Creative Use of Word Clouds

Posted March 4, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Reading, Tech Tips, Vocabulary, Writing

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

ITBE cloudOver the weekend I had the pleasure of attending the ITBE’s 41st Annual Convention. I arrived on Friday with just enough time to attend one session. I quickly browsed the offerings (which were very impressive on both days!), and chose “Summarizing and Comprehension Activities for Adult ESL Reading Classes.”

What a hot topic! Jeanette Diller of Heartland Community College had standing-room only. I took one of the last seats open.

Jeanette works in the Adult Education department and has ESL students of different levels. She has amassed many creative activities that promote text comprehension, whether it be a novel or textbook reading.  Going beyond simple Q&A, her tasks excite learners and prompt meaningful interaction with the text. One of my favorites was her “Character Clouds.” Jeanette has learners use free software on either Tagxedo or ABCya! to transform word lists into meaningful clouds.

Think about the beauty of this activity. First, students are not pressured to formulate a paragraph, or even a sentence. They brainstorm and reflect, choosing single words that describe a character. The teacher could limit the lists to adjectives or open it up to any word form. Jeanette demonstrated how Tagxedo allows users to choose the shape of the cloud, which gives extra meaning to the words. What shape is representative of the character or story? Additional reflection is necessary.

Jeanette has her adult learners practice their computer skills by saving and emailing their finished images to her. In class, they share their Character Clouds. I see some additional steps evolving, don’t you? The clouds can be shared in pairs or small groups, and students can discuss their choices. This could all be part of a pre-writing phase, with the ultimate goal of composing a one-paragraph character description.

Walter Mitty

“Walter Mitty” cloud

Here’s my character cloud for Walter Mitty, Thurber’s famous dreamer. Do you get it? How engaging it is to explain one’s word choices and preference for the shape of the cloud.


What else can you do with word clouds? Oh! This is going to be a fun resource to employ…

What about vocabulary? You can recommend that students use word clouds to help review and retain words and expressions after a lesson. In 2014, I posted a video lesson on chicken-related idioms. I could show my chicken-inspired word cloud to prompt students to recall those expressions.

Chicken idioms

Chicken-related Idioms



It would also be constructive to assign single words from a vocabulary list to different students. Each student could create a word cloud for his or her assigned word. The images could be shared online and in class for reference and study. Here’s an example for the high frequency word “precious.”

Vocabulary Word Cloud

Vocabulary Word Cloud

What ideas do you have? Have you already used these resources in your lessons? How? Please feel free to share.


Thank you again to Jeanette Diller, AELP Instructor/Reading Center Facilitator at Heartland Community College, for a very informative session at the ITBE convention. Thank you also for allowing me to share your activity here.




Heading to Chicago: ITBE’s 41st Annual Convention

Posted February 26, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Announcements

Tags: , , , , , ,

If anyone will be in the Chicago area this weekend, I hope you’ll be attending  the ITBE Convention. I’m scheduled to present on Saturday morning. I’d love to have you join me. My session title is Innovative Learning Partnerships for Professional Growth. Look for it in the schedule. See you there!

Absolutely Perfect: Understanding More about Gradable and Non-gradable Adjectives

Posted February 24, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Grammar

Tags: , , , , , , ,

I’ve been watching clips from Britain’s Got Talent, and I’m always amused to hear Simon Cowell’s comments. When he’s not impressed, he’s brutally frank. And when someone performs with truly admirable talent, he doesn’t hold back in his praise. Earning words like “absolutely perfect” from the likes of Mr. Cowell makes most performers cry for joy.

Gradable and non-gradable adjectives are all around us. I’ve become very attuned to them in real-life contexts ever since I was asked to explain the concept. (See previous post.) I especially like paying attention to which adverbs speakers use to modify their adjectives. Besides TV personalities, I’ve listened to voices in the media. Journalist and editor W. James Antle III recently questioned the president’s request for new war powers: “You can’t be a little bit pregnant. Can you just be a little bit at war?” (I mean to provoke no political responses, please. It’s just an example I came across in my recently mailed copy of The Week.)

Whether we agree with Mr. Antle’s politics or not, we can acknowledge his grammar. When we use classifying adjectives, we normally don’t express them in degrees. Author Charlaine Harris would agree. She titled one of her vampire novels Definitely Dead.  Mr. Cowell’s infrequent words of praise are to be snatched as they come and used as examples. He reminds us that there are a limited number of adverbs we can use to modify non-gradable adjectives.

You might have a fun warm-up asking students to describe people or things that are:

  • utterly perfect
  • absolutely horrible
  • totally uncool
  • so alive (full of life)
  • completely harmless
  • completely hopeless
  • absolutely amazing
  • almost impossible
  • truly freezing
  • totally gorgeous

For a more in-depth study of adjectives that express an extreme or an absolute, please see my Absolutely Perfect_handout.



Antle, W. James., III. (2016, February 16). What kind of war does the AUMF authorize? The American Conservative. Retrieved from

Really, Truly Helpful: Understanding Gradable and Non-gradable Adjectives

Posted February 20, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Grammar, Vocabulary

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

A question from a learner challenged me to formulate an explanation I hadn’t given before. I was asked to explain gradable and non-gradable adjectives. Sometimes students surprise me with their knowledge of terminology. Truthfully, I’ve never taught a lesson online or offline on this specific topic. Why?

I think  the concept of gradable and non-gradable adjectives is commonly broken down and spread out over time. For example, we first teach many descriptive adjectives to beginners, from appearance to size. As students move from high beginner to low intermediate, they learn comparative and superlative forms. It may not be spelled out directly, but learners pick up on the fact that only those adjectives that describe people and things are gradable. One car might be cheaper than another, but it certainly can’t be more American than another…unless you start arguing about parts, workers, factory locations and the like. Such an argument would be reserved for an advanced class.

And so the gradual mastery of adjectives continues. Some classifying adjectives begin to work their way into our lessons when intermediate students can more easily distinguish word forms, like Japan and Japanese or society and social. It’s at this point when students have more vocabulary that we can teach the order of adjectives. That topic is especially useful once upper level learners gain command of noun modifiers.

I think upper level students can benefit from seeing a distinction between gradable and non-gradable adjectives when they learn more advanced adverbs of degree. The many amplifiers and downtoners build up vocabulary. At this level, students already know how adverbs of degree function. They use very and and really all the time. But now they have the desire to write and say more sophisticated sentences, so they will appreciate the chance to learn slightly, fairly, somewhat, and extremely.

I think a helpful lesson on gradable and non-gradable adjectives would be one that prompted students to see the difference between descriptive and classifying adjectives and encouraged practice with adverbs of degree. If you’d like to expose your learners to this topic, please consider my Really, Truly Helpful_handout.

There’s certainly more to share, like the fact that some adjectives are descriptive in nature, but nevertheless non-gradable, such as gigantic. And why is someone either alive or dead, but we can use adverbs of degree to say, “I feel so alive, more alive than ever!” Perhaps I’ll devise a second handout to address those points. As mentioned, I think adjectives as a topic must be mastered in degrees.

Poetry Club: Writing Activities

Posted February 13, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Writing

Tags: , , , , , ,

122327545_15958001be_mAs we brace for another potential blizzard here in New England, I can only think of one thing: snow. Cold snow. Deep snow. White snow. Snow flurries, snow drifts, and snow-covered roads. Snow. I know that other parts of the world are basking in warm sunshine right now, but it’s hard for me to remember the world without snow.

There’s a reason why weather is often a conversation starter. It’s easy to talk about. It doesn’t immediately require complex thought or personal revelations. For that reason, I think weather can be a good jumping off point in an ESL lesson.

1. Acrostic Warm-up.  Write a single word vertically on the board. The word should reflect the current weather. As a class or in pairs, students can write an acrostic poem. Encourage full participation from everyone. All contributions should be welcome. Model:

Shivering fingers

Noses that get cold

Only white all around

Warm hot chocolate in a mug

2. Poetry Clubs. You can have more fun by putting students into groups and having them write an acrostic poem from a certain point of view. Name each group: Optimist Club, Pessimist Club, Go-Getter Club, Club of Imagination. Dictionaries can be used to prompt ideas. Have them read their poems aloud and see if each group captures the spirit of their club name

  • The Optimist Club might produce:

Blankets of beautiful snow

Light snow falls on my face

Icicles hang like diamonds

Zipper up and stay warm

Zillions of snowflakes

Amazingly high hills of snow

Really fun winter sports

Down the hill we go in our sled

  • The Pessimist Club might compose:

Bothered by the cold

Layers and layers of snow I must shovel

Icicles are dangerous

Zippers don’t keep me warm

Zoom away to a warmer climate

Always sneezing

Really slippery outside

Disgusting slush on the roads

Share the poems – and the laughs – and talk about which poem each student can relate to best. Follow-up questions for discussion:

  1. Do you like the weather we’re having? What kind of weather do you enjoy the most?
  2. Is this the kind of weather you grew up with?
  3. Does the weather affect your lifestyle? Explain.

A helpful resource for acrostic poems is available at Students can play around with the tools in or out of class. Users first select a single word to base their poem on. They click to the next page and then brainstorm a list of related words. The third screen nicely invites users to start building lines based on their list. Additional editing is allowed before printing or sharing by email.


Photo credit:

“Snow Day at Clark Park” by Katie. Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

Love Lines: More Ideas for Valentine’s Day

Posted February 6, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Conversation, Writing

Tags: , , , ,

3657889982_6143a52cc9_mLove is still in the air, and I’ve come up with more ideas to choose from. In honor of Valentine’s Day, I decided to create a tutorial on terms of endearment. Students can increase their familiarity with variations and reinforce their understanding of usage by taking an interactive quiz. For those with enough time in class to give some practice with these kinds of words, I created a  Love Lines_handout.

Other fun tasks to increase familiarity with terms of endearment in English:

Name that tune (or the artist).  You or the students can collect excerpts of popular lyrics and challenge the class to name the song title and/or the artist. Some suggestions:

  1. “My loneliness is killing me. I must confess I still believe…” Answer: Hit Me Baby One More Time by Britney Spears Other possible songs:
  2. “”All my loving I will send to you. All my loving, darling, I’ll be true…”  Answer: All My Loving by the Beatles.
  3. “Baby, you light up my world like no one else. The way you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed.” Answer: What Makes You Beautiful by One Direction.

Lost in Translation? Have students meet in small groups to discuss equivalents of terms of endearment in their native languages. What are common categories for such terms? Foods? Animals? Is social etiquette the same for using such words?


Previous posts with holiday ideas:

Photo credit: 

“Hearts (Explored!)” by QThomas Bower. Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.


Warming-Up to Valentine’s Day

Posted January 30, 2015 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Conversation, Vocabulary

Tags: , , , ,

16317995822_f23087f3eb_mAs the month of February approaches, you may want to consider a few short, easy tasks you could make use of in the classroom. Do you know a good Valentine’s Day warm-up activity for adult learners? Feel free to share. Here are some possibilities:


1.  Candy Hearts. Use candy hearts or another substitute, such as foam or felt hearts from a crafts store. Ask each student to take a small handful as a bag is passed around. For every heart, students can do one of the following tasks:

  • Write down words associated with Valentine’s Day. Then have students pair up to compare lists. Have the pairs create a sentence with at least one word from each list. They can share their sentences with the class.
  • Write down words associated with Valentine’s Day. However,  you must assign a part of speech to each student. They must list words using only the assigned part of speech. Have students form pairs or small groups with those who have a different part of speech. Challenge them to come up with as many sentences as possible using the words they listed.
  • Create a sentence with the same number of words as there are pieces of candy. The sentence must be a line that could be used in a love letter. The fun conclusion could be to compose a love letter using everyone’s suggestions.

2. On the Spot Plot. Challenge the class (or small groups) to come-up with at least three film plots in five minutes. You can provide some prompts. See suggestions below. Plots must be 1-3 sentences long. Let students know that even silly ideas are welcome. The goal is to come up with a basic story for each film title. At the end of five minutes, have students vote on the best plot.

  • Title: An Ocean Divides Us. A couple is divided when…
  • Title: Out of This World. In an alien world, love is alive. Two creatures…
  • Title: Then There Were Two. A crazy love triangle results when…
  • Title: On and Off Again. This is a love story that started years ago…
  • Title: Deep in Danger, Deep in Love. Even criminals fall in love. Meet Jess, a lonely…

3. Survey Says. Assign a love-related question to each student. They will have five minutes to survey the class. See suggestions in my Survey Says_handout.


Photo credit:

“Candy Hearts” by Paul Cross. Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 797 other followers