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Exploring children’s insight and empathy when writing about race


We have analysed the 5,983 story submissions to 500 Words: Black Lives Matter 2020 (500 Words: BLM 2020)—which invited children to write about the themes and issues emerging from the Black Lives Matter movement—and released our findings in a new report.

We studied the entries using our Oxford Children’s Corpus—a large electronic database of language written for children and by children. The Corpus identifies patterns in language and is used by lexicographers and linguists as part of our ongoing language research and dictionary compilation programme. Studying the 500 Words: BLM 2020 entries provided insightful evidence of children’s capacity for empathy and imagination when writing about race.

When asked to write on the theme of Black Lives Matter, children tended to draw on a specific range of vocabulary, using realistic phrases and accurate historical knowledge such as ‘black people’, ‘black lives matter’, ‘skin colour’, ‘police officer’, and ‘I can’t breathe’.

Given the theme and timing of the 500 Words: BLM 2020 competition, it is perhaps unsurprising that George Floyd was the top name used, with Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Donald Trump, and Boris Johnson also featuring in the top ten names. This coincides with a 1,250% increase in the use of political language with the most frequently occurring words including ‘black’, ‘skin’, ‘racism’, ‘protest’, and ‘race’. In addition, ‘racism’, ‘racial’, ‘racist’, ‘segregation’, and ‘ethnic’ showed the biggest increase in usage on previous years, rising from just 100 mentions in our existing Corpus, to more than 6,000 in the 500 Words: BLM 2020 stories.   

The story titles reflected the insight, empathy, and imagination across all pieces of writing, and included diaries and letters, as well as references to animals and superheroes. For example: ’The Black Superhero and the Yeti and the Buttercups’, ’We Bleed the Same Blood’, ’Dear Donald J. Trump’, ’The Story of Rosie Parks’, ’Dragon Racism’, and ’I Love My Skin’.

Helen Freeman, Director of Oxford Children’s Dictionaries & Language Data, commented: ‘OUP is delighted to once again be the language experts supporting 500 Words. This competition has delivered some exciting new insight showing how children write with accuracy, empathy and insight when they are writing about race. The Black Lives Matter theme has encouraged children to explore their vocabulary and experiment with different writing styles, appropriate to the theme of the competition. I’d encourage everyone to read the research.’

Read our full report on 500 Words: BLM 2020

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