Research news: Cost of living on the minds of school students

Looking at the content of students’ stories can give teachers an indication of what they’re interested in, as well as the issues that may be impacting their lives. Each year, Oxford University Press (OUP) analyses thousands of short stories written by primary and secondary students to come up with a Children’s Word of the Year (CWOTY).

Shortlisted words for CWOTY 2023 included ‘leadership’, ‘fitness’, ‘teamwork’, ‘health’ and ‘pollution’. But, after analysing over 32,800 stories and 3.3 million words written by primary and secondary students across Australia, the OUP declared ‘cost’ the winning word.

Survey data collected by the online writing platform Writing Legends show usage of ‘cost’ in students’ work was up 33.57% in 2023 compared to 2020-2022. There was also an increase in related words, such as dollar(s), money, bills and price(s), and a pattern of wider concepts such as inflation and affordability filtering into student work – particularly among middle primary aged students.

This result, says Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Queensland, Dr Damon Thomas, shows students have an acute awareness of the social issues facing us.

‘With many families experiencing added financial stress in 2023 and into 2024, it makes perfect sense that children would be more aware of issues related to affordability, and that navigating these stresses would be reflected in the stories they write.’

This isn’t the only time societal issues and world events have shown up in students’ writing. Past CWOTY winners include ‘privacy’ (2022), ‘power’ (2021), and ‘virus’ (2020).

The OUP 2023 survey, in partnership with Storyathon, identified 4 key themes:

  • Economic climate – students’ writing showed an awareness of money and cost, with ideas of inflation and affordability filtering into their work.
  • Environment – this continues to be a strong theme in students’ writing, with pollution a major concern.
  • Health and wellbeing – while there was some focus on physical health, many students wrote about social and emotional wellbeing.
  • Society and learning – students are writing about important skills and qualities crucial for future employment, such as leadership and teamwork.

Reflecting on patterns that emerge in students’ work helps us better understand what they are interested in, as well as what may be worrying them. These results suggest that students are affected by issues that impact not just them directly, but their family members and wider society.

Commenting on the inclusion of references to ‘cost’, Dr Thomas says: ‘Increased prices of basic necessities, such as accommodation and groceries, have affected what and how we consume, forcing a lot of parents and carers to consider lower cost or even free options for back-to-school and non-essential items and activities. The findings suggest increased cost of living affects the whole family.’

OUP has released a selection of student writing from the 2023 survey:

But then they just figured that they have just $56.50 which isn't that much because of inflation stuff cost alot more than usual so they need way to make money extremely quick then thye figured that they could sell there stuff. – Year 5*

Do you know how much it costs to run a zoo, feed animals, electricity, land cost, and the list could go on. I think zoo's Must be shut down due to hygiene, cost, and the horrible noises. – Year 4

Because I am going to Sydney today I am going to tell what I packed. So snacks, drinks, activities, fidgets and clothing. Also the ride is going to be 9 hours long but it costs 472 dollars per a person. Im no sure what are we going to do when we get there. So I take it as a mistrey surprise but you can come along. Lets go! – Year 3

In a few thousand years earth would be killed by all the heat and pollution from humans. when we go to the upgrade the moon base we can start the new human race up there.Once we have a moon base we will get better knowledge and know more about planets to go explore more planets like mars. and make space ships that go between earth and the moon all the time.The population will grow continually so earth will be full It can also be a back up planet if earth goes extinct. – Year 5

*All student work has been republished verbatim

Understanding the frequency and ways in which students write about themes can be a great way to plan vocabulary lessons. Consider how the themes in this study can be used in your lesson planning.

With your colleagues, consider some key themes to emerge from your own students’ writing. How can you embed these in your own lesson planning in a meaningful way?

The content of students’ writing can sometimes indicate they are struggling with particular events, fears or anxieties. What is the policy in your own school for supporting these students? Who would you speak to as a first contact?