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An ESRC-funded project using corpus linguistics methods to address a pressing language problem in English schools

Teachers have told us that when students move from primary to secondary school in England, there is often a drop in academic attainment, with associated demotivation and loss of self-esteem.

 “There is a large dip in mathematical attainment and attitudes towards maths as children move from primary to secondary school."
 Educational Endowment Foundation, Nov 2017
“There is evidence across the UK that a drop in attainment takes place during the transition. Characteristics of pupils particularly affected by the drop in attainment include: pupils receiving free school meals, those with poor prior attainment, those with low self-esteem and those from minority ethnic backgrounds.”
Wilson, P., 2011 for the Welsh Assembly Government
"Children are able to think but they can't articulate their thoughts because of the lack of language … it is not the concepts they are finding difficult at KS3, it is the ability to access material given to them."
Senior history teacher in one of our partner schools

The transition involves new people, a new building, a new journey, and, also, new language. At the start of secondary school, students may encounter vocabulary, new meanings of words, and ways of explaining ideas which are very different to the academic language they were used to at primary school. Added to everything else they are dealing with, for some students this creates problems accessing the Key Stage 3 curriculum.

To explore this potential problem, we have been working to develop a comprehensive and systematic description of the range of academic language encountered by students at secondary school. We've looked at whether this differs to academic language at primary school and language outside of school. Finding that there are differences, we've explored in detail what those are. We've used a large collection of texts, from a number of different schools, to try to avoid biases from individual materials writers or teachers, who might have their own ways of expressing ideas.

We have studied the academic language that students encounter at school – teacher talk, textbooks, revision guides, etc. – but not the language that students themselves produce. We aimed to

  • Find out if there are differences between the academic language of Key Stage 3 and the language students have previously encountered in Key Stage 2, and if there are, to describe them;

  • Find out if there are any differences between the academic language of Key Stage 3 and language that students encounter in their lives outside school, and if there are, to describe them;

  • Identify any ways in which the language of Key Stage 3 varies according to subject area;

  • Find out whether students and teachers have thought about the linguistic challenges of the transition from primary to secondary school, and if so, what their views are.

We hope that our description of the language differences that we found between primary and secondary school will be useful to education professionals who support children at this stage in their schooling. Our work is also a contribution to the study of academic registers, and shows the potential of corpus linguistic methods to tackling societal issues.



An ESRC-funded research project, grant number ES/R006687/1, based at the School of Education at the University of Leeds, led by  Professor Alice Deignan working in partnership with Lancaster University’s Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science.

For more information, email Alice Deignan at
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