Friday, February 24, 2017

Using Word Clouds To Illustrate Literary Devices When Teaching Tanakh

One of my favorite literary devices when learning and teaching Tanakh is the leitwort, leading words, or מילה המנחה. This term refers to a word, root, or series of words in the Hebrew text which repeats itself multiple times usually to hint at a big idea embedded within the unit. This can be illuminating to students as it comes across as a "secret code" within the chapter of Tanakh which our students have to find and unlock its meaning.

It is also a device where students clearly see the value of studying in the Hebrew text since the leading words are only apparent in the original Hebrew. This is lost in even a very good translation since Hebrew is a much more versatile language than English with its ability to do word plays by converting the same root into nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

One of my favorite strategies to teach leading words is the use of word clouds, randomly computer generated images in which words are sized based on frequency. The more times a word appears, the bigger it is in the word cloud. These clouds can be beautiful pieces of art when using the right app and since they are created at random, lend a level of authenticity to the finding of the leitwort since this is not an artificial process pointed out by the teacher but is found organically through the word cloud.

In the past, I used Wordle, a web app, to generate my word clouds. 

I find using word clouds to be an especially effective classroom strategy when introducing a text since students can use it to see the protagonists and main themes in a story.

Below is an example from Kings II chapter 9.

Through the word cloud students clearly see who the story will be about, Yehu the rising king, Yehoram who Yehu is overthrowing in a coup, and strangely the word HaShalom, which means do you come in peace. In this chapter, an extended battle, HaShalom seems to be out of place, a mystery to solve when students delve into the verses in greater depth.

Below is another example from Amos chapter 1.

This word cloud clearly indicates the repeated phrasing in the first chapter of Amos, עַל-שְׁלֹשָׁה פִּשְׁעֵי... וְעַל-אַרְבָּעָה לֹא אֲשִׁיבֶנּוּ, for three sins [I shall forgive] but for the fourth I will not reverse... They also notice God as the theme in the chapter who is wreaking punishment against each of the peoples listed for their crimes against humanity.

Wordle has always been my go-to word cloud generator until now. Recently Wordle has stopped working. Perhaps the web site needs updating with some more modern code. Wordle, if your out there, I would love for you to read this post and update your site. Until then, I have been searching for a new word cloud generator.


Worditout is similar to Wordle. It is free, currently works beautifully with Hebrew and other languages, randomly generates word clouds sized based on frequency while allowing for many different color schemes and word sizings.  It is a wonderful word cloud app.

One important caveat is in order when using worditout and other word cloud apps. It is important that you use as clean a Tanakh text as possible. These apps are dumb computers running algorithms, even different Taamei Hamikra above he word will cause the computer to view the same word as different in the word cloud. Dashes after the word create similar confusion. My recommendation is that you use text from Mechon Mamre which has no cantillation notes. Then paste it into a Google doc and remove all of the dashes by the words and only then copy and paste the text into worditout. This will result in a much more accurate word cloud.

Below is an example I made yesterday using worditout that I will be teaching next week from the first chapter of Megillat Esther.

When I saw this word cloud randomly generated before my eyes, I got so excited I started screaming in delight. 

This word cloud illuminates the central tension in the first chapter of Esther and really the entire Megillah. Who is the מלך, the king, in the story? We know that famously God's name never appears in Megillat Esther yet Chazal says that המלך is a veiled reference to God. You see in this word cloud that the entire chapter revolves around the king. Besides המלך, we have מלכות, המלכה, המלכות and most notably אחשורוש. This is the overarching question of chapter 1. Who have the Jews chosen as their king? Instead of choosing God, the King of Kings, they have chosen Achashverosh, the King of Persia. The rest of Megillat Esther explores the ramifications of this choice.

I am SO excited to show this word cloud to my students and see what inferences they will make from the text about the story. I will keep you updated in future installments on this blog, להגדיל תורה ולהאדירה.

Cross-posted from my TechRav blog.

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