Word Art

There are a number of different ways to have students analyze a primary source in doing the work of a historian. By utilizing free web 2.0 tools like “Tag Cloud” or “Wordle”, students can create a simple visual that allows them to figure out the key elements to a primary source. While this can be done with one source, my example uses three letters from General George McClellan and three letters from President Abraham Lincoln. The letters span about ten days in October of 1862 as the President grew more and more frustrated with the General’s lack of engagement with the Confederate army.

Here are McClellan’s three letters to Lincoln.

October 17, 1862


October 25, 1862


October 27, 1862


Students simply copy and paste or type in the primary sources and the program creates the visual you see below.


The larger words are the ones repeated most often in McClellan’s letters to Lincoln. The smallest words are probably only used once in the three letters. Students can then analyze the significance of the large words. In Common Core language, these standards are addressed through this type of analysis:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

Students may notice that “cavalry”, “time”, “honor”, and “miles” are some of the more repeated words in the letters. What does that tell us about General McClellan? For someone who is often accused of spending too much time preparing and not enough time in battle, the word “time” certainly must have significance. Students could discuss this in class or even write a 1-2 page response about the visual.

Here are the three Lincoln letters to McClellan:

October 13, 1862


October 26, 1862

Washington City, D.C., Oct. 24 [25], 1862.
Majr. Genl. McClellan
I have just read your despatch about sore tongued and fatiegued horses. Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?

October 26, 1862


Students complete the same process and receive the visual you see below:

20131014-135556.jpgIn Lincoln’s case, the words “enemy”, “move”, “communications”, and “Richmond” are prominent. Students can analyze the Lincoln letters by themselves or in conjunction with the McClellan letters. In any case, using word art programs allows students to analyze key ideas as well as any “traditional” tool teachers resort to today.

Here are a few links to get you started:



Search “Tag Cloud” on App Store



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