Thursday, April 30, 2009

Web Resource: Word Ahead Vocabulary Videos


"Vocabulary" is a term that can cause students to tune out immediately. My memories of vocabulary building in school involve worksheets, flashcards, and bold words with definitions at the end of the chapter. Most students fail to see the intrinsic value of new words, and building vocabulary becomes an exercise in failure for students and teachers alike.

Word Ahead Vocabulary Videos is a site that might be able to help. Opened to the public in January of 2009, the site features short videos with definitions, illustrations, and context for some six hundred words. You can use the widget above to see some examples of what the site offers.

Most of the videos seem to be aimed at high school-aged students, such as those trying to bone up for the SAT. (Click here for a complete word list.) Most videos are made by the folks at Word Ahead, though they also allow users to contribute by uploading their own videos.

Putting vocabulary words into videos will not make learning new words exciting for all students, but it might help, and it certainly beats worksheets. Word Ahead is a relatively new site, and thus should be expanding the ways teachers and students can interact with the videos. Stay tuned!

Words I Learned While Exploring Word Ahead:

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Web Resource: Word Sift

Word Sift ( is a web resource designed to help students interact with texts. In the words of its creators, Kenji Hakuta and Greg Wientjes, it is "a toy in a linguistic playground that is available to instantly capture and display the vocabulary structure of texts, and to help create an opportunity to talk and play with language."

The folks at Word Sift have combined the magic of word clouds with search engines and an online thesaurus. A student can enter a piece of text and instantly see the most frequently used words in a word cloud. Then, they can use an interactive dictionary/thesaurus (from Visual Thesaurus) to explore the meaning of those words. They can also see pictures generated by Google's image search engine and find out where the words are located in their text.

For example, let's say we want our students to analyze President Obama's Inaugural Address. We paste the text into Word Sift and we see a word cloud like this:

As in most word clouds, the bigger the word, the more times it was used in the text. We can click on any word to explore it further. Let's try "people." Below the word cloud, we see Google image search results like this:

To the right, we see an interactive thesaurus/dictionary with connections to related concepts:

And finally, we see our word in the context of our original text. We can click on any of these sentences to see where they are located in the text.

This site could be useful to teachers in lots of ways. I will let you know how it works when I try it out. For the time being, Word Sift's demo page has some ideas. Let me know if you do too!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Welcome to Literacy Log! I'm Brian Shephard, and I would like this site to become a clearinghouse for ideas and strategies for teachers of all kinds of literacy. Click here to read more about this site.

Please comment whenever you feel the urge and send your suggestions/contributions to Enjoy!

Wordle: Literacy Log 4.7.09

Every Test Is A Reading Test

I was perusing Teacher Magazine's Blog Board and found a link to a great blog called Learn Me Good, written by "Mister Teacher," a 3rd Grade math teacher in Texas. He is preparing his students for their standardized tests and notes that after 3rd Grade, students may not ask for questions to be read or explained to them, even if they are English language learners. He notes:

So what it comes down to is that these kids are taking a series of reading tests. Some of them are ABOUT math or ABOUT science, but they don't strictly assess those subject areas as much as they assess whether or not the child can read the questions, some of which are highly complicated.

Mister Teacher is referring to the rules in Texas; I am sure they vary from state to state. In any event, his point has a lot to say about the importance of literacy and the pitfalls of assessing our students with standardized tests.

Again, Learn Me Good is a really good education blog; if you like math, funny t-shirts, or insights like the one above, check it out.

(Picture: "Testing" - CC)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Brainstorming with Wordle

Wordle: Brain Storm

Here's another installment in what is becoming a series on the use of word clouds in the classroom.

I was delivering a practice lesson to a class of graduate students in secondary education about push and pull factors in Geography. Basically, a push factor is something that makes you want to leave a place and a pull factor is something that attracts you to someplace else.

After our warm-up and my initial introduction to the concepts, I thought it might be useful to ask my students to contribute examples. Since I have become obsessed with, I thought I'd try to use as a way for the class to visualize the results of our brainstorming. Here are the results:

Wordle: Push Factors Wordle: Pull Factors

In a Wordle graphic, a word gets bigger the more times it appears in the text you enter. So for push factors, I started by typing in "push" and "factors" many times to make them much larger than the other words. Then, I just typed in the students' examples as they shouted them out.

The result is a word cloud that depicts our brainstorming session. This can be used as a guide for further in-class discussion or for later review by the students. If I had a class website, I could put the word clouds up for test prep.

I have begun to use with all kinds of students, and they are uniformly fascinated by the results. When brainstorming is used in class, the results are typically either scribbled on the board or left to drift out the window. The students in this class were presented with an eye-catching, reusable picture of our discussion moments after it happened.

Here's a link to the results of my experimentation with Let me know if you find new ways to use it in the classroom!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Web Resource: Storyline Online

In my "Jumping Off" post featuring Jen Robinson's Book Page, I mentioned Storyline Online, where you can watch videos of SAG members reading children's books. SAG is The Screen Actors Guild, which runs the site in conjunction with its Book Pals program.

I don't know if watching Bradley Whitford (of West Wing fame) read a story would be as inspiring to a young reader as it was to me, but I got chills. Because of the site's layout, I can't provide links to individual stories. But I can list a few of the highlights for you. The URL is Here are some highlights:
  • James Earl Jones reading To Be A Drum, by Evelyn Coleman
  • Al Gore reading Brave Irene, by William Steig
  • Sean Astin reading A Bad Case of Stripes, by David Shannon
  • Elijah Wood reading Me And My Cat?, by Satoshi Kitamura
  • Camryn Manheim reading Enemy Pie, by Derek Munson
  • And.... Hillary Duff reading Romeow & Drooliet, by Nina Laden
Each video is accompanied by a long list of activities that can accompany reading/listening. You can also download a PDF "Activity Guide" with information about the book, a biography of the reader, and related internet resources.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

826 Valencia - A Community-Based Literacy Solution

"What we really need is just more people, more bodies, more one-on-one attention, more hours, more expertise from people that have skills in English and can work with these students one-on-one."

This is what Dave Eggers kept hearing from his friends who were teachers. They could see that their efforts during the school day were not sufficient- they felt like they were fighting a losing battle.

But Eggers, whose novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize, realized his life was full of the kinds of people ("writers, editors, journalists, graduate students, assistant professors") who could help improve the literacy skills of students outside of school hours.

In the TED Talk featured below, Eggers tells the story of 826 Valencia, the tutoring center that arose from this insight. Eggers is not an educator, but he seems to have understood intuitively what educators know about the importance of building community, connecting with families, providing one-on-one attention, creating real products, and bringing together learners with various levels of expertise.

Check out Dave's talk, and let us know what you think!

Further Reading

Monday, April 6, 2009

Jumping Off: Jen Robinson's Book Page

Here we begin what will become a regular feature of Literacy Log. We'll start with a website or blog about literacy and follow their featured links to see what we find.

Today's featured site is Jen Robinson's Book Page. Jen focuses on children's books. She explores ways to get books into the hands of children and increase adult interest in childrens' books. Her blog is packed with book reviews and children's literacy news. This "Reviews That Made Me Want To Read The Book" entry is a good example of what Jen's up to.

Wordle: Jen Robinson's Book Page - 4.6.09
Jen Robinson's Book Page - Graphic created at

A few minutes exploring Jen's "Other Children's Literacy Links" section led me to the following places:
That's it for today! A big thank you to Jen Robinson, who has no idea we're using her blog as a jumping off point. And, as always, tell us what you think about these links and others you stumble upon!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

More Fun With Wordle - Submissions Needed! is place where users can create free, eye-catching word clouds. On Feb. 11, I wrote about how word clouds could be used as a literacy aid. I'd love to hear your ideas on how Wordle could be used in the classroom!

I recently introduced Literacy Log to a class full of future ESL teachers, and word clouds seemed to generate the most excitement. I thought it might be a good idea to feature them once again. So, here are some word clouds depicting documents in a few different languages.

Literacy Log officially guarantees that you will enjoy playing around on Wordle. Send me a link you your creation and I'll feature it here!

4/5/09 Update:
Wade Roush at Xconomy interviews the creator of Wordle, John Feinberg. get not only a picture of the relative frequency of words but you can get happy random juxtapositions of words that are conducive to associative thinking. It's generating ideas about something that otherwise wouldn't have occured to you. It's like a data toy.
-John Feinberg

Brenda Dyck at Education World writes about potential classroom uses for Wordle. Highly recommended!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Web Resource: A Twist on Word Clouds by NYT

A couple of months ago, we featured Word Clouds as a web resource. These are easy-to-create graphic representations of the main themes in a piece of text.

Take a look at this interactive graphic from The New York Times. It solicits input about how people are feeling about the economy and displays it in a form similar to a word cloud.

This is a pretty amazing tool. It allows you to sort by respondents' employment information and time of entry. And, it is constantly updated, even allowing the viewer to contribute.

Here's another one from the presidential election last fall.

When it comes to teaching literacy, this graphic would be very useful if you are working with adjectives, as all of the responses are of that part of speech. It would also be useful if you are talking about finding the mood or tone of a piece of writing.

Tongue Twisters As Phonemic Awareness Tools

Kids love tongue twisters. They are catchy and giggle-inducing. Most importantly, they present a challenge. As a result, tongue twisters can be an easy way to help children learn various literacy skills.

Here, we'll talk about phonemic awareness. Any activity that encourages students to isolate or repeat small sound units can help with phonemic awareness. Tongue twisters, especially alliterative ones, can be an easy way to accomplish this.

For example, here's one I hadn't heard before from The Tongue Twister Database. Imagine using this to reinforce a student's concept of the "b" sound:

Betty Botter had some butter,
"But," she said. "this butter's bitter.
If I bake this bitter butter,
it would make my batter bitter.
But a bit of better butter--
that would make my batter better."

So she bought a bit of butter,
better than her bitter butter,
and she baked it in her batter,
and the batter was not bitter.
So 'twas better Betty Botter
bought a bit of better butter.

Tongue Twister Collections:
Here's a set of lesson plans from a group of elementary school teachers in West Virginia. Tongue twisters are only a small part of this unit; there's a lot to like here.

And I can't resist; here's Steve Martin showing off for Bernadette Peters.