An ongoing debate within the field of Educational Linguistics in the UK is how to maintain and/or improve standards in writing performance in primary and secondary schoolchildren. Previous scholars have attempted to address the issue; however, the results so far have not been homogeneous, and scholars are aware of the need for new methodologies.

Corpus-based research on children’s writing has been spearheaded by Biber and associates in America since the early 1990s (Reppen 1994, 2004; Biber et al. 2002). In the UK the availability of corpora for such investigations is still limited (cf. The Lancaster Corpus of Children’s Writing; The Oxford Children’s Corpus of Reading and Writing; Growth in Grammar Corpus). This is especially important if we bear in mind that some studies of children’s writing performance across time have to date reached somewhat contradictory results (Massey et al. 1996; Massey & Elliott 2006; Rashid & Brooks 2010), and that recent research has demonstrated the potential of corpus linguistics as a solid aid in children’s understanding of how language works (see the work by Sealey & Thompson 2004, 2006).

The aim of our project is to contribute to the field in two ways:

  • by developing a large-scale diachronic corpus of schoolchildren’s writings – the APU Writing and Reading Corpus 1979–1988. The data for the corpus come from the Assessment of Performance Unit Language Surveys Archive (1979–1988), currently stored, in hard copy, at the University of Liverpool. The corpus consists of writings by 11-years-old children (“school scripts”) and writings for children of this same age group and school level (“basal readers”). It is morphologically and semantically tagged, and will soon be available online, licence-free, to the teaching and research community.
  • by carrying out a number of case studies on children’s acquisition of pragmatic competence in writing based on the above-mentioned APU corpus compilation, and the legacy of eighteenth-century ‘standards’ with regard to the morphology, syntax and orthography of English.

We hope that both the materials and findings of this project will be of interest to corpus linguists, educationalists and psycholinguists interested in writing development as well as to text-linguists and sociolinguists interested in language variation and change.