Children’s experiences inform the development of their vocabulary and, subsequently, how they view the world around them.
As we head into the third year of navigating the challenges of lockdowns, e-learning and prolonged restrictions, themes relating to the pandemic have continued to emerge through students’ writing from across Australia.
Each year, data from Oxford University Press in partnership with Writing Legends are analysed to reveal a ‘Word of the Year’. In 2018, it was ‘creativity’, the following year it was ‘bravery’, and in 2020 when the pandemic hit Australia, it was ‘virus’.
In 2021 children’s language experts analysed over 76 000 stories – topping over nine million words – written by Australian school students aged seven- to 13-years-old. Stories included a mix of both fiction and non-fiction. ‘Power’ was announced as the word of the year – other shortlisted words included ‘love’, ‘kindness’ and ‘humanity’.
The analysis looked at how the word ‘power’ had been used in student’s writing, noting that use of the word had increased by 61.8 per cent compared to 2020.
Experts suggested that the increased use of the word could indicate both ‘a desire from students to exercise their freedom of choice after a long period of lockdown restrictions,’ as well as ‘a feeling of disenfranchisement and lack of control on important issues such as climate change’ (Oxford University Press, n.d.).
‘Power’ was used in student writing in relation to electrical power, the power of nature, and political and social power. Experts found that many stories explored what it means to have and use power in an unequal world. For example, the excerpt below which was cited in the report expresses an imbalance of power between humans and underwater species:
‘Dear people of the world. We dolphins demand power. You humans are doing a terrible job of ruling. Every single day there appears to be more and more rubbish fulling our ocean. Don't forget there are lots of species that live in the water.’
– Year 6, female
Three other key themes emerged in the report’s findings:
- The use of the word ‘happiness’ in students’ writing was 280 per cent more frequent in 2021, compared with 2020.
Outdoors and others
- ‘People’ was the only non-monosyllabic word in the top 10 most used nouns.
- Third-person pronouns were used 42 per cent more in 2021 than in 2020.
- The word ‘lockdown’ appeared 435 times in students’ writing during 2021.
- The words ‘bored’ and ‘boring’ were knocked out of the top 100 adjectives from 2020.
- In 2021, students wrote more about people whose gender identity matched their own.
- Complex verbs like ‘decide’, ‘believe’, ‘wonder’, ‘forget’, and ‘remember’ were used more frequently during 2021.
The report also highlighted a trend towards writing that included fantasy themes like flying and having superpowers. Experts suggested that the strong use of imagination could be a form of escapism for children during the pandemic.
The report says that understanding students’ spelling and vocabulary capabilities can tell us a lot about how they are comprehending and relating to the world around them. It adds the findings also show us the power of writing itself, as a form of expression for students.
Oxford University Press. (n.d.). Oxford Australian Children’s 2021 Word of the Year. https://www.oup.com.au/primary/childrens-word-of-the-year
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 during the pandemic. 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?