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Drumroll please. The most frequently used word of this year, as used by children in a creative story writing competition is….’plastic’.

Does anyone else feel deflated by this finding?

I have a quiet hunch that those at Oxford University Press, who undertook the research, are also lost for words, despite their animated press release. The word ‘plastic’ appeared 3,359 times, the most popular word used by 5 to 13-year olds entering Radio 2’s 500 Words competition. Rather depressingly, it was closely followed by gaming references with an abundance of ‘cheats’ and ‘glitches’, among consoles and portals.

No one would deny environmental issues a presence in the curriculum – but how many imaginative stories were pushed out of children’s subconscious to fight against Evil Mr Plastic? Did the ‘Plastic-ateers’ really seize their authors’ imaginations or were they the result of whole-class submissions driven by a recent batch of topic work?

Writing does not come easily to children today. While word recall, spelling and punctuation are particularly tough for pupils with dyslexia, creativity can be a strong point; F. Scott Fitzgerald and Flaubert, to name but a few, are among famous dyslexic authors whose words will never be forgotten.

Even without dyslexia, many children play safe with language they know, avoiding the unknown territories of words that are different. Through imaginative teaching tasks and visiting authors, let’s take pupils instead on language journeys that are languorous and winding, in lands where creative clouds dance and new possibilities open their doors wide.

So back to OUP’s survey. More cheerfully, researchers found glimmers of wordplay that were clever and humorous. Names for amazing beasts were coined like the ‘lamacorn’, ‘unipug’ and ‘worrycorn’. And I would have loved to have read the story that began: ‘Once upon a paragraph, there lived a perfectly circular Full Stop…’.

Great play was made of perspective: some of the more original stories were emotive accounts from the viewpoint of a non-human protagonist or non-animate character:

‘Yet another unwelcome plastic alien invader in the beautiful big blue sea that one less whale now calls home.’ (The Big Blue, written by a boy aged 10)

The trends also bode well for boys’ literacy (5% more entries since the 2012 launch) and pupils’ awareness of current affairs, sometimes handled with understated perception:

‘The monster was called Brexit and everyone blamed him for everything.” (Misunderstanding, written by a girl aged 9)

So, let’s take our pupils beyond plastic warriors, TwiLite and ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’. Let’s harness their word play and humour to help them create stories that soar in their originality and insight.

Reading and writing without boundaries gives today’s pupils the single biggest advantage when it comes to GCSEs, not just in English but in all subjects examined via written language. We might want to cut our plastic pollution, but let’s not reduce our word banks while we’re at it

Posted: 09/06/2018 at 11:37
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