Word Clouds: A Minimal Prep Lesson

Aside from occasionally blogging about theories and issues concerning teaching, I also teach..well…have taught. I haven’t been in a classroom since January, when I had to do my LSA 4 for the Delta. (Before you ask: tedious, but with benefits). So, that’s why I’m not posting many lessons or activities up, at the moment.

However, with the summer fast approaching, along with Delta exam, results (eek!) and, eventually, a new school year, I’d like to have a go at branching out with my blog and sharing something directly related to my teaching.


So, here goes…

This is an activity I tried out (I hesitate to say ‘invented’ because, whatever anyone says, I don’t think there’s anything hasn’t already been invented in EFL (except a robot teacher, and stock photos from various language institutes lead me to suspect there already are robot teachers)) when I was working in Madrid, teaching a pre CEFR A2 class, and have since repeated with a pre-A0 class of 5 year olds, an A1 class and a B1/B2 threshold class. Some adult, some multilingual. Depending on the class, not all of the stages will be relevant, and some will obviously take more time and scaffolding than others.


Anyway, the procedure,


Start by writing a word in the middle of the board. This can be one provided by the students, a vocabulary bank, a previous activity, or just one you choose yourself. Check the students understand what the word means, if you feel it’s necessary, and ask the students to think of the word. What do they think of when they see or hear this word? The students share some of their ideas. Board them, as for a spider diagram or mind map. Now choose one of the new words, and ask the same question again. It doesn’t matter how far fetched the association is, as long as (excluding very low levels with an L1 outside the teacher’s language repertoire) the students can justify the association.

E.g. – I board ‘bike’ because the students have been learning about free time activities, and one student who is particularly proud of his own progress (as well he should be) has just been telling us all that he ride his bike on the wikend (we haven’t looked at past simple or the preposition + article + ‘weekend’ structure, yet). So, I go with ‘bike’. One student suggests ‘funny’. I board it, but I know Spanish students often conflate ‘funny’ with ‘fun’.

“Do you have a bike?”


“Do you look at your bike and laugh?”

“No, it is funny when I ride it”

“Funny like The Simpsons?” (They liked The Simpsons. Older students liked The Big Bang Theory. I’m not sure why)

“No, er, is no funny. Is fun!” and I erase the ‘ny’ accordingly.

So, a few other words go up, maybe 3 or 4 pending time, language and imagination constraints, and I go back to ‘fun’. One student proffers ‘football’, and that goes up. We also get ‘television’ (“What action?” “watch” “my watch? *tap wrist*” “watch television”) ‘watch television’, ‘English class’ (“thank-you!”), and ‘going to holiday’ (“to?” *holds up board pen, then places it on table in an exaggerated fashion* “going on holiday, sorry, ticher”)


So, now we have the makings of a lesson, and there are a few things you could do with this. I like stories, so that’s what I normally go with. On paper, or in books (whatever set up you use), the students work in pairs or small groups to expand the word cloud. At this stage, you’ll be monitoring for linguistic support (“What it is called where you?” *stands up, slides feet on floor, performs a pirouette* “Is this outside?” “Maybe, but usually inside and is very cold” *an eager beaver catches my attention* “I know, ticher!” “Tell her, then” “Ice skating!” “How it is spelled?” “One T”).

As amazed as I am by a talking beaver, I can’t let it disrupt the lesson, so the admittedly helpful creature is shooed out while the students carry on with their word clouds.

“How are we doing?” I elicit a few ideas from the students and add to my own cloud on the board. Working from ‘English class’, we get ‘tree’


“Yes, because one day, after school, the last lesson is English, and I go home and do my homework, and my mum she say if I do homework, I can to play


“I can play basketball, and I play basketball, and I throw the ball really *mimes throwing*


“Yes..er I throw really hard, and it go..er..goes in the tree”

“OK, there’s a few, there. *To class* what were the words?”

“school!” on board

“home” on board

“homework” on board between ‘school’ and ‘home’

“basketball’ on board

“Ticher, ticher, basketball is ‘fun'” Very good, line between ‘basketball’ and ‘fun’

“tree” on board

So, now we have English class – school – homework – home – basketball – tree

Now, this little spark has perfectly demonstrated what I’m working towards, only not quite in the same order. Their task is to write a story in their groups. The challenge is for them to use as many of the words from their cloud as they can. At this point, I don’t worry too much about structure; that comes later. After writing their stories, I ask them to swap with another group (story and word cloud), who must then check to see how many words they actually used. To finish, I let some of them read out their stories.

At the end of the lesson, I’ll take the stories in and analyse them for areas to develop. This informs the aim and content of the next lesson (or next few lessons if I have enough to work with). With lower levels, I might look at present continuous, or basic verb-noun collocations. With higher levels, I might highlight salient errors and ask them to discuss together what the error is and how it might be corrected (weaker students get clues given as annotations in the margin of their work).

As I said, there’s other stuff you can do.

If you want to take more of a communicative or task-based approach, you could, after getting the first few words up on the board, ask students to discuss, together, their experiences with one of the words (I appreciate that’s not entirely clear. OK, say the central word is ‘hospital’, I might ask a student if hospitals are important to them, or if they’ve ever been to hospital. The student talks for a little bit, then I ask the class what words they heard that make them think of ‘hospital’. These are boarded. The students then work in groups, maybe with ‘hospital’, maybe with another word on the board, answering a question I give them, and recording appropriate vocabulary accordingly. We can then expand the cloud on the board, or the students can expand their own clouds.

If you want to focus on phonetic development, you can ask students to find all the words with a particular sound (I like to provide the phoneme). They then create their story (or a poem, or a picture, from which they can tell a story) with those words and read them to the class, with the other students clapping or waving every time they hear a word with the particular sound. You don’t have to stick with one sound, and it’s worth developing a repertoire of responses to each sound (clap for /æ/, watch Superman flying past for /ɑː/, wiggle your ears for /ɪə/, and so on).

Linguistic development has a bit of a wider scope, and I think it’d be good to leave you, the reader, to think up some ideas of your own. Independent learning, and all that.

I’m happy to discuss any ideas, questions, comments, issues that anyone might have. Students have invariably enjoyed it, it’s incredibly simple to set up and can be adapted to suit any level of learner in many lesson contexts.


Have a go, if you’ve not done something like this already, and let me know how it went, and how you adapted it to suit your style, your learners, and/or your lesson(s).


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