The Evolution of Children’s Language Over Time

We go behind the scenes of the Oxford Australian Children’s Word of the Year (CWOTY) to learn more about children’s evolving use of language.

Equality. Creativity. Bravery. Virus. Power. Privacy.

These six words are the Oxford Australian Children’s Words of the Year (CWOTY), from its inaugural year in 2017 to the most recent in 2022. The words were chosen each year from hundreds of thousands of options to select just one representing what was meaningful to children and how they experienced the world around them.

Humble beginnings

Many dictionary publishers across the world have Words of the Year. Starting in the early 1970s, the words have been chosen by analysing a corpus of words and while the methodology may vary slightly, the process is always data-driven.

The Oxford Australian Children’s Words of the Year is, by comparison, a fledgling. Lee Walker, Director of Publishing at Oxford University Press, explains: “The Oxford Australian Children’s Word of the Year had a humble, but very meaningful beginning in 2017. It was founded on our desire to understand the words children use in their own writing to inform the publishing we do to help them to learn to read, write and spell.”

In the first two years, storywriting competitions were conducted in schools across the country, with the entries emailed and posted to OUP, and the analysis and collection of words extremely analogue.

By the third year, CWOTY had partnered with Storyathon, and the digital upload of the tens of thousands of entries made the process much quicker and simpler.

Angela Glindemann, Commissioning Editor at Oxford University Press (OUP), explains how the word is chosen: “we are able to look at language trends by looking at our corpus, which shows how children, in particular, are using language, in order to find words that are unusually common, reflecting an issue or concept that’s likely to be quite ‘defining’ of the year that was.”

Preserving language

In addition to the Word of the Year, OUP is now the custodian of the Children’s Language Corpus, a database of millions of words used by children across the nation. This data not only informs the future of publishing, but is shared with educators as a way of understanding the development of language over time.

Language shapes our perception of the world around us, and in turn, our thoughts and feelings impact what we choose to write about,” explains Angela. “Each year, the CWOTY analysis process gives us an opportunity to connect with what’s meaningful to many thousands of Australian students. It helps to ground our thinking (and our publishing) in the real lived experiences of Australian students. It also helps us to understand what’s happening with students’ literacy development, such as their changing use of vocabulary over time.”

Methodical and insightful

The methods used by the CWOTY analysis are a combination of both qualitative and quantitative.

“The analysis begins with a look at quantitative statistics, such as high-frequency words and words that are ‘trending’,” says Angela. “Then, a qualitative approach is taken, looking at themes that might connect various trending words, as well as grounding the analysis in students’ writing samples. This helps us to explore how students are using the words, and why we might be seeing the quantitative trends. We combine these methods because we’re looking to choose a word that students are actually using, and that also reflects something meaningful about what they are writing about.

The thousands of stories collected each year from children in years 3 to 8 are analysed in different ways. High-frequency word lists are created, keywords (in particular nouns) are identified that are more common than in previous years and the shortlist of words is then analysed in the context of the stories to see how they have been used.

“At this stage in the analysis, we are looking for a word that is used in many stories across various ages, and that is broadly reflective of the themes in the data, as this is the kind of word that would be a good summary of what we’ve seen in the corpus this year,” explains Lee. “From the small list of words that meet this criteria, a team of people within OUP ANZ discuss and debate the options and pick a winner.”

Evolution of language

Because the CWOTY analysis specifically seeks trending words (i.e. much more common in a particular year, compared to previously) it means that the same words don’t tend to reappear every year. However, there are recurring themes in the lexicon of words that make up the shortlist for the Word of the Year.

“We see students engaging with what’s happening in the world around them, thinking about the climate crisis and their future, reflecting on their wellbeing… and, of course, engaging with their favourite characters from popular culture,” says Angela.

Anne Bayetto is a lecturer at Flinders University with a special interest in training teachers to work with students with literacy and numeracy difficulties. She explains that the annual analysis is a valuable resource for understanding what topics and issues are relevant and of concern to children. “Collecting and analysing word usage on a yearly basis provides insight into what words remain as stable parts of students’ spoken and written repertoires, while different and unexpected word usage offers insights about issues that students have been thinking about and/or engaging with.”

Although the CWOTY is ultimately a single word intending to represent all children, there are some differences in the language used by younger and older children.

“As you would expect, young writers tend to deal more in concrete terms with the world around them, with a higher usage of concrete nouns and single-syllable words, while more abstract words and ideas become more common as students get older,’ says Angela. “We try to find a single word of the year that captures some important themes in student writing across the years, and that appears in student writing across this full age range, and in the process, we also have the chance to examine this fascinating cross-sectional data, which shows us how students’ writing changes as they progress through their primary school years.”

Related story: Alarming Choice for 2022 Children’s Word of the Year

Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a freelance writer and the author of "Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed our World", now available in all good bookstores.

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