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Development and Discussion 2020: 500 Words – shedding light on children’s language

18 August 2020 Share

Helen Freeman takes us on a journey of 500 words, and plans for the future.

The story of 500 Words began in 2011 when Chris Evans launched a children’s short story writing competition with BBC Radio 2. It set children a challenge: to write a story in no more than 500 words. It was as simple as that.  


What followed was something quite remarkable and ten years later there have been more than a million stories submitted to the competition. This fact alone is pretty astonishing and an indicator of the positive impact 500 Words has had on children. It’s created a reason for them to write the stories they want to tell.

A shared commitment to children’s writing

The BBC provided a great platform to reach children, parents and carer; schools, teachers and librarians throughout the UK. Many leading authors and illustrators backed the campaign on Radio 2 and provided children with writing tips and inspiration to help them develop their story ideas. HRH the Duchess of Cornwall has also been the competition’s patron attending the finals each year, at spectacular venues including Windsor Castle and Hampton Court.

OUP, of course, created resources and encouraged young authors to use dictionaries and thesauruses to explore their vocabulary and experiment with their writing. When you only have 500 words to tell your story, every word counts.

Perhaps you encouraged someone to participate or maybe you helped judge the competition? If you did, thank you.

Researching children’s language

When OUP saw the level of enthusiasm for this competition, we were intrigued to see what the children were writing about and have the opportunity to take a closer look at their writing. We approached Chris Evans and the BBC and asked if we could analyse the writing. We formed a partnership that meant we would have access to the stories (the data) to conduct language analysis and share what we learned. This partnership has played a key role in our research into children’s language and is informing our work to help close the word gap.

Each year our team of lexicographers and academics have analysed the stories, sharing the findings in a children’s language report and revealing the Children’s Word of the Year. Additionally, the story submissions were added to the Oxford Children’s Corpus – the largest children’s language database in English.

If you’re interested in this kind of thing, I’d encourage you to read this year’s language report, which does a great job of unpacking the data and exploring the themes that the data uncovered. We’d love to hear how this data matches your experience of the things that children are excited about. You can read about the 2020 Children’s Word of the Year on our website and download our free report: https://global.oup.com/education/500-words/childrens-language/?region=uk

What the data revealed

Each year, the story submissions increased, providing us with more data to work with. When we started our analysis, we expected to see differences in the quality of the writing, the use of grammar, punctuation and spelling.

Although the information we received about the authors was very limited (age, gender and postcode of their school) this helped us analyse the writing by applying different lenses. For example, we could see how themes altered depending on the age of the writer; we were able to identify gender differences in children’s writing and their level of engagement with topics, and there were noticeable variations in regional words and spellings.

What we hadn’t anticipated was how 500 Words would become a barometer for what children were thinking about and how writing about these topics provided them with a voice and the opportunity to express their opinions – in a short story.

Across the age range, there were clear trends and topics that emerged. During the last 10 years, we have seen the rise and (in some instances) fall of gaming, technology and social media trends. We’ve seen clear influences from literature, media and entertainment. Children frequently wrote stories inspired by figures from history, world events and politics. Our analysis revealed how children were ‘tuned in’ to the world around them and used this as inspiration for their stories.

Children’s Word of the Year

Reflecting on some of our Children’s Words of the Year, they highlight moments in time – words such as #hashtag, refugee, Trump, plastic, Brexit and coronavirus. Identifying our Children’s Word of the Year is based on not only frequency of use, but also contextual analysis, evidence of engagement with a topic and use of related vocabulary.

Evidence of impact

Ten years since the launch of 500 Words, the level of participation had increased. In 2020 there were stories submitted from just over half the state schools across the UK with over 134,000 stories and an increase in the percentage of boys writing and submitting stories to the competition. These are statistics to be proud of.

The analysis of over a million stories has built up some valuable insights. 500 Words created the opportunity for children to explore their ideas – using their words and writing to express their views. We’ve seen examples of inventiveness, made ups words, and words used in new contexts. We’ve seen how children write about mums and dads – stories set in schools, in libraries and outer space. Children have tested their writing skills taking their lead from successful authors and books they’ve read and been influenced by.

There have been some clear trends. Our data analysis has shown how children love to write about fairy tales, technology, social media, celebrities, super-heroes, mums and dads, unicorns and wombats; they have set stories in the future, and in the past; and they’ve written about fictional and real people. Some trends come and go. But there has been one constant summed up in four names – Santa, Cinderella, Jack and Lucy. The first two names have been the top characters written about in the children’s stories every single year since we’ve analysed the writing. Jack and Lucy have been the number one girl and boy names used for characters in the children’s stories. We understand children writing about Santa and Cinderella, but we’re intrigued by Jack and Lucy being the top names every year. Any ideas?

500 Words – the next chapter

This summer, just as we revealed our 2020 Children’s Word of the Year – coronavirus - the BBC announced that it wouldn’t be continuing with 500 Words. As we celebrated the winners of the competition at the final (played out on Zoom thanks to the global pandemic), Chris Evans announced that he wanted to do a pop-up 500 Words on the theme of black lives matter. This new competition launched within days and children were invited to submit a piece of writing on the theme. The competition was live for one week and in this time it received just under 6000 entries, including non-fiction, poetry and stories. Some of you may have volunteered to be a judge and help with short-listing the winners. If you did, we’d love to hear about your experience. What a great thing to be part of!

Once again, we analysed the data and produced a language report. This piece of research is really interesting because it prompted new types of writing – it showed how writing to this theme altered the way children write. You can read the 500 Words: BLM language report on the OUP website.

If you take a look at this report, you’ll note how 500 Words: BLM tested children’s writing skills once again. BLM is a big topic to tackle in 500 words, but children were able to express their views and create some incredible pieces of writing. Bonnier will be publishing the winning stories, including some of OUP’s data analysis in September 2020. If you missed 500 Words: BLM, you can read the stories online here: https://500words.me/black-lives-matter/

One final point on our 500 Words: BLM analysis; I’d mentioned earlier in this blog that for the last several years, Santa and Cinderella had been the most written about across all the stories submitted. 500 Words: BLM changed that with our analysis showing that George Floyd was the most written about person.

We love 500 Words. It’s so much more than a story-writing competition - it’s an open invitation to children to write and an opportunity for us all to learn from the things they say. We’re grateful for the great collaboration and partnership with the BBC and more recently, the new 500 Words team. But most of all, we’re grateful to Chris Evans for taking a simple idea and growing a short story competition into something that has made such an impact.

Plans are underway for 500 Words 2021 with an announcement expected in spring next year.

You can find out more about our work to help close the word gap on our website, including videos and resources to help children develop their language skills.

https://global.oup.com/education/content/dictionaries/key-issues/childrens-language/?region=uk