We like tools that are fascinating to use and make users look smarter than their peers. Visualization apps and sites rank pretty high on the fascination-o-meter, and they're also great for those of us who learn best by seeing and doing, rather than simply reading text.
The folks at Thinkmap (the makers of Visual Thesaurus) have just launched a tool called VocabGrabber that is absolutely as cool to play with, as it is informative and useful. It takes any text a user chooses (it can process an obscene amount of copy - up to 200,000 characters, or about 100 pages) and parses it for likely vocabulary words, organizing them in several fascinating ways and showing linguistic and contextual links to other terms.
Between Project Gutenberg and VocabGrabber, students of English (and let's be honest, bored Internet surfers with time to kill) have an intuitive, fun, and completely free resource that is miles deep and wide.
Here's a taste of how VocabGrabber handled the famous "Once more unto the breach" soliloquy from Shakespeare's Henry V, showing all identified vocabulary words, sorted by relevance in a list, with icons denoting the nature of the word and visuals linking it to similar words, all with definitions and uses in the text itself:
Next, just for fun, we threw the entirety of Plato's Symposium into the text entry field and checked out how all the vocabulary words looked in a color-coded tag cloud:
Then, we decided to separate vocabulary about people, social studies, and the arts. We wanted to see linguistic maps of the words as thumbnails, and we wanted the words sorted alphabetically:
Finally, we wanted to see the same results as a list sorted by number of occurrences within the text:
Also, any vocabulary words can be mapped using the Visual Thesaurus, which is available on a limited trial or a rather affordable subscription basis:
Obviously, this is a great tool for ESL learners, for English teachers at certain grade levels, for standardized-test takers, and for students at any level who struggle with comprehension of dense text material. VocabGrabber also seems like a nice way to keep one's offspring from rotting in front of a television.
Additionally, it might be a fun way to spend a few minutes that you, the non-learning adult netizen, would have otherwise donated to the ICanHasCheezburger franchise. Plus, it probably looks a bit more convincingly work-related on your cubicle computer screen than does a wittily captioned photo of a cat with a lime-rind helmet.