Revealed: The 'word gap' between primary and secondary

Transition between primary and secondary is undermined by the vocabulary gap between the two phases, report finds

Alex Quigley

Vocabulary gap: The transition between primary and secondary school is being undermined by a huge word gap, report finds

Making the transition from primary school into secondary school proves an exciting but frightening leap for so many children. The challenge of moving to "big school" is recognised by every teacher and every parent.

However, despite our best efforts, many pupils are likely to fall at the first hurdle and struggle with the language of their new school. This "word gap" can have troubling consequences for future school success.

The newly published Oxford Language Report 2020 has exposed the crucial word gap that can have the potential to damage the progress of pupils at the vulnerable point of primary and secondary transition.

The vocabulary gap 

This important new research, involving a survey with over 3,500 responses from teachers in a three-year programme, reveals that teachers are concerned about the potential impact of the word gap and pupils possessing only a limited vocabulary.

Eight out of 10 teachers agreed that partial school closures and the impact of Covid-19 were only likely to have widened the word gap still further.

Secondary schools obviously attend to the pastoral needs of pupils during transition, so that they can fit in and feel at home in their new, strange environment. That strangeness may be more pronounced than ever with the advent of "bubble groups" and ubiquitous masks.

Primary to secondary school transition issues

The more subtle trouble at transition is the significant shift in the language that is used in the classroom. If students cannot access the academic code of the subject specialist classroom, they’re likely to struggle academically, with all of the issues that come along with such persistent failures.

The Oxford Language report includes a host of experts who define the "word gap".

Professor Alice Deignan, from the University of Leeds, reveals her emerging research from both primary and secondary school classrooms. It clearly reveals the dramatic increase in the language that pupils have to handle as they make their move into secondary school classrooms.

Deignan reveals a shocking statistic: “In an average day at secondary school, pupils are exposed to three or four times as much language as at primary school, purely in terms of quantity.”

In the survey, nine out of 10 teachers said they thought that the transition highlights the vocabulary issue, with the “variety, quantity and purpose of language dramatically shifting”.  

Solutions to closing the gap

Oxford University Press and the Centre for Education and Youth recommend a range of realistic solutions for schools and teachers, such as encouraging an explicit focus on academic language and "code-switching".

Put simply, "code-switching" describes the ability to shift your language and vocabulary to suit your context, task and purpose.

Professor Maggie Snowling, from the University of Oxford, exposes the issue of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who can lack experience in "code-switching". She explains how “in adolescence, the peer group becomes the main model for the use of language and an agent of vocabulary acquisition.”

Malcolm Richards, director of The Culture Yard (CIC) and educator, explains that “code-switching is one of the ways in which students seek to navigate the system, while at the same time being able to communicate and speak with their authentic voices in other spaces and places”.

Additional solutions to the word gap at transition include an intensive focus on reading. Dr Jessie Ricketts, of Royal Holloway, University of London, specifically explores the value of reading for vocabulary growth.

She emphasises that “books introduce young people to quite different kinds of language in terms of the vocabulary items, the frequency of those items and the way that vocabulary items are used”.

Positive signs 

Though the perspectives of teachers surveyed may pose a bleak picture of the vital transition to secondary schools, the Oxford Language Report also shares a wealth of school case studies that depict schools helping their pupils to make the language leap into secondary school with success.

Schools such as Greenshaw High School, in Sutton, exemplify a targeted transition that concentrates on closing the word gap early and opening up the curriculum for students.

These case studies attest to the positive influence of a focus on word quantity and word quality in every classroom in secondary schools.

The findings of the report reveal what most teachers know instinctively: access to language is simply essential for school success. Not only that, as Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, states: for many disadvantaged pupils, it can prove vital “to be successful in wider professional worlds”.

It is a clarion call for concentrating our efforts and attention on bridging the word gap at perhaps its most vulnerable point: the primary to secondary transition.

Alex Quigley is a former teacher who now works for an educational charity. He is a Tes columnist and is the author of Closing the Vocabulary Gap

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