Friday, June 06, 2014

Let's hear it for the kids: more literate and creative than ever

Who says today's children are being dumbed down? Who says the intelligence, literacy and creative ability is weakening compared to previous generations? (Could it be Michael Gove?)

I personally detest it when people put down children in this way. Any writer or teacher who goes out to meet kids in schools knows how smart they are. I believe that modern technology has made them far smarter than us oldies were at their age. They have a wider vocabulary and a much greater appreciation of the world, brought about by the broadened horizons made available by the Internet, games, books and a smörgåsbord of television channels. They probably also travel much more widely than we did 50 or more years ago.

All of this has had a marvellous effect. This is underlined by the results of BBC Radio 2's and the Oxford University Press' 500 words competition for children announced a few days ago, in which children had to compose an original work of fiction of 500 words.

They received a record-breaking, staggering 118,632 entries. Wow. Oxford University Press dictionary's team has analysed the stories to find out what words kids are using the most and the extent of their vocabulary, etc., all stuff that is of interest to us writers.

The most interesting thing first of all is the gender split. Girls outnumbered boys entering the competition by about 2 to 1. Three quarters of the entrants were in the 10 to 13 age range, the rest being nine and under. That probably means that girls in that age range are more likely to read books than any other children.

Now: how reassuring that the most common noun used in the stories is: 'mum'; and the most common adjective: 'good'.

Despite the fact that girls wrote twice as many of the stories, the main protagonist is more likely to be a boy. Now why do you think that is?

And the commonest name, used 27,321 times, is Jack, closely followed by Tom, Bob and James, all solid Anglo-Saxon names. I was certainly surprised to find that the most common girl's name is Lily/Lilly (17,981), closely followed by Lucy, then Emily and Sophie, also traditional English names.

And the most common historical figure? Adolf Hitler (used in 641 stories) followed by Queen Victoria (258).

I'd like to see Nigel Farage and his ilk use this as evidence for the insidious infiltration of multiculturalism into British culture. Actually it goes to show the opposite: there is no cause for concern, if anyone is concerned, that British culture is being watered down (although the research results are not accompanied by an ethnicity breakdown of the entrants to enable us to determine whether Celtic or Anglo-Saxon-originating Brits are unevenly represented amongst the entrants).

Looking at the keywords used in the stories, children were especially interested by this year's floods, with that single noun being by far the most commonly used (4008 uses), followed largely by non-real-world originating terms, coming from films and computer games: Lego, minion (used in Despicable Me), Minecraft and flappy (from the game Flappy Bird). Other words commonly used derived either from games or recent events such as the Winter Olympics.

What about new words? The research found that popular culture and social media have given rise to new verbs such as 'friended', 'Facebooked' and 'face-planted'. These will no doubt be finding their way into the next edition of OUP's children's dictionary.

Now for the really good news: children know - and are not afraid to use - really long words, including some that you or I may not even know: how about 'contumelious'? As used in the following context:
The girl springs to her feet losing all caution and apoplectic with outrage. "How dare you?" she cries, "Fighting them is bad enough, but capturing one to be slaughtered, as if it were a common boar, is contumelious. They will take their revenge and it will be terrible." (The War Party, girl, 13)
Or hands up who knows what 'furfuraceous' means? As used in:
Folkrinne's crown was placed on his furfuraceous head. The Basilisks applauded and cheered for the corrination of their new king of Malroiterre. (The Basilisk king, girl, 12)
(OK, so there was a spelling mistake in that, but I forgive this author because I think furfuraceous is a lovely word, conjuring up such a beautiful image in my mind).

And what about making up words? Children are not afraid to do this because, as you and I know, it is so much fun. My favourite made-up word quoted from the stories is 'historytestaphobia' because I absolutely used to suffer from that when I was at school. I also love 'Mucaologist', which is apparently a collector of mucus.

Finally, telling stories is not just about the words you know but the order in which you put them, and these children seriously know how to build suspense using perfectly ordinary words. As the report writers say:
If asked to write on a theme of mystery and suspense, one would not immediately think of the words door, house, step, and walk and yet the following example shows clearly how these words can be used to build suspense:
'Something had caught his eye. He turned around and saw an old, creaky house standing on its own in the middle of the woods. He took one step towards the scary house. He got closer and closer until he reached the house. Ben slowly walked up the cracked steps to reach the front door. Ben was scared out of his skin. Although on the outside he was brave. He pushed the rotten door and took a step inside the house.' (Haunted House, boy, 11)
All of this makes me happy, because it shows that there will continue to be a hungry audience for anything we writers produce, and, moreover, in a few years' time there will be more fantastically creative young adults ready to take our place.

Let's hear it for the kids.