Monday, August 20, 2007

Word Counting

During law school, in a particularly long and over-crowded class, a group of friends and I used to play bingo. We'd create a chart of the words that certain folks in class liked to use a lot : jurisprudence, estoppel, caveat, in toto, controlling decision. You get the picture. The words that lawyers use as code and are generally what my students would call "dollar words." It was a tradition that I carried on after I left the legal profession to opening day speeches from superintendents, BOE members, and outside consultants - only this time we counted educational jargon. Probably not the most mature way to spend my time in either scenario, but I like to spin it now that I have always had a fascination with words. (See what law school will get ya??)

The words we choose when speaking or writing are what helps to define our voice. Do YOU have a signature word or phrase? If you aren't sure - ask your family or colleagues and I guarantee that they will let you know. For example, I have a good friend who expresses her surprise or shock at something by saying "Holy (fill in the word) Batman!" It makes me laugh every time I hear it - and I tend to repeat it often when I am with her. Holy secret code, Batman!

And so I found this link from Cool Cat Teacher's tags very interesting. Using tag clouds (a visual depiction showing the frequency of word use), someone charted the words used by the Democratic presidential candidates in an April 2007 debate. The type size of each word varies according to how often it is used - with the largest words being used most often. Even more interesting are the comments that follow about how the readers were surprised about which words were used and which were not - showing that those who closely follow this type of thing already have an expectation of the words certain candidates will use. (NOTE: This is not a political stance - I couldn't find a tag cloud of Republican candidates or I would link to that as well in all fairness.)

It got me thinking about word choice as a writing trait and how we could use tag clouds with kids. Perhaps the students could focus on parts of writing - like leads or conclusions - to see how often they use certain words. Or perhaps students could use one or two different pieces of writing to find the words they tend to use often. I also wondered about taping the conversations we have with students about their writing to see which words we use most often.

It's not that using words repetitively is bad - it would just be interesting to know and be able to point out. By the way, using the free service at TagCrowd, I made a tag cloud of this post:

created at

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