June 4, 2012
No need to be lachrymose about children’s literacy
by Ellie Robins
If some commentators are to be believed, we’ll soon be barking nothing but txtspk at one another, such is the degeneration of the English language in the hands of yoofs. The OUP‘s Children’s Dictionary and Language team, though, has some pretty compelling findings to the contrary. They’ve been analysing the short stories entered in the BBC‘s 500 Words 2012 competition, open to children aged up to thirteen. There were 74,075 short stories entered, and the analysis has taught the team the following:
- Children are excellent at spelling the more unusual words (pterodactyl) while there is some confusion over more common words (does and didn’t), and construction of tenses (waked up).
- There is confusion over use of punctuation, especially speech marks for direct speech, and the apostrophe, but there is an abundance of exclamation marks (351,731 occurrences).
- Children clearly demonstrated that they know when it is appropriate to use ‘txtspk’ and only included it in their stories when transcribing an imagined message.
- Themes and topics in these stories range from aliens, vampires, darkness, and death to fairies, fantasy, family, pets, school, adventures, and mysteries.
- Children use imaginative and descriptive language for titles and story openers, sophisticated alternatives for common and overused words, a variety of connectives, and invent colourful names perfectly suited to the characters in their stories.
- American vocabulary (e.g. trash can, sidewalk, candy) featured in the stories especially those written by 10-13 year olds, arguably due to the vogue for US-penned novels such asTwilight and The Hunger Games.
- Children draw upon a wide range of reading material including Harry Potter, Roald Dahl, Lewis Carroll, and, in older children, Twilight and The Hunger Games.
Doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the excellent spelling on the unusual words is probably thanks to dictionaries. Over at the OED blog, there’s a post about the great use these young wordsmiths put their dictionaries to: stories featured words including caliginous, vulpine, apotropaic, cerulean, crocodilian, lachrymose, and selenologist.
You can read the winning entries here.
Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.