Qualicum Beach students Lauren Porter (front left) and Isabelle Gray (front right) show the book The Lost Words, alongside an Oxford dictionary with their Grade 5 Qualicum Beach Elementary School class. Many students in the class were inspired to send a letter to Oxford University Press over the nature words removed from their junior dictionary, which inspired The Lost Words book. — Adam Kveton Photo

Qualicum Beach students react to removal of words from Oxford Junior Dictionary

Class calls for return of ‘otter’, ‘acorn’ and more

The balance of technology and nature in the lives of people, especially the young, is important, says Qualicum Beach Elementary School teacher Petra Knight.

But, when a student looks out their window and can’t describe what they see in the world, there’s a problem, she said.

Many of Knight’s students felt the same way when she showed them a book called The Lost Words, written by Robert Macfarlane and inspired by Oxford University Press’s decision to remove about 50 nature-related words from their junior dictionary, and replace them with words like ‘blog’, ‘MP3 player’, ‘voicemail’ and ‘celebrity’.

Removed were words like ‘dandelion’, ‘heather’, ‘otter’, ‘kingfisher’ and others.

With the moves made in 2007, several campaigns against the changes have taken place between then and now, including a joint letter sent to Oxford by 28 authors, including Margaret Atwood in 2015.

When Knight revealed these changes to her students early this year, many were concerned, confused, and even angry, they said.

“I felt very, very upset and confused,” said Lauren Porter, a student in Knight’s Grade 5 class. “I didn’t know why they did it.”

“Kids need to know what these words are. I think nature is more important than technology,” said Fiona Campbell, another student.

Isabelle Gray said the changes worried her because she sees otters and ferns regularly, as well as ravens and herons right in her yard.

The students decided to send letters to Oxford University Press detailing their dismay and asking for the words to be put back.

Knight said she hopes Oxford will give the students some sort of reply, even if it’s just an explanation of why the words were removed.

In a 2015 blog post, Oxford Dictionaries sought to explain how it decides what words to include in children’s dictionaries.

Key is that the dictionary is small and can only contain so many words, meaning there are always very difficult choices to make. And with language evolving, Oxford seeks to include at least some of the newer words that have appeared and became useful, said the post.

Oxford also uses the Oxford Children’s Corpus, which shows what language children are most likely to come across in books, as well as what children often write. Lastly, the post notes that dictionaries are meant to reflect language as it’s used, not change how it’s used.

Knight said she felt that Oxford does have an impact on children based on what words it includes in dictionaries, and said she feels that Oxford has a certain responsibility to preserve language, especially when it comes to what words children learn.

“If you really have to reduce it, you shouldn’t be cutting out words that describe what you see out your window,” she said.

Though the debate around these changes has often turned into a debate about nature versus technology in the lives of children, Knight said she doesn’t deny the many positives technology has brought. In fact she said she was able to still take her class outside for their twice-weekly forest time and still do a previous interview over her cellphone with someone several provinces away.

“I think a balance is needed,” she said, with students in her class suggesting splitting time in front of a screen with time spent outside, or using technology outside, like taking photos of a friend or family member while out for a walk.

Ultimately, Knight said she’s excited that her students’ letters has generated interest. “I want them to know that their opinion matters, even at 10 years old.”

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