How are British children responding to the emerging themes and issues in their writing?
When OUP was asked if we’d like to be the language expert for a ‘pop up’ 500 Words: Black Lives Matter children’s writing competition, we didn’t hesitate for a moment. OUP has been the language partner to 500 Words since 2012, analysing children’s writing submissions. During this time, that analysis has formed an important part of our ongoing language and lexical research, and we’ve expanded the Oxford Children’s Corpus – the biggest living database of children’s reading and writing in English.
A shift in focus
But this particular 500 Words competition has provided a new dimension to our research. In previous years, young writers could write about anything, in 500 words or less. With 500 Words: Black Lives Matter, children were asked to write to a specific theme and our data shows this led to a significant shift in the children’s writing.
We observed new language that hadn’t been seen in previous competitions and noticed an increased use of political and realistic language. What’s more, children were more willing than ever to explore their vocabulary and experiment with different writing styles, appropriate to the theme of the competition.
The 500 Words: BLM 2020 Corpus
New words for a new topic
Each time we’ve analysed 500 Words writing submissions, we’ve seen a wide range of new and unusual words – inspired by politics, entertainment, media, books, technology and current affairs. Our 500 Words: Black Lives Matter analysis reveals how a prompt can direct a young writer to think about their choice of vocabulary and as a result, use much more focused list of words related to the theme.
For example, BLM is a brand new term that we’ve never observed in previous 500 Words analysis.
Our data shows a significant increase in the use of the word protest, appearing 3,834 across the stories. This word has often appeared in previous children’s 500 Words submissions in relation to the environment or Greta Thunberg, but it’s seen an increase of 3730% compared to its use in 500 Words 2020 data. When we explore how the word protest has been used, it was mostly in relation to protesting against racism and supporting the BLM movement. We’ve also observed how other words have increased in frequency of use, including racism (3,785 times), racist (1,651 times), equal (1110 times) and rights (971 times), with justice, equality, protester, discrimination and slavery following closely behind.
Children also played with styles of narrative for this competition, with an increase in non-fictional writing with realistic descriptions and accurate historical knowledge and detail, demonstrating how young writers used research to underpin their stories.
BLM theme changes top names
Our previous 500 Words analysis has shown that children are inspired by and write about a fairly balanced selection of fictional and real people and characters. For example, for the last 8 years, Santa and Cinderella have occupied the top spot in children’s stories. In 500 Words: Black Lives Matter, there has been a noticeable shift in the people children wrote about, with far greater use of real people’s names.
Given the theme and timing of the 500 Words: BLM 2020 competition, it is perhaps unsurprising that George Floyd is at the top of the list. There were also references to influential people throughout history, such as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman.
Interestingly, the only fictional character that appears in the top twenty names is Cinderella. In our 500 Words 2020 language report, 50% of the names in the top 20 list were fictional characters. This a big shift and speaks to children’s sensitivity and understanding of the importance of the topic.
The language of colour
Colour has played an important role in the children’s writing in this competition, with 5,785 uses of the word colour alone. Previous analysis showed that children wrote about many colours, however, in 500 Words: Black Lives Matter, the focus is on two colours, primarily – black and white. When we conducted contextual analysis, we can see that these colours are used mostly in relation to skin and hair. But we’ve also seen how writers use colour really creatively to explore the theme. One young author wrote about ‘Snow Black’ rather than Snow White; another author wrote about the Hulk being bullied for his green skin.
The language of positivity
We use sentiment analysis to note the balance in use of happy vs. sad language. In previous 500 Words studies, the language has always been more positive than negative. In the 500 Words: Black Lives Matter analysis, this is still the case, with 62% ‘happy’ words used, and 38% ‘sad’. There are also some positive themes and encouraging messages in children’s writing about being ‘proud to be black’.
What’s clear is that writing to a theme has prompted children to think very carefully about their writing style, choice of words, and use of references – whether real events, historical figures; key sports personalities, children’s authors or characters from films. The writing shows evidence of research, as children use of political vocabulary to express their ideas and opinions about this important topic.
This piece of research has provided a wonderful new dimension to our lexical research and expanded our language data, which helps us advance our commitment to excellence in research, scholarship and Education.
But more than this, this competition has given young people a voice to express their views – in their own words. And it’s our job to listen to what they have to say about this important topic. We are privileged to have played a part in this campaign, helping to shine a light on children’s insight, empathy, and imagination when writing about race, and have been humbled by the outstanding pieces of writing children have created.
Explore the results
For more information on the findings and insights into children’s language in 2020, read the full report here.