Five Reasons to Use Wordle in the Classroom by Terry Freedman

10/21/2011 1:18:16 PM

We know in theory that there are teachers -- probably the majority of teachers -- who have either never heard of Wordle or have no idea why they would need to know about it. I was reminded of this quite recently, in fact, during a visit to the Press Association.

It seems to me that a challenge for us is to bring Wordle to a wider audience, but only if we are convinced ourselves that teachers would benefit from having the knowledge.

I have a reason for putting the focus on teachers here, but I'll come back to that in a moment.

The circumstances in which this issue came up for me once again were as follows. I was accompanying a group of teachers on a tour round the Press Association. One of the things we saw was a gigantic screen with news headlines, from Virgin Media. The size of the headline reflected the item's popularity.

I turned to one of the teachers and said, "It's like Wordle, isn't it?" This was met with a vacant look.

"Have you heard of Wordle?", I asked?

"No", came the reply.

So, the first thing that struck me was surprise, because, I had implicitly assumed that everyone has heard of Wordle. The next thing I thought was, why should anyone have heard of it? In England, teachers are under tremendous pressure to deliver targets, such 70% of passes should be a 'C', say. These targets are set by schools and colleges, under pressure from other external agencies. One of the unfortunate consequences of this is that a lot of teachers I've met do not feel that they have the time to be creative or innovative, in case it affects their reaching of the targets.

Personally I disagree with them. I have always taken the view that if you teach in a way that gets the kids excited, enthusiastic and educated (in a broad sense), the targets will look after themselves. But the important thing is that they believe they have to pound away at the targets, in spite of their real desires and aspirations.

It's clear, then, that any  application or equipment will only be adopted by a teacher if:

a) the teacher knows about its existence and

b) can see how it would benefit him- or herself.

Am I saying that teachers are self-centred? Yes, actually, but only in the sense that we are all self-centred. Even the diehard altruist derives pleasure or some other benefit from being so. And in the case of teachers, they have to consider:

a) will this finish me off as far as workload is concerned, or will it enable me to do my job better? and

b) will this benefits the kids too, in the long run?

So, how might Wordle be used in an educational context? I would suggest the following 5 ways:

  • As a means of summarising the content of an essay or other piece of work. For example, I have used this in my 'reflections' on the Naace 2009 Conference, such as in this article about commenting on students’ work. This provides a very useful means of telling people what the article is about.    
    "What about a summary at the beginning?", you say? Well, fair enough, but not all of us think in terms of bullet points, and nor do we always need to. Wordle provides an alternative possible approach.
  • Wordle is handy for self-reflection. One of the hazards of essay writing is that students can get carried away, and go off the point completely, or contradict themselves. In the days when I taught economics, I would often read student essays that started with the sentence "Inflation is usually caused by an increase in the money supply", only to end with the conclusion "Thus, as we can see, inflation is rarely caused by an increase in the money supply."    
    I've done it myself with articles: started off with a catchy title like "10 things you never knew about X", only to discover that I've written about 5 things to do with Y instead! But the interesting thing is that I discovered that not by reading through the piece I'd written but by using Wordle.
  • In the same way, Wordle can be used by the teacher as a means of assessment. Ask a pupil to create a Wordle of her presentation, and use that as the basis for a discussion, rather than the presentation itself. The beauty of this approach is that you don't get bogged down in the minutiae, and end up losing sight of the forest through concentrating on the trees.
  • Wordle is also good for summarising survey results where the survey uses free text fields. As an example of this, I wanted to find out the composition of the readership of my newsletter, Computers in Classrooms. The mailing of it is undertaken by a 3rd party, and their sign-up form does not provide different field types. So people can enter anything they like  in the field for their role, which makes it arduous to analyse with a tool such as a spreadsheet. However, entering all the answers into Wordle enabled me to see at a glance what the composition is. That in itself is a good feedback mechanism, because I can tell straight away whether my attempts to meet the needs of my target readership have been successful.
  • Also, I think it's important to illustrate one's work with a picture of some kind, and a Wordle is just as good a way as any to break up the text a bit!

Here's a quick how-to guide in case you have never heard of Wordle and don't know how to use it.

Using Wordle

  1. Write some text, like an essay or an article.
  3. Select all of the text and then copy it to the clipboard.
  5. Go to
  7. Click on Create your own.
  9. Paste the text.
  11. Either use a screen capture program to obtain the Wordle as a graphic Or save the Wordle in the public gallery and use the code provided in your blog or web page.

Oh, and by the way: here's the Wordle of this post. I set out to write about the relevance of Wordle to teachers. Looks like I've succeeded!

Wordle: wordle3
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