The linguistic challenges of the transition from primary to secondary school
This ESRC-funded project, based at the School of Education at the University of Leeds, aims to identify the differences between the academic language that students encounter at the end of primary school to the academic language they encounter at the start of secondary school.
There is lots of evidence that students in England sometimes struggle with the transition from primary to secondary school, and as a result their attainment can ‘dip’ at the start of secondary school. We believe that one of the potential causes of this ‘dip’ is language. At the start of secondary school, students may encounter vocabulary, or turns of phrase, or ways of explaining ideas which are very different to the academic language they were used to at primary school.
To explore this problem, we aim to produce the first comprehensive and systematic description of the range of academic language encountered by students at secondary school, with focus on how this differs to academic language at primary school and language outside of school. Our focus is on the academic language that students encounter at school – teacher talk, textbooks, revision guides, etc. – and not the language that students themselves produce.
By identifying and understanding the language differences between primary and secondary school, we will be able to design language development interventions to help facilitate the transition and make things easier for students. We believe that there is an opportunity to reduce the barriers to learning that can arise when students make the important transition from primary to secondary school.
The over-arching question that is addressed is:
How does the language of school differ across subjects and stages of schooling, and how does it compare to public language outside school?
We will therefore tackle the following detailed questions:
- RQ1: What are the linguistic characteristics of texts that students are required to understand and respond to at Key Stage 2, in terms of lexis, grammar and discourse?
- RQ2: What are the linguistic characteristics of texts that students are required to understand and respond to at Key Stage 3, in terms of lexis, grammar and discourse?
- RQ3: How does the language of Key Stage 3 vary according to subject area?
- RQ4: How does the language of Key Stage 3 differ from the language students have previously encountered (Key Stage 2), at the levels of lexis, grammar and discourse?
- RQ5: How do teachers and students perceive the linguistic challenges of the transition from primary to secondary school?
To answer these questions, we need to collect a large amount of evidence of academic language – both spoken and written – as used in primary and secondary schools. We aim to analyse this language data systematically, using methods from corpus linguistics.
We aim to gather data from the final two years of primary school (years 5 and 6) and the first two years of secondary school (years 7 and 8). We aim to gather language data from the following subjects:
- The sciences
The spoken language data we are interested in collecting comprises:
- Recordings of lessons, where the teacher wears a voice recorder on a lanyard
Examples of the written language data we are interested in collecting:
- PowerPoint presentations
- Teacher-designed worksheets
- Commercial worksheets
- Revision guides
- Test rubrics
- Internet materials (e.g. BBC Bite Size)
- Other texts that students may be expected to access
In addition, we will to conduct interviews with students and teachers to discuss their views of the language challenges in the transition from primary to secondary school. The lesson and interview recordings will be transcribed for corpus analysis.
We aim to use our findings to produce intervention materials designed to bridge the language gap between primary and secondary schools in England.
- Professor Alice Deignan (University of Leeds)
- Dr Gary Chambers (University of Leeds)
- Dr Michael Inglis (University of Leeds)
- Professor Elena Semino (Lancaster University)
- Dr Vaclav Brezina (Lancaster University)
- To be appointed
- Dr Robbie Love (University of Leeds)
- Professor Constant Leung (King’s College London)