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Seven year olds enjoyed using “meerkat”, “camel” and “vicious”

Natural world and fantasy helps young children use sophisticated language, study shows

The natural world and fantasy helps young children use sophisticated words such as “slithering” and “abracadabra”, one of the largest studies to measure pupils’ language skills has found.

Academics have analysed 3,000 pieces of work from 824 children at 24 schools around the country aged between 7 and 16. The University of Exeter study is the first of its kind to use huge volumes of authentic school work to track children’s literacy progress.

It had previously been assumed that young children’s vocabulary was dominated by basic, high-frequency words. But the study shows children know and use highly sophisticated words from their earliest years in school. For example, seven year olds enjoyed using “meerkat”, “camel” and “vicious”, applying them in the correct way and coming back to the same words repeatedly in their writing.

What distinguished younger children's writing from that of older children and adults was not a preference for basic words, but rather the extent to which they repeated particular words and the fact that those words tended to focus on concrete things, rather than abstractions and ideas.   For example nouns used by Year 2 students include “earworm”, “meerkat”, “fairyland” and “volcano”, while those in Year 11 used words such as “suffusion”, “patter” and “interference”.

Dr Philip Durrant, from the University of Exeter’s Graduate School of Education, who led the research, said: “It’s really positive to find that young children are using such sophisticated language in their writing. Children are picking up and learning obscure words and using them in the right context. It was lovely to read their work.

“It’s clear younger children are markedly interested in writing about the natural world and the fantastical, and this was less evident in older children’s writing.”

Other words used by pupils in Key Stage 2 include ginormous, delicious, earworm, volcano, seaweed, cobra, toad, lightening, enemy and rotten.

The study found age leads to children using less repetitive language and to a better understanding of how different language is appropriate to different types of writing. In particular, young children tend to use 'fiction' style vocabulary (such as "yell", "creep", and "suddenly:) across all types of writing. As they get older, they maintain this style in their stories but move towards greater use of 'academic' style words (such as "convey", "perspective" and "imply") in their non-fiction writing.

Around 53 per cent of the work was by females and 43 by males, with the rest unknown, and 20 per cent of the children were eligible for free school meals. Around 12 per cent of the pupils spoke English as an additional language. The work was from lessons in English, science, history, geography and RE.

Academics analysed all the pieces of work, identifying each word and tracking its prevalence at different ages.  They will be presenting their work to teachers at workshops this year.

Dr Durrant said: “It is clear that the traditional ways of measuring children’s vocabulary development in writing, which have relied heavily on the idea that maturity is marked by use of lower-frequency words, are not sophisticated enough. This analysis shows that diversity, frequency, and stylistic appropriateness of vocabulary are not separable and need to be looked at together to give an accurate picture of development.

“Hopefully these findings will help support teachers to track children’s language use and to see if their work is progressing in the way it should. Our work can also help teachers to have a record of words typically used at each age.”

Teachers who wish to have access to the research findings can go to:




Date: 7 March 2019

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