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.
As a visual language learner myself, I really like the way Visual Thesaurus.com works. Enter a word and synonyms, antonyms, and other related words appear on spokes around a hub. Lines show relationships between the words (red dotted lines indicate antonyms, gray dotted lines indicate when a word is an attribute of another, is similar to another, is a type of another word, etc.) and definitions, color coded according to part-of-speech, fill a column to the right.
Thesauruses are very useful tools, but displaying results visually makes it even more so. Other online thesauruses like Thesaurus.com organize search results in a more conventional way that is reminiscent of paper-bound versions: Columns of words are grouped by part-of-speech and meaning. Why not display these relationships in a way that makes their relationship intuitive and more immediately obvious? Thesaurus.com is also cluttered with lots of banner advertising and, interestingly, a link to Visual Thesaurus.com at the bottom.
In fact, I had thought I had seen visual thesaurus-style search results somewhere else on Google, but all I’ve been able to find is a now-defunct Google module that seems to have been the basis for Visual Thesaurus.com. Surely other applications could also benefit from a similarly visual approach, but I don’t know of many.
Visual Thesaurus.com is not free, but keep reading. A subscription to the online edition is available for $2.95 per month or $19.95 per year while a desktop version is available for $39.95. I’m not sure I use a thesaurus often enough to justify the expense, though it would be a nice resource to make available to students (group and institutional subscriptions are also available).
In my experience, after the three free searches non-subscribers are allowed, I can close the window and get three more free searches immediately. Aren’t you glad you kept reading? Although opening and reopening the search window is inconvenient, it seems to have slaked my appetite for synonyms so far. You’ll have to decide whether you want to pay for greater convenience, but Visual Thesaurus.com is a useful tool either way.