”
- After a field trip: “What word would you use to describe today’s experience?”
Students can elaborate on an experience in a more formal response, but sharing one word in this collaborative activity is a good start. For example, if your students had a great time with a guest speaker or visiting a special place, you can include this word cloud in a thank-you card or follow-up note.
5. Share a favorite: Whether it’s connected to course content or related to a favorite food, students really like talking about things they love. Consider asking a question like:
- Which season is your favorite?
- What ice cream flavor is top of your list?
- Which sport could you watch all day, every day?
Using a quick activity like “share a favorite” to open a lesson or close out a week is a great option for bringing students together to talk a little bit about themselves and building community. I hope these five ideas feel flexible enough for you to tailor word clouds to every subject.