BBC 500 Words: Informing research on children’s writing and language

There’s still time to encourage children to enter this year’s BBC 500 Words writing competition.  Find out a little more about the competition and how its helping our research into children’s language and writing.

Entries are open for this year’s BBC 500 Words writing competition for children. Over half a million children have entered over the past 7 years, making it the most successful story writing competition in the world. If you know a young person aged between 5 and 13 years, please encourage them to enter.  There’s plenty of information and fun over on the BBC 500 Words website, with resources, blogs and information for children and adults. The closing date is 23rd February.

There’s a lot of energy and excitement about the competition. Visiting local schools in Oxford, I’ve been warmed by the positive approach to the competition, and to writing more generally. I’ve seen children who struggle with spelling and handwriting throw themselves into the challenge and create a story that brings joy. I’ve also been inspired by the teachers and teaching assistants who are encouraging their children to work independently and create something special.

What also makes the competition special is that all of the stories (all half a million plus – that’s a lot of words…) are helping with research.  Every story is fed into the Oxford Corpus, a huge database owned by Oxford University Press. Each year they analyse the stories entered for the competition, identifying the word of the year and documenting what the stories reveal about children’s use of language — and their lives and worlds more generally. Last year’s report is available here.

At ReadOxford we are helping OUP with their analyses and funded by the Leverhulme Trust, we are working together to use the corpus to address some of our own research questions. We’ve made a couple of short videos about our work, linked at the bottom of this post. Our focus so far has been with capturing the linguistic environment each word appears in across the corpus. In this short paper I outline why we think this is important: most generally because it captures key properties of reading experience – and it is no surprise to learn that reading experience is important. Children who read more finding reading easier than children who read less.  A key question for us is why experience matters, and what aspects of experience and practice help reading to develop. The corpus is helping us answer these questions.

I’ve slipped into talking about reading here, yet the topic of this blog is meant to be writing. What do we know about how children learn to write? It’s fair to say that in terms of cognitive psychology, we know much less about writing development than reading development. There’s a sizeable literature on spelling and its development, and also on handwriting.  Clearly, spelling and handwriting are important. But just like there’s more to reading than identifying individual words, there’s more to writing than spelling and handwriting.  The competition entries tell us that children make huge strides in the primary years in terms of developing narrative and composition.  We want to understand more about how this development happens – not least so we can help identify ways to help children who might be struggling.

And some children do struggle with writing in terms of constructing a narrative. In this paper, Lucy Cragg and I asked 10-year-old children to write an extended narrative prompted by a series of pictures. Some of the children were ‘poor comprehenders’ – children who read well for their age in terms of reading accuracy, but struggle to answer questions about what they’ve read. We found that although poor comprehenders were able to spell as well as their peers, and wrote stories of equivalent length, their stories captured less of the story content, and contained a less sophisticated story structure. We related these findings to underlying differences in aspects of oral language. Put simply, children with less well-developed language skills (for example, impoverished vocabulary knowledge) are not just at risk of difficulties with reading comprehension. They might also find writing difficult, even if spelling and more surface level aspects of writing are ok. Potentially, the pattern we saw at 10 years of age might be more serious still in older children, once the ability to write well is key to success across the curriculum.

Back to the competition, I’m astonished and captivated by what many children produce: well-crafted, imaginative and creative stories, disciplined to work in no more than 500 words. Our capacity to create with language and to be able to write this down is truly amazing. I hope by analysing what children write, we can begin to understand more about how our capacity with written language develops.

A reminder that the competition closes on 23rd February and entries can be submitted here.



Cragg, L., & Nation, K. (2006). Exploring written narrative in children with poor reading comprehension.  Educational Psychology, 26(1), 55-72.

Nation, K. (2017). Nurturing a lexical legacy: reading experience is critical for the development of word reading skill. The Science of Learning, 2, doi:10.1038/s41539-017-0004-7.



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