Linguistic Challenges of the Transition from Primary to 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.

We are an ESRC-funded research project based at the School of Education at the University of Leeds, working in partnership with Lancaster University’s Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science and affiliated with Cambridge University Press. Led by Professor Alice Deignan, we aim to use methods from corpus linguistics to address a pressing language problem in English schools.