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What’s in a word?

What’s in a word?

27 January 2022

Earlier this month, OUP announced that the UK Children’s Word of the Year was ‘anxiety’. It was selected through a survey of more than 8,000 children in the UK, who were asked to choose the top words they would use when talking about health and wellbeing.

The choice of word isn’t surprising when we consider everything that has happened in the world since the start of the pandemic; millions of children worldwide have seen their lives disrupted and they, like so many of us, have had to try and navigate consistent uncertainty. Although more positive words like ‘wellbeing’ and resilience’ also scored highly in the survey, and while it is encouraging that young people feel comfortable enough to share their feelings, it still makes for difficult reading.

However, if we look back at the previous children’s words of the year—which were gathered through our 500 Words reading competition—we see words such as Brexit, Coronavirus, and Trump. In 2020, OUP ran a separate report looking into language around Black Lives Matter, and ‘protest’ came out top. It highlights just how aware young people are of the various societal issues going on around them—perhaps more so than we realize—even if those issues don’t have a direct or immediate impact on their day-to-day lives.

So why should we take note of this? At OUP, we have often talked about how language can be a force for good. It enables people to share feelings; it evokes emotion; it can inspire and motivate. And beyond that, by looking into language usage and patterns, it can provide us with valuable insight into societal trends and public sentiment.

That’s why this year’s Children’s Word of the Year is so telling. It speaks to a generation that has been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Of course, we cannot completely erase young people’s worries, and relieve them of uncertainty, but there are certainly steps educators and parents can take to both support young people and encourage them to express themselves.

Firstly, for educators, there’s an opportunity to consider how wellbeing can be explored and discussed more readily in a learning environment. Evidence shows a clear link between wellbeing and academic attainment, which is why at OUP we have developed the Oxford International Curriculum, which has a focus on wellbeing built into it, so that pupils can continue to thrive both inside and outside of the classroom. 

Additionally, we need to continue to support children’s language development, so that children can truly find the words to tell us how they are feeling. Our previous research identified that 49 per cent of Year 1 pupils in the UK have a limited vocabulary that impacts their learning. 43 per cent of year 7 children are similarly affected. This ‘word gap’, where vocabulary is below age-related expectations, can have a significant knock-on effect on young people’s future learning, as well as their wellbeing and confidence. Thanks to our research in this area, we have developed a series of resources and recommendations to support teachers so that together, we can reduce the gap.

As for parents, and indeed any other adults who interact with children, we need to be mindful of the impact of the language we use, and how it can influence others. Even flippant comments or passing remarks can have a big impact. They should also consider how to use reading as a tool to engage with young people about how they are feeling in themselves, or about a specific topic. We were encouraged by our recent Gift of Words report, which showed that 64 per cent of parents use reading as an opportunity to discuss difficult or sensitive situations with their children. I’m proud that we publish a series of books that support conversations around a variety of topics, including wellbeing.

OUP has long been a champion of language across the world and recognize how it can be used as an important tool to identify and understand societal trends. We have been monitoring children’s language for more than a decade now, and every year we uncover something new. As the latest Children’s Word of the Year has undoubtedly shown, the more we explore and analyse, the more we can learn—and crucially, the more we can support young people as they try and navigate our changing, uncertain world.