Attention on celebrities not apostrophes in 500 Words

1st June 2012 at 01:00
Writing competition gives an insight into under-13s' creativity

Children's command of language is not being hampered by "txtspk" trends - although the misuse of the apostrophe remains a problem - according to analysis of more than 74,000 stories for a writing competition.

Several surprising insights are revealed by an Oxford University Press (OUP) report exploring entries to the 500 Words short story competition for under-13s, run for Chris Evans' BBC Radio 2 breakfast show.

Technology was "clearly enriching" children's lives, and making them "wonderfully inventive".

The terms Google and app occur widely in the children's stories: "Googling" as a way to follow clues in a mystery; apps being downloaded for use as a prop, avatar or weapon. Many stories focused on genetic experiments and gadgets.

"It is so exciting to see children using language confidently, even taking it into new directions," said Samantha Armstrong of OUP children's dictionaries.

"We feel like we are on a voyage of discovery; I love new words like `shrinkiniser', `takeovertheworldinator', `telepaper', `hologrammail', `galactagraph', `dino-droid', `teacherbot' and `chocolateosaurus'."

The research "clearly demonstrates" that children still love reading. They have a "magpie approach" to words invented by famous writers, such as J.R.R. Tolkien's "orcs" and Lewis Carroll's "bandersnatch".

And a smartphone app is more likely to transport the children's protagonists to a magical new world than a wardrobe or rabbit hole.

Children often struggle with apostrophes, but one popular piece of punctuation was the exclamation mark, used 351,731 times.

Most children under seven can spell unusual words including "pterodactyl", "palomino" and "archaeologist", but common words such as "can't", "don't" and "doesn't" present "a far greater challenge".

"Mum" and "friend" are among the most-used nouns. Leading words among boys are militaristic and football-based ("sniper", "grenade", "nuclear", "penalty" and "goalkeeper") while girls are concerned with fantasy and hobbies ("fairies", "pony", "ballet", "mermaid" and "princesses").

American vocabulary and spelling is increasingly prominent - common words include "cupcake", "garbage truck", "trash can", "candy", "sidewalk" and "soda" - particularly among 10- to 13-year-olds. The popularity of American sagas such as Twilight and The Hunger Games is thought to be a factor.

Celebrity culture has a big effect on children's imaginations, so famous people appeared in many entries, notably Jacqueline Wilson and Jessie J.

Look at language

OUP analysed entries using its "children's corpus", an electronic database of children's language said to be the only one of its kind in the world. It contains language written for children and by children, and is used by language theorists to explore grammatical structures and child-related vocabulary.

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