Seminar activity Ideas 6: Number Crunching a Text with ‘Word’

Seminar teaching


Number crunching a text — analysing the number of exclamation marks or how many times a particular word or lexical cluster appears in a text or section of a text – can be an illuminating and very concrete way into wider exploration and analysis, providing students with a sound foundation for discussing, for example:

  • Language
  • Structure
  • Characterisation
  • The relationship between the way the text is written and its themes

It can be a particularly helpful approach for students who find personal response tricky, who are initially overwhelmed by the thought of getting to grips with the whole text or who struggle to root their personal response in a detailed analysis.

Online concordances can be a useful tool for number crunching a text. However, where a text exists online in a form which can be downloaded or copied and pasted into a ‘Word’ document, it is worth spending some time creating your own versions for students to interrogate, unsettle and ‘play’ with in a variety of ways. Once you have a ‘Word’ version, you can also create a ‘collapsed’ version of separate scenes, chapters and so on (with all the words organised alphabetically). This will enable you to do some number crunching activities using hard copies when you do not have access to a computer.

What to do

‘Word’ will cope with collapsing texts of reasonable length (for example a chapter) but might struggle with a whole novel. If you do need to collapse a whole novel, Collapser claims to be able to manage it!

To use ‘Word’ to collapse a text, follow these steps:

  1. Make sure the original text is saved.
  2. Highlight the text and keep it highlighted throughout.
  3. In the ‘Edit’ menu, or, in Word 2007, the ‘Home’ tab, choose ‘Replace’.
  4. Type a space in the top box.
  5. Type ^p in the lower box.
  6. Choose ‘Replace all’.
  7. Choose ‘OK’, then ‘Close’.

You have now replaced all the gaps between the words with paragraph breaks, and will see all the words of the text strung out vertically.

  1. Unless working with Word 2007, go to the ‘Table’ menu and choose ‘Sort AZ’ (On an Apple, choose ‘Sort’ and ‘Sort by Field 1’). If working in Word 2007, on the ‘Home’ tab, in the ‘Paragraph’ section, choose the ‘AZ’ button.
  2. Choose ‘OK’.You have now sorted all paragraphs (and thus words) alphabetically. Each word will be on a separate line, in alphabetical order. This works well for poetry and for short drama texts. For longer texts (such as a short story or chapter from a novel), it’s best to ‘run the text on’ – it only takes another 2 minutes.
  3. Highlight the text again.
  1. In the ‘Edit’ menu, or, in Word 2007, the ‘Home’ tab, choose ‘Replace’.
  2. Type a ^p in the top box.
  3. Type a space in the lower box.
  4. Choose ‘Replace all’.
  5. Choose ‘No’.
  6. Choose ‘Close’.

You have now replaced paragraph breaks with word breaks and should now have an alphabetical list of all words in continuous text.

If you’re working with a piece of collapsed prose, you might decide to format the text so that each new word begins on a new line. This can be helpful for students if you are going to explore the collapsed text on hard copies. However, it is a bit time-consuming and you may decide it is a stage too far!

2. Number crunching activities – getting started
While students will want to carry out their own number crunching investigations on the text, it can be useful to prepare a few examples to discuss as a group, to allow you to model the sorts of things students might pay attention to and the sorts of textual analysis which might result from such an exploration.

Sample activities using a printout of the collapsed text

For the following activities students will need:

  • A copy of the original text.
  • A chapter-by-chapter version of the collapsed text (or the whole of the collapsed poem).

You can download a sample handout for Collapsed Blake, containing collapsed texts, original texts and instructions to students.

Example 1 – Analysing a chapter
  1. Give students responsibility, individually or in pairs, for looking in detail at a single chapter or scene. Depending on the text and what you want to achieve through this exploration you may decide that the whole group focus on the same chapter, scene or section. Number crunching activities can, however, be a particularly useful way of getting a sense of the text as a whole, the focus, tone etc of different chapters, the way language/style develops or alters across the text and what this might suggest about the text. If possible make sure each chapter is being covered by at least one person in the group.
  2. If you are carrying out this activity after reading, it can be interesting to ask students to make a note of their impression of the text, in no more than 20 words, before handing out the collapsed versions. This will allow them to test their impressionistic response against what they discover through a close ‘number-crunching’ analysis. You can, however, also use this activity productively before reading, to stimulate students’ thinking, raise questions about the text and so on.
  3. Ask students to look through a printout of the collapsed version of your text. (From this webpage you can download pdf files including sample collapsed text of two Collapsed Blake and Collapsed_Gatsby.) Ask them questions such as the following:
  • What strikes them as they skim their eyes down the page?
  • Which words leap out at them?

If students are tackling this activity after reading, ask them if their impressionistic response to the text has been confirmed or challenged by viewing the collapsed text.
If exploring the chapter (or scene), ask them to note down their expectations of the text, the questions it raises, the ways in which the particular words might be used.

  1. Ask students to focus on the insights they gain into the text by exploring the collapsed text (the way it is written, themes, the role different characters play). Ask each student (or pair) to focus on four or five words (or lexical clusters) that particularly interest them to explore it in context, either by looking back into the text or by being alert to its use as they read. (See below for how you can use a ‘Word’ version of the chapter to locate each word in the context in which it appears.)
  2. Take it in turns to feed back to the whole group two or three of the points that you find most interesting.
Example 2 – Investigating a lexical cluster

Ask students to focus on one lexical cluster and investigate it in more detail across each chapter. For example:

  • Is it always used in the same way?
  • Or in relation to the same character?
  • If exploring a verb (such as ‘to see’) does it make a difference what tense it is used in?
Example 3 — Checking and challenging assumptions

After reading a (non-collapsed) text, ask students to identify a word or lexical cluster that they assume is important. With a five-minute time limit, students skim their eyes down each of the collapsed chapters/scenes/sections to see whether and how many times the word is used. Are their assumptions confirmed – or challenged? Use the ‘Word’ version of the chapter to ‘Find’ where the word is used in context (see below).

Sample activities using non-collapsed electronic text in ‘Word’

If students have access to a computer (either in or out of class) and a version of the text saved as a ‘Word’ file, they can explore the text in the same way as they would with an online concordance.

The techniques below are exemplified in a downloadable pdf file of Crunching_Gatsby.

Example 1 — Investigating punctuation

Use the digital version of the chapter to count up the number of times different punctuation marks are used. Select the text. From the ‘Edit’ menu (or the ‘Home’ tab in ‘Word’ 2007) choose ‘Replace’. In ‘Find’ put the punctuation mark you are interested in. In ‘Replace’ put nothing or a space. Click ‘Replace all’. You will be told how many replacements have been made. What might the significance of this be? Come up with a hypothesis to use as a focus for your exploration of the text.

Example 2 – Investigating words and phrases

You can do a ‘Find’ and ‘Replace’ search for any word, phrase or cluster of words that you are interested in. Select the text. From the ‘Edit’ menu (or the ‘Home’ tab in ‘Word’ 2007), choose ‘Replace’. Put the word you are investigating into ‘Find’. In ‘Replace’ put nothing or a space. Click ‘Replace all’. You will be told how many replacements have been made – this is the number of times this word or phrase occurs in the text you are investigating. Click ‘Close’ then go to ‘Edit’ and ‘Undo’ (alternatively, close the file without saving it).

Example 3 – Investigating contexts of occurrence

After discovering the number of times a particular word or phrase is used in the novel or chapter, you can use the digital version to explore where it occurs, who by and so on. Select the text. From the ‘Edit’ menu (or the ‘Home’ tab in ‘Word’ 2007), choose ‘Find’ and type in the word you are investigating. Click ‘Find’ then ‘Find next’ to see the word or phrase in the context in

Activity contributed by Barbara Bleiman and Lucy Webster, of the English and Media Centre.