Visualizing Presidential Speeches with Tag Clouds

President George Washington on Mount Rushmore.

I’ve written about word clouds before, but many more options for visualizing information have become available since my first post about Wordle.  Some newer applications include Tagxedo, Tagul, WordSift, TagCrowd, each of which has slightly different features and ways to customize the look of your tag cloud.

Why are these applications so popular?  A lot can be gleaned from looking at a text in this format.  There are many more complex ways to analyze a text (one of my favorites is Xiaofei Lu’s Synlex, which can analyze a wide range of features from the frequency of structures to the complexity of the text) but word clouds are simple and straightforward.

A great example is the US Presidential Speeches Tag Cloud page by Chirag Mehta.  It’s based on Tagline, the Timeline-based Tag Cloud Generator that he developed.  This is actually a series of tag clouds with a slider bar that allows the viewer to scroll though 200 years of presidential speeches.  It’s interesting to see how the most frequent words and themes change over time, something that is very easy to see as you scroll through the tag clouds.

How can students use these tools?  The more complex tools, which allow students to target specific features, might be the best option for analyzing one’s own writing.  On the other hand, tag clouds would be a better option if a student just needs a snapshot of a text.  For example, by feeding a reading assignment into a tag cloud generator, it would be very easy to pick out the most frequent terms and themes prior to reading it — a little like having the text skimmed for you.

Do you use tag clouds and other text analyzers with your students?  Leave a comment to share your tips and ideas.

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