About WordSift

WordSift was created to help teachers manage the demands of vocabulary and academic language in their text materials. We especially hope that this tool is helpful in supporting English Language Learners. We want WordSift to be a useful tool, but we also want it to be fun and visually pleasing. We would be happy if you think of it playfully - as 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 explore the richness and wonders of language!

WordSift helps anyone easily sift through texts -- just cut and paste any text into WordSift and you can engage in a verbal quick-capture! The program helps to quickly identify important words that appear in the text. This function is widely available in various Tag Cloud programs on the web, but we have added the ability to mark and sort different lists of words important to educators. We have also integrated it with a few other functions, such as visualization of word thesaurus relationships (incorporating the amazing Visual Thesaurus® that we highly recommend in its own right) and a limited image-search feature. With just a click on any word in the Tag Cloud, the program displays instances of sentences in which that word is used in the text.

Creative teachers will find an endless variety of uses for WordSift, but here are some ways:

Lesson preparation

A teacher can use WordSift to review assigned text to identify challenging words or concepts prior to a lesson, and identify images and videos to use in class. The videos (hidden but displayed by hitting “>Video”) can be especially useful in the preview function since many schools do not allow access to YouTube, but a teacher can download useful videos (such as a science lab demonstration) onto his or her laptop computer from home. Note: due to changes to Google’s terms of service, we are currently unable to offer a video-search feature or even a full image-search feature. We hope to be able to reinstate these features in the future, and apologize for the inconvenience for now.

Previewing text

In whole class or individually, students can preview text. Reading comprehension research suggests that previewing text is a useful strategy for improving comprehension. Using WordSift to identify the key vocabulary, and playing with the images and using the example source sentence feature to “skim” the text can help students who might otherwise struggle with the complexity of the text.

Group activities

Teachers have found simple activities using small portions of WordSift useful. For example, one teacher has developed a simple routine in which she gives students the Tag Cloud, and has them working in small groups to write or draw a page using the words in the cloud. Another possibility would be to take the Visual Thesaurus® display of a word web and have students identify and discuss related words.

Literacy support

Individual students can use WordSift as they read text, or as they write a response or summary. Adult users of WordSift have reported using WordSift for their own purposes to skim text (as one teacher said, “I don’t skim, I sift”) and also to review their own writing drafts. The creator of WordSift, Kenji Hakuta, uses it to preview and scout around documents that promise to be boring, such as long education policy documents, clicking on key words.


Whole-class vocabulary assessment can be done on-the-fly by showing the images from selected words, having students identify unfamiliar words, and having them talk about which picture is the best representation of a given word. Teachers can also tailor their own assessments by copying and pasting the images, words, and sentences identified by WordSift into a separate file (such as in Word or Powerpoint) and printing it out for student work.

So, think of a word much like a soccer ball or hackeysack. Think of a classroom as a kind of playground in which words can be kicked around for fun and for learning -- not drill and kill, and not list and define. WordSift enables teachers to create an environment where language is “talked about” as richly as possible. Much of language cannot be taught directly, but can b learned through active talk, so why not have a way of talking about language? Try pasting some text into WordSift, display it to your class, and talk about what you see. Be spontaneous and generative -- that is the stuff that forms the basis of strong language acquisition.

We will keep working on WordSift to make it useful and fun, so please send us your feedback. Mostly, have fun, and talk a lot! Send an e-mail to [email protected] and [email protected] and we will try to incorporate your feedback into our next version.

Kenji Hakuta

The first version of WordSift was developed under a grant from the Council of Great City Schools to Kenji Hakuta. Functionality design assistance was offered by Diego Roman and Karen Thompson, at the time both doctoral students at Stanford, and both former teachers. WordSift was devised with the help and inspiration of middle school science teachers at the San Francisco Unified School District through a collaboration supported by the Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP). WordSift.org is created, developed, and maintained by Simon Wiles, a doctoral student at Stanford.