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Reading in a Cloud

Reading in a Cloud

Written by Rita Sorrentino
September 01, 2010

I am not predicting the end of reading as we know it, nor the end of navigation as we know it: both will be with us for a long, long time. But I do believe that text clouds might constitute an emerging method for augumenting comprehension and display of text, with broad potential use.

In a blog post entitled, “Text Clouds: A New Form of Tag Cloud?” Joe Lamantia discusses the emergence and popularity of text clouds as important digital tools for managing information with automated synthesis and summarization. Whereas tag clouds, which emerged with the growth of social media, were mainly used for navigation and access indicators, text clouds are a form of information visualization moving more toward text analysis and comprehension.

Textual information from speeches, blogs, websites, prose and poetry can be designed into a text cloud with key concepts arranged graphically for quick understanding. The growing number of free downloadable and online tools for generating text clouds attests to the enthusiasm for exploring their use in communication, language processing and comprehension. From this, Lamantia predicts a cultural shift in the way we read and comprehend; a shift from the traditional linear mode of reading based on words and sentences to a nonlinear digital mode based on summaries of content revealing concepts and patterns. Text clouds compliment list-based navigation and offer supplementary strategies for reading and writing.

The above graphic is a word cloud of the preceding paragraphs. A quick glance wil reveal the prominence of the words cloud, text, information, comprehension and navigation. This text (word) cloud was created using Wordle which describes itself as a “toy for generating word clouds”  with menus to adjust fonts, layouts and color schemes.

Word clouds offer many applications for the classroom. One interesting use is an online gallery of the inaugural addresses of the Presidents of the United States. Along with each transcript of the 56 inaugural addresses, there is a text cloud visualization displaying key ideas and the agenda of the address. (Video footage is being added as it becomes available.) Students can use the clouds to compare themes between first second term presidential speeches or select to read/listen to a speech based on the collage of words.

For students approaching a classic text (Shakespeare) for the first time, text clouds can help them get a grip on the text and a handle on the language. Stewart McKie has created clouds for each act of Macbeth with questions to guide discussion and techniques for text analysis of unfamiliar language and “olde” words.

To help students improve writing skills, invite them to copy and paste their essay into Wordle (or another online tools listed below). Guide them to view the results looking for overused words, main idea, and supporting details. The visualization of their text helps facilitate discussion and plan for next steps.

Although Wordle is perhaps the most popular Text Cloud Generator, there are others worth exploring. The level of editing techniques, login or email requirements, saving, posting, embedding or printing capability vary and will determine the right fit for teachers and their students. For younger children, ABCya offers an opportunity to become familiar with the practice of text clouds. Wordsift has less text formatting but more text analysis. It offers a visual thesaurus with dictionary, google images and a pop up workspace with a sidebar of sentences from the original text using the selected word. Tagul and Tagxedo feature shape outlines to contain the text adding an artist appeal to word clouds. Worditout features more settings and filtering controls. Users decide which words to leave out, where to center the text as well as mixing fonts, colors and sizes. These resources offer great potential for readers of all ages. 

The links below provide a further exploration of text clouds.  First, Joe Lamantia surveys the progress of this evolving visual communication concept. Next up is Ross Bussell’s video, a brief tutorial on getting started with Wordle and a few classroom suggestions. Jen Wagner introduces amazing text clouds with special effects and Hardy Leung suggests 101 uses of text clouds with style. This is a start – the sky’s the limit.

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