“With your head in the clouds” – Using word clouds as a pre-reading tool

When I was learning the Lithuanian language, I had a terrible time with reading exercises. I would get stressed out and would start to think that I would never be able to learn this incredibly difficult language. To me it was just a jumble of words on a page waiting for me to piece it together. At that time, I would still have considered myself a novice English language teacher and I was looking for ways to improve things for my students, especially in the area of reading. It was purely selfish. I felt that if I could find a way to help them, it might help me in learning Lithuanian as well. Fast-forward a number of years to the time I was doing my MA TESOL. I was reading an article on using word clouds in a Spanish language class for teaching writing for my integrated skills class, and the idea of using a word cloud as a pre-reading tool started to blossom. Below are some of the methods that have come about from using word clouds as a pre-reading tool.


  • Keep students together: In order to keep some students from working too far ahead by reading the story before the others are finished, giving them a word cloud before handing out the text can remove this problem.
  • Focuses on vocabulary: It helps students learn new words before they tackle the whole text. Students are then thinking about the meaning of the words before they encounter them in the whole context.
  • Draws attention to important themes: Students don’t have to read the whole text to understand the main ideas within the text. This helps them put it into context before addressing the main text.
  • Monitor comprehension: The teacher can evaluate how much the students already know before they go into the reading. The instructor can then give help to students who may need more help.
  • Draws on previous knowledge: Students can use their previous knowledge to help them piece together what they are about to encounter in the reading. This helps in encouraging and motivating students in the learning process.
  • Encourages creative / higher level thinking: Students are not waiting for the teacher to provide them with the answer, but helps them to think through problems critically and creatively.


  • Word cloud generator: There are a number of sites that can create word clouds. Some require registration, but most are free and can be used without giving away any personal data.
  • Text printing: Some websites have a print option that removes all of the ads and background images. For those that don’t I would suggest an online tool that allows you to print webpages without all of the other junk. I would suggest PrintFriendly since it seems the ‘print friendliest’.
  • Text editing: Sometimes you don’t want to include the whole page or you would like to add questions or notes to the text. In that case, you could copy and paste to Word, but it usually drags over some nasty formatting along with it. I would suggest creating a PDF with PrintFriendly first and then converting the PDF to a Word document using PDF Online. Once you convert the document, you can then open it up with any word processor that reads Microsoft Word documents and can edit it like a normal document.
  • Sharing new words: Once students locate the meaning of new words, it is only fair that they share it with the rest of the class. This way, everyone can learn from their new found knowledge. In this case, you can use a collaborative document or an online ‘wall’ such as Padlet. In this case, I will have students use Padlet to post notes and pictures of what they found.


  1. Locate a text that you would like to use. This could be online, in a book, or from a PDF or Word document. To make this work, you will need to make sure the text is in some sort of digital format meaning you will have to type it up if it is in a paper format.
  2. Highlight and copy the text. If the text is on a webpage, it is probably a good idea to use PrintFriendly to create a ‘clean’ copy of the text that won’t drag in words for the advertisements or other extraneous content. Once you have a nice copy of the text, simply copy by selecting all the text and choosing ‘copy’.
  3. Go to HTML5 Word Cloud, click on “Copy & Paste”, paste the text into the box, and click on “Start”. A new word cloud will appear on the screen. You can now choose the theme and shape from the menu at the top. Click on “Save” to download the image to your computer.
  4. Print out your word cloud and hand it out. After introducing the topic or the exercise, put students in pairs or small groups and hand out the word cloud to the students. Explain to them that the large words are used many times in the story and the smaller words are used less.
  5. Have students discuss the word cloud. Ask them to brainstorm in their pairs/groups what they think the story is about. Have them try to draw connections to the words.
  6. Discuss as a class. Have students share their ideas as a group. Maybe put the ideas on the whiteboard to review later on.
  7. Each student chooses a word. Have students choose one word they they would like to know more about. It could be that they don’t know the word, or maybe they just want to know why that word is used in this context.
  8. Explain skimming and scanning. Explain to the students the two types of reading for gist. Skimming is used to find what the text is about and scanning is used to locate a particular idea. For this exercise, scanning is used to locate a particular word.
  9. Students scan the text for their word. Give students a set period of time to locate their word in the text and to find out what it means in the context. They can underline, highlight, or summarize the text surrounding their word.
  10. Students share their word. Put students into small groups to share their words and reasons for them being in the text. Students then put their words on a Padlet along with links to images if necessary.
  11. Discuss their words as a class. Pull up the Padlet on the interactive whiteboard (IWB) or use a projector to display the wall for the whole class. Discuss the new words as a class and talk about their importance to the text.
  12. Students read the text. Have the students read over the text as they would normally (eg. comprehension questions, discussion questions, etc.).


Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 5.15.41 PM.png

  • Here is the PrintFriendly version.

tweentribune.com-Scientists find that dogs understand what youre saying-3.png

  • Here is the word cloud I handed out.


Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 5.26.17 PM.png


  • You could divide the text into different sections and create a different word cloud for each section. Give groups different sections and then combine them together as a speaking exercise.
  • You could choose two or three different articles on the same subject and then compare and contrast each article using a word cloud for each text.
  • You could follow this up with a writing exercise where students re-write sections that have ‘large’ words on the word cloud. Students look up synonyms or new ways of saying things to balance out the cloud.
  • Combine the word cloud with pictures based on the text along with the headline and sub-headlines. This gives students more context to work with.
  • One recommendation: Choose a text that at, or slightly below, the students’ normal reading level to help them with skimming and scanning.

What other ways could you use this in the classroom? Add your thoughts in the comment section below, tweet me at @nathanhall, or email me through the contact page on this website.


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