Friday, 25 June 2010

Tag Clouds

I daresay all language teachers have grappled with the issue of differentiating reading. The scenario is a familiar one; 30 students are supposed to complete a set number of tasks during the lesson, but a number of students get a bad start. The tasks are based on a text they need to read through first and these students will, for different reasons, have difficulties in reading and understanding this text. Thus, they are at a disadvantage when they are to complete the tasks. When they finish later than their mates and perhaps with a poorer reading comprehension they may well lack both the motivation and knowledge needed to keep up.

Several measures have been taken to avoid this lag for students with reading difficulties. One is abbreviated or simplified versions of the text. These, however are not always available and students may feel that the value of these is not worth the social stigma. Another measure is recorded versions of the text, which allow the students to utilise another skill. While probably more beneficial, especially in combination with the written text, this measure requires the necessary hardware which might work as a social marker. The same is the case if the students are placed in a different room in order to avoid disturbing the other students.

I would like to add another method to this far from exclusive list. Although I have not tested it, I would very much like to and would also welcome comments from those who have.

Tag clouds are frequently used on blogs and web pages. This blog has a tag list in which the topics touched on in its posts are added up and where the most frequent ones are placed at the top. Similarly, a tag cloud visualises the frequency with which certain elements appear in a context. To illustrate, this tag cloud, taken from the pages of inventive computer scientist Chirag Mentha, shows the most frequent words in Abraham Lincoln's 1864 State of the Union Address as larger than less frequent ones. Additionally, it displays newer words in political discourse as brighter than older ones and represents syntactically similar words only once.

Example of a tag cloud

The tag cloud shows how the theme of war and its effects was central in his speech and how immigration and California were central political matters. The point here is that the reader could grasp this within a matter of seconds rather than minutes because he only had to examine a pictorial visualisation of the speech rather than a full transcript.

Admittedly, this method of getting through a text is slightly superficial, but if one seeks to understand content rather than language, or syntax to be more presise, this works suprisingly well. Students with poorer reading skills and any reader in a hurry can use this as a tool to get the gist of a text. It is the quicker alternative to skimming!

One added benfit of the tag cloud is its focus on individual words. If one wishes to focus on core vocabulary the tag cloud is ideal as it combines the the left (language) part of the brain with the right (image) part which makes learning more efficient.

Wuthering Heights Tag Cloud
(Made using the TagCrowd web page)

Whether the teacher invites each individual student to use the method or prepares tag clouds himself is a matter of preference and purpose. This can be done using the TagCrowd web page. By pasting the Wuthering Heights article from this blog in the appropriate box and setting the preferred parameters below, I made the above tag cloud.

Simple as can be!

Sources as given

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