Saturday, November 29, 2014

Floating on Cloud Nine with 9 Sites for Making Word Clouds

Have you ever heard of “Word Clouds”? I’m sure you’ve seen them but maybe you didn’t know what their purpose was (aside from decorative). Here is a definition from Google:

Word clouds can be used for a variety of activities for teaching EFL.  

Here are some ideas for how to use them:

Simon Thomas’ report on Language activities with Wordle and Word Clouds (and he has links to more ideas for using word clouds at the bottom of his post).

But I want to focus here on HOW to make them. There are nine different programs listed here (more than that exist, and they are being created - and some are disappearing - all the time).  

I have used a program called “Wordle” for a few years. With “Wordle” you just copy/ paste text into the Wordle window, and it will turn it into a cloud, with the most commonly used words in the text, coming out the largest. You can play around (to a certain extent) with the layout, color and font. Alternatively, you can make a wordle by pasting a URL for a page, or blog. Those of you from Israel, who are connected to the Literature program, may have noticed one I made to use in the cover of the Literature Handbook, itself, where I pasted the entire handbook text into Wordle, and the graphic is what resulted.  We had used a different graphic before, but due to copyright issues, had to remove it. With Wordle, there was no such problem!


I will use a summary that I wrote about “Reflection on a Synchronous Lesson” (the text has 365 words in it altogether), in the different word clouds to see what each tool produces.

Cloud #1: Here is the one from Wordle. It has options of choosing the language (and deleting common words), and saving it online. In order to embed the Wordle, I copy it with the snipping tool and save it as a jpg:


Cloud #2: There are also word cloud generators which give you a little more control over certain graphical settings. For example Jason Davies’ Word Cloud Generator  which lets you play with the number of words and the angles. It has a button that lets you save it as a .png file. which can then be used and inserted into your document or webpage.


Cloud #3: WordItOut which claims to allow you to “customize more settings than any other word cloud generator”.  I told it to sort the words both by frequency AND to vary the word color by frequency. It emails your “creation” to you , if you want - but I preferred to grab it with the snipping tool, as I did with Wordle.


Cloud #4: TagCrowd lets you choose the language you are using, (Hebrew isn’t one of them, nor is Arabic) therefore enabling you to ignore common words (such as prepositions, articles, etc.). It asks if you want to show the frequencies of a word used (not sure why one would want to do this, since the graphic size is supposed to represent frequencies, but it’s an interesting option). Additionally, you can group word families together, if you wish - which could be nice for EFL teaching (that is only an option in English).  You can decide if you want all of the words to be converted to lower-case and you can state explicitly which words you wish to exclude. As far as I could see, there is not a lot it lets you decide graphically (direction, color, font). It lets you save it as html and embed it, or as a pdf file. Again, in order to embed here, I needed a picture file, so I snipped and saved it.


Cloud #5: Yippy Cloud Creator works differently than most I have seen. It is not as aesthetic visually (in my opinion) and rather than being based on text that you copy and paste, or grabbing text from a specific webpage, it allows you to enter a query or topic and then builds its cloud using search results for that topic. So if your students are doing a project on a specific topic, they can write the topic in the cloud creator, and it produces a cloud that is hyperlinked to the search so that when I wrote “Digital Pedagogy”, it produced the following cloud, which , once I paste it into my site, can be used by readers to learn more about the topic, in addition to the graphic size aspect.

Loading Yippy Cloud ...

Cloud #6: AbcYa is more geared to younger students - and simple enough to be used by them. The options for saving, layout, and other options are more straightforward than other tools (providing they read English). This looks like a good one to try in the classroom!   


Cloud #7: Tagxedo is a site that allows you to make a word cloud, in a shape. I chose a cloud, but there are lots of different ones to choose from. There is also a 101 Ways to Use Tagxedo page which you might want to check out.


Cloud #8: If you want to do more than just build a word cloud, rather actually see that vocabulary used in context, VocabGrabber defines itself as a “visual thesaurus”. It takes your text, makes it into a word cloud, and then defines and contextualizes the different words when you click on them. Here is the explanation on their site: The Visual Thesaurus is an interactive dictionary and thesaurus which creates word maps that blossom with meanings and branch to related words. Its innovative display encourages exploration and learning. You'll understand language in a powerful new way.”

Here is what my text looks like in VocabGrabber, when I clicked on the word “presentation” from within the word cloud:


Cloud #9: (And the reason I had the idea to do my blog this week on the subject of wordclouds). Google is an endless universe (as is the digital world, in general) that is constantly  changing and developing. This week I discovered that built-into Googledocs, is an add-on called Tag-Cloud Generator. All you need to do is to click on “Add-ons” and search for it, then add it to your Googledocs. It will be available to you on all of the Googledocs you write!

It’s less sophisticated than the others I have described here - but its built-in accessibility is an option that I intend to take advantage of in the future. Here is what came up when I pasted my text into a Googledoc and clicked on the Add-on:


Do you use word clouds? Do you have your students use them? Which are YOUR favorites?

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Infographics: For what a graphic is worth a thousand words (or at least more engaging?)

We live in the ages of sound-bytes. The visual sound-byte of 2014 is called an "Infographic". We see them all over the place.  Here is what they are:

Or, in other words, it is an "information graphic" that presents information in a graphic format, rather than only verbal. It aims to make the data being presented understood easily, quickly and concisely. Infographics try to boil the information down to its essential points. Granted, in the age of sound-bytes and infographics, the details can sometimes be lost, but their popularity suggests they achieve their aim.

I have been playing around with infographics in my class recently, and find them useful and full of yet-unused (by me) potential.  There are different sites that can be used to make an infographic. I have been playing around with Easelly ( but it certainly is not the only one. 

The first one I made was to instruct my students in how to prepare for doing a listening comprehension activity (when the students hear an audio text and need to answer questions about it). They will be having such an exercise on their Module E matriculation exam at the end of this year, and it is a technique that can easily be improved by practice. I discussed what they need to do in order to best succeed, and embedded this infographic on my webpage - so as I explained the procedure, I had this on the screen. Then, when I played the text for them, I left it on the screen so that they could refer back to it.

Here's another one: In tomorrow's lesson, the class will need to write a biography. This infographic will help me present the procedure, and will be on the screen as they write, so that they can refer to it while they work.

  (I made this infographic in conjunction with the textbook Bridges, p. 17)

Another rich potential for infographics is student presentation. I have not incorporated this into my class practice yet, but intend to offer it as a mode of presentation for the biography that they write. 

If you are interested and want to learn more about making and using infographics, here are some sources I found useful:

  • Adam Simpson has some interesting insights about using them in the English teaching classroom.  
  • Larissa also has some clever ideas for taking advantage of infographics in language teaching.

Have you ever used infographics in your teaching practices? If so, please share your ideas here!

Digitally yours,

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Gmail's New Inbox... is it worth it?

EVERYBODY is screaming for it…. but do we know why?

I love Google. And I hate to say it, but I practically LIVE within my Gmail. I am a completely dedicated and devoted Google-related user (as anyone who reads my blog doubtlessly knows) and will never hesitate to try out something new. Admittedly, Google are the kings of hype. If my memory serves me well, in order to get Gmail in the first place, you had to be invited by one of the “honored” early adopters. Well, the hype is again in the air, with the onslaught of the new Inbox.  

So here’s the deal: beginning in the summer, Google started rolling out the new Inbox, which is supposed to organize your gmail in a way that will make it more convenient to stay on top of things. However the catch is, you need to be invited in order to get it. I’m not sure why they are doing it this way, aside from it being a marketing gimmick that makes you WANT what you can’t have (by “can’t have”, I mean that you can’t just download it whenever you want).

Embarrassingly enough, the technique worked. I fell for it (finding myself desperately BEGGING anyone I knew in my Google milieu, to share it with me, practically willing to give up my first-born grandchild just to get my hands on it…. but not altogether sure WHY). Another colleague, (with whom I shared an invite today) wrote:I was feeling like the five year old who was busy playing at the party and missed out on the birthday cake :)  I hope I find the icing on the cake worth the effort.. but at least I don’t feel so rejected anymore."

As if the frenzy inciting weren't working well enough, there was one day, about a week or so ago, when Google announced that anyone who wanted could write during a small window of opportunity of one hour ("between 6 and 7 pm ET time") - sort of like a Black Friday on steroids

I am not quite sure why the giants at Google feel they need to do this kind of promo stunt. I think they're pretty great without all the need to use artificial ploys to draw people in.....but what do I know? Anyhoo.....

A day or so after you finally get the much coveted “Inbox”, you get “invitations” (they are colored yellow - like the “golden invitations” reminiscent of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”..not sure if that was intentional, but I’ve seen others who had that association as well). I didn’t get my invitations immediately, and was a bit confused, since people are asking for them all over the place, and I thought I had misunderstood how to send out invitations, but they showed up after a while. The first time I got three invitations  to share, the next time (about 5 days later) I got five. Apparently, for now, they renew themselves weekly on Wednesdays or Thursdays (according to one of my go-to Google guys, Eli Dori).

When you get it, you will see a red circle with a + on it:

Invitations to inbox 1.JPG

Clicking on the red circle opens more circles which show you a red circle for composing a new email, a golden one for invitations, and a blue one for reminders:

Invitations to inbox 2.JPG

Above those you will see the three email addresses to whom you write most frequently. 

You can use the new Inbox both on your phone as well as on your computer.

So what have I found so far?

I’m NOT in love with it.

Here are MY pros and cons SO far:

  1. It’s clean - when I use it on my phone, it is easier to see the things that have come in most recently.
  2. Inbox uses something called “Bundles” which groups emails of the same category, together. There are a few default Bundles and the thing that is convenient about it is you can add your own.
  3. The “Reminder” feature lets you add a reminder about something in general (not necessarily an email -related)  that you want to pop up at the top of your Inbox whenever you tell it to (like tomorrow morning, at a time when you know you will be at the computer). There are other applications that will do this, but there is something useful in having it built into your email.       
  4. “Snooze “ button  - like on an alarm clock - it lets you get on with other stuff without worrying that an important email that just came in, will get buried under the pile by the time you have time to deal with it (which happens to me ALL the time!).
  5. Pin an email that is important. On the top toolbar there is a little icon of a push pin. When it is “off”, you see all of your Inbox, (as it is arranged in Bundles). When it is “on” it shows only those items which you have pinned. Once you deal with a pinned item, you can remove it from your “pinned” list.  



  1. The formatting option of writing an email within a thread when using Inbox, seems to be limited. When I tried to respond to an email in Hebrew (right -left orientation) and insert a word in English (left-right orientation) the directions got all jumbled up, and I was unable to access the formatting functionality.
  2. Gmail has a lot of nice apps that do not seem to transfer into the Inbox (for example, I have a feature that I could not live without any  more - called “Undo” which delays the sending of an email for as many seconds as you set (mine is set to 30 seconds) so it lets you change your mind and recall an email if you want to fix something in it (or are having second thoughts about what you wanted to write to that person who ticked you off….. etc)   
  3. Finally - and this is the BIGGEST “con”, for now.. I just don’t trust it. I feel that with the regular Gmail view, I have pretty good control over what is going on...I get the “big “ picture most of the time, when I am in working mode, near a computer and get to check my mail every hour or so.

I am not giving up on Inbox - I have installed it on my phone, and am using both layouts for now. I’m trying to benefit from both “worlds” by using the features on it that I like, (it seems that there are lots of ways I can prevent myself from forgetting to deal with emails) but not giving up on the view I am used to, altogether, at least not yet.

In fact, now that I think of it, a while back, Google tried to change the way the Inbox looked by added a tabbed view. I did NOT like that change- and for my most used Gmail accounts (yes - I have numerous) I reverted back to the regular view. I’m guessing there were other people who didn’t buy into it either, which might be the reason for adopting a marketing gimmick that will make it more attractive to people (at least in the beginning, to convince them to try it out in hopes they will fall in love with it).

If nothing else, at least this “get it from a friend” deal is probably generating lots more email (I admit - I HAVE been feeling more popular lately) and getting people to communicate with each other asking for invites! (In case you are wondering, I’ve run out of “Invites”, at least for now.)

Have any of you tried the new Inbox yet? Here is a short clip about it. What is YOUR opinion on it? Please share your insights here!

Digitally yours,


BTW: Inbox works only on private accounts for now - not on accounts that are through GAfE (Google Apps for Education). I have no idea why nor whether this will change in the future.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Meaningful Learning:When Reality and School Meet

“Meaningful Learning” is the latest buzzword in educational circles - in the Israeli Ministry of Education it is, at least. It can take many shapes and be different in different situations, for different subjects, but it popped up and smacked me in the face on September 1st this year, when I was suddenly - after literally decades of teaching - petrified to go into the classroom.

I live in Israel, in a community situated on the border with the Gaza Strip, and this past summer, for around 60 days, my community was literally a war zone.  Throughout the summer, I remained in my home despite the pleas of family and friends to go someplace safer. I did it for a number of reasons. The most significant of my reasons for staying was that I was able to make a difference by being here. I have lived in this community for almost 40 years, and so I know it very well. As a native English speaker, who does not have any inhibitions speaking to strangers, I found myself fulfilling the role of a war correspondent, literally, giving an average of an interview a day to many of the major tv channels in the US and Europe. And I wrote.

In 2012, when there was the previous flare up of hostilities on the border, I had started to write my eye-witness accounts on a platform called CNN iReport. It is a place where anyone can write about anything they want, and if CNN feel that the item is newsworthy, or compelling for other reasons, they will vet it, and give it wider exposure.  When the current hostilities flared up at the end of June, 2014, I started writing again.

And so my summer went - running for cover, giving interviews, and writing. It was a traumatic time, to say the least, and our community was tragically impacted, with two members of our community being seriously injured, and two more killed. The war ended suddenly, and not very securely, in a tenuous ceasefire on August 26th. Less than a week before school was set to commence.

Usually I spend my summer planning my syllabii for the coming school year, preparing my gradebooks,  and doing different “rituals” that get me set for walking into the classroom with a feeling that I am there to give my students something, enrich them in some way. This summer’s progression left me no time for anything like that. I felt that, after a summer of dealing with life and death issues - literally - on a daily basis, I had nothing of relevance to bring into that classroom with me. I couldn’t get my head around the juxtaposition of depicting life in a war zone, getting our collective voice heard throughout the world, as opposed to going into the classroom to teach a bunch of teenagers (who… let’s face it… would rather be outside chatting up the opposite sex) about grammar and reading comprehension and other EFL issues.

Not to mention the fact that my students, themselves had had no summer vacation, since they, too, live in this area that was under fire. Many of them were taken away from their homes for weeks at a time in order to be in safer environments. Even those who live further away from the border were affected by what was going on this summer. After all, even though there are a certain percentage of them who do not live directly in mortar or rocket range, and were not personally threatened by the possibility of infiltration by terrorists through tunnels that were dug into or near their communities, their school is. They faced the prospects of having to come daily to a school, situated less than 5 kilometers from the border. Although it is reinforced and rocket-safe, they still have to take busses to get to school, and walk from class to class around the campus. In addition, in each of the 6 grade levels in our school, there is either a student who lost one of their fathers, or whose parent or grandparent was one of the seriously wounded.  Not to mention the students who had siblings, parents, neighbors who served in the armed forces during the war of this summer. All of the students in my school were touched by this unreal situation. All of them are affected by it.

I went to speak to a psychologist (one of the many who came to my community to help us come to grips with the realities through which we had lived), to share my concerns of being incapable of going into the classroom, segwaying seemlessly from functioning as war correspondent into EFL teacher.  He gave me some very wise advice: “Bring the war correspondent into class with you.”

So I did.

This is how I came to introduce Twitter into the classroom (not very effectively - yet). This is how I came to set one of their writing tasks as a projects to get them writing about what THEY experienced. Writing throughout the summer not only served a patriotic function, for me. It also served as a way for me to try to get my head around what was going on (sometimes: falling apart) around me.  So I thought: maybe for some of them, writing will serve that function, as well. I am a strong believer in getting one’s voice out there. I have 31 11th grade students who experienced war this summer, most of whom will be joining the military, themselves in two year’s time. They all have voices that deserve to be heard.

I set the task: write about the war of this summer through YOUR eyes. Don’t write only facts and figures. Those are important as well, but anyone can read about that in the newspapers. Write about what you felt, about what it is like for a teenager tp experience what you experienced.  

THis is when we get to the part that is relevant for “Digitally yours”: I told them that what they wrote would not just be seen by me - it would be out there for the world to read. I told them I would publish their reports to CNN iReport.

They started out by writing in the classroom. Their homework was to type up their reports on Googledocs and share them with me, to look for or take a relevant photograph to accompany their report (it HAD to be one that they had taken or had permission to use) and to get their parents to send me an email with permission to publish what they wrote.

The Googledocs have gone back and forth, commenting, suggesting, trying to eek out of them the ability to share what they experienced, what they felt, what they thought and hoped for, all in a foreign language about an emotionally-loaded topic. Not all of them have finished yet. Writing is a process; it takes time and patience. Not all of them agree to publish. That’s fine too. But they ALL have to write something. This is where school ends and reality begins.

I opened up a new CNN iReport account, dedicated to this project. Each morning I upload another student’s report. I use photographs that they give me - and if not, I add my own (I took a lot of pictures this summer). I then “send it out”, not relying on CNN alone, I publish it over Facebook (different professional development groups in which I participate, as well as a group I am in that has Israelis and Palestinians who write about their concerns, experiences and desires for coexistence) and Google +. I tweet it to the world.

I have been in touch with CNN and they seem excited about this project, and are looking for ways to “showcase” it. I am also trying to get other teachers interested in joining the project with their students. From BOTH sides of the border.

On each of the CNN iReport pages, we can see how many people have read the report, how many have shared it and some of the reports have even gotten comments. In these comments, readers thank my students for sharing their impressions, ask questions, encourage. I even received a letter from a teacher in another school in the region, asking permission to bring some of the reports to her class to read them, as part of their lesson.
How wonderful would it be for people around the world to be able to read the impressions of teenagers who are living and growing up in this region? Now I say THAT’s meaningful learning if I ever saw it.   

Here is the link to our project page on CNN iReport: You are invited to read, respond, interact, pass it on. If you have any ideas for getting your kids writing using Googledocs and CNN iReport, please share them here.

Digitally yours,


Saturday, November 1, 2014

Doing Oral Book Reports Digitally

How often do you really get to listen to your students talking English? In the mad rush of the day, with over 30 kids in my class, I do not often get the opportunity to hear my 11th grade students speaking in English for longer than the few seconds for the interactions we have in the framework of our class. Considering the fact that our students will have to pass an oral exam with an external tester at the end of the 12th grade, and more importantly: we want our students to be able to communicate competently in English, the face-to-face classroom English-speaking time just isn’t enough.

Thankfully, these days, we have lots of options.

Israeli students must do 4 book reports during the process of their high school careers. I decided this time, to require an oral component for that book report. The oral component is worth 40% of the book report grade.  

These are the instructions I gave them (this is a Googleslides presentation which is embedded in our class Googlesite):

And here is the grading rubric (also embedded in our class site, using Googledocs) .

Rubrics for Oral Presentation

Spoke clearly, fluently, used appropriate vocabulary
Clearly read and understood book
Handed in written drafts
Participated in someone else’s oral presentation

Some of them asked if they could do it using only an audio file. In this case, I decided NOT to be flexible. Here's why:

It is so easy these days for kids to record themselves on their smartphones, or tablets. It's also another opportunity to tell them to take OUR their phones (rather than put them away) and use them for educational purposes! Some of them might even figure out how to do some editing on it and learn other tools via English! So why not make it part of YOUR EFL teaching routine?! Do YOU have your students record themselves on their phones, in English? Please comment and share your activities for improving their oral proficiency using this tool!

Digitally yours,