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Teaching Disciplinary Writing Using Google Ngrams

Published onAug 13, 2020
Teaching Disciplinary Writing Using Google Ngrams

Author & Project Role

Author: Ruth Li, PhD Candidate in English & Education, University of Michigan,

Role: Course Instructor

Assignment Materials


Learning Objectives

What did you want students to be able to do by completing this assignment?

In this activity, I supported students to conceptualize, analyze, and interpret language patterns across a large corpus of texts archived in Google Ngrams. In particular, I encouraged students to examine the shifting usage over time of relevant words and concepts in their disciplines of interest.

Technology-Dependent Learning Outcomes

Was there anything this assignment taught students that you felt they wouldn't have been able to learn through other types of class assignments?

By tracing the usage of key words and concepts in their disciplines, students were able to visualize the trends and patterns over time, including increases and decreases, and intersections and divergences, in the uses of related terms over time.

Skill Level

What is the course title and level?

I taught this activity in English 225: Academic Argumentation, an upper-level elective writing course open to students across majors and levels. I designed this course based on theme of writing in academic disciplines - an introduction to the language patterns of argumentation across academic disciplines.

What kinds of prior knowledge is necessary to complete this assignment? How do students gain this knowledge?

Disciplinary knowledge - that is, knowledge of concepts in a field of interest - is useful for completing this activity and might be gained an a disciplinary course. Tool-specific knowledge could be gained as students experiment with searching Ngrams.

Assignment Description

In this activity that I taught in an upper-level writing class, I asked students to search for keywords, terms, and concepts in their chosen disciplines using Google Ngrams, an online corpus and visualization tool. Working in small groups, students entered in words relevant to their disciplines, took screenshots of the graphs, which they copied and pasted in a collaborative Google Doc, and discussed patterns they noticed in the trends and frequencies of words over time. This assignment enabled students to visualize the patterns of language and discourse across academic disciplines, as terminologies and meanings shifted across both spatial and temporal dimensions.

Time Needed

How much time did you allot to this project?

I devoted one class session to this in-class activity. Students had time to search for keywords and concepts, take notes on a Google Doc, and discuss their findings in small-group and whole-class settings.

Support & Training

What kinds of support or training did you provide to help students learn to use new techniques or specialized tools?

In the instructions for the activity presented in Google Slides and Docs, I encouraged students to search for multiple keywords and to adjust the year ranges and language corpuses as needed.


Did you need any specialized equipment, tools, or human resources to make this assignment feasible? If so, please describe.

I asked students to bring personal laptops and collaborate on a Google Doc.


How did you assess or grade this project?

As this was an in-class activity, I offered informal feedback during the whole-class discussion. If I were to assign this activity as a larger project such as an essay based on the findings, I might include rubric criteria including the strength of the description and interpretation of the visual data.

Challenges & Opportunities

If you assigned this project again, would you change anything? If so, what?

If I assigned the project again, I might ask students to compose a short essay that expands on their initial observations and constructs an argument about the patterns of discourse in their chosen disciplines.

Describe any trouble spots or complications someone else might want to be aware of before trying a similar assignment in a course of their own.

I think that on the whole, this assignment worked smoothly and was accessible to students.

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