The more students write, the more they should expand their vocabulary. However, it’s natural to develop favorite words (we native speakers do this as well). It’s nice to have some go-to’s, but it’s also easy to over-use our favorites. Plus, reusing the same words over and over means there are similar words we’re not using – words which might be better for certain situations, and will at least vary our vocabulary. So in a sense, favorite words end up limiting our vocabulary a bit.
There’s an easy way to check which words you use the most: generate a word cloud. The picture at the top of this post is an example. Simply do a web search for ‘word cloud’, and you’ll get a number of sites that can generate them for you. Once you’ve selected a site, paste in a large body of text. There might be other options that you can play around with, most of which likely effect the visual style of the cloud. One option you should select if available is ignoring small, common words like pronouns, articles, prepositions, and conjunctions. Everyone uses these a lot, and they don’t bare much significance here.
The resulting word cloud only displays the frequently-used words. In most versions, the more frequently a word appears, the larger it is in the cloud. Now, by taking just a minute to look over the word cloud, you know which words are most common in your writing.
If you’ve used this more a story, you’ll probably see plenty of proper nouns. Likewise, for an essay or report, you might see words relating to the topic as prevalent in the cloud. Ignore these for our purposes; of course you’ve used them a lot; there’s not a lot of options otherwise. What other words are you using a lot? Moving forward, be more mindful of these, and try to use some synonyms instead.
For example, I saw once that I was using the word ‘exactly’ a lot (like in our Passive Voice video). I didn’t notice it at first because it was so natural to me. But once I realized how over-used it was, it stuck out like a sore thumb. Now, every time I want to use ‘exactly’, I think about some similar words or phrases and decide if one of those could better fit my meaning.
To see which favorites develop over time, it might not do much good to use a word cloud for a single piece of writing. Try instead taking the past four or five things that each of your students have written (it helps if they are already typed, which means you can simply cut-and-past for the word cloud). With more sources, you get a better idea of which words students overuse.
Next, take some time to discuss a few alternatives to those words, and think of some ways to give your students reminders next time they write something.