Exploring children’s language: the BBC Radio 2 500 Words competition and the Oxford Children’s Corpus

Today marks the start of this year’s BBC Radio 2 500 Words competition, run by the Chris Evans Breakfast Show. The competition asks children aged 13 or under to compose an original work of fiction of 500 words. The entries are judged by a star-studded cast of children’s authors, with the winning entries read out live on the Chris Evans Breakfast Show.  Find out more on the BBC website.


We are extremely excited to say that we will be teaming up with BBC Radio 2 and BBC Learning to work with the competition for a second year, providing language research using our unique Children’s Corpus, our huge language database.

We will collect and analyse all the words in the stories entered into the competition, and with the help of the Oxford Children’s Corpus, explore the ways children use language today; pick out their favourite words, discover new words, and even look at how they use punctuation for dramatic effect!

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2012 findings: top words, invented words, and unusual words used by the children

Here are just a few gems from our findings from last year. There were some amazing invented words, impressive use of correct spelling, and fascinating regional and gender differences in the kind of language the children used.

You might also be interested to read the Guardian article Why children find it easier to spell ‘pterodactyl’ and ‘Hermione’, written by lexicographer and school teacher Jane Bradbury, which explores some of the most fascinating findings from the 2012 research. Jane was part of the OUP language research team for the 2012 500 Words competition.

Top words

  • Mum and friend were in the top ten nouns used by the children.
  • The most common noun was door – used 67, 783 times!
  • Technology has changed the way in which traditional words are used. While there are 1,124 instance of mobile, the vast majority refer to mobile telephones, while just 0.1% of refer to the traditional cot toy. Of nearly 300 occurrences of blackberry, more than half refer to phones rather than fruit.
  • Girls used the word school frequently – but it wasn’t in the boys’ top ten nouns.
  • Both boys and girls had cars in their stories (the word was used 21, 265 times) but boys were much more likely to mention exactly the type of car (Ferrari, BMW, Ford) than girls.

Spelling and punctuation

  • Children knew or took time to check the spelling of unusual or technical words. Children as young as 7 spelled pterodactyl, palomino, archaeologist, and spectacular correctly, almost 100% of the time. However, children had difficulty spelling more common words such as don’t and doesn’t.
  • The poor old apostrophe was often misused. But, the exclamation mark was used 351,731 times!
  • Adults are sometimes concerned that children’s spelling will be affected by ‘txtspk’ – but young writers ‘knew the difference’. It was only used when a text message was included in the story.
  • US vocabulary and spelling influenced the children’s writing, with some US terms existing alongside UK terms, especially in the 10-13 age group, e.g. flashlight, garbage truck, trash can, sidewalk, sneakers, soda, tuxedo. Both US and UK English appear in some sentences: They have a drink of soda each and porridge to help their brain power. I walked onto the cobbled pavement, opening the metal trashcan.

Invented words

  • The children are wonderfully inventive, particularly in their use of technology, e.g. apps are now being used as ways to enter a fantasy world, like the earlier rabbit holes or wardrobes. Genetic experimentation is another popular topic: He said that I was a clone spliced from a human and a reptile.
  • There are lots of brilliant similes: as saggy as a baboons bum; as tall as a dozen giraffes standing on top of each other; as soft as a new bought dressing gown from M and S; as puzzled as a baby doing proper fractions.
  • New and futuristic gadgets in spy and sci‐fi stories: fingerlaser, electrospecs, a zaporator (to shrink planets), a shrinkiniser, an electrostone (to disable electrical circuits), a shutdownotron, and a takeovertheworldinator; telepaper (visual newspaper), hologrammails, galactagraph, astro‐bus.
  • We also have amazing titles: How biscuits, mustard and prune juice can save the world…
  • And some fantastic story openers: It was the night I became a hero with my pyjamas turned inside out.

 Unusual words

  • There is a fantastic range of sophisticated words used throughout the stories. Many are surprising because they are very unusual or showed very creative ways of using descriptive words, e.g.

BOYS 9 YEARS & UNDER: galactical, pyramidal, spherical (words relating to space and shape) elven‐cloaked, trench‐like, spectre‐like (illustrative compounds), cerulean‐blue scaly wings, titanic white serrated teeth (phrases)

BOYS 10‐13 YEARS: ominous (used to describe a character’s goatee beard), caliginous, cybernetic, fathomless, labyrinthine, pulchritudinous, bloodsucking, bone‐shattering, dragon like, horror‐struck, piranha‐infested, soul‐warming, terror‐stricken

GIRLS 9 YEARS & UNDER: apotropaic, crocodilian, lachrymose, rancid, sumptuous; He did make lots of crocodilian friends at the zoo

GIRLS 10‐13 YEARS: acrid, bodacious, caliginous, nefarious, parsimonious, stentorian, vulpine, maggot‐infested, saliva‐cobwebbed, wraith‐like.

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Our continued involvement with the competition for 2013 will help deepen our understanding of children’s language as part of our on-going language research and inform our dictionary compilation programme. We are also sure that we will continue to be inspired by the creativity and inventiveness of children and their use of language.

Find out more about our unique children’s corpus, our children’s dictionaries range, and our free dictionary resources.