A lot of attention is rightly devoted by schools to address primary to secondary ‘transition’. We know that as children move schools it can prove a difficult move emotionally. Therefore, our focus, quite rightly, attends pastoral matters to offer vital support to our pupils. And yet, what if we a missing a vital aspect of transition: the often dramatic shift in emphasis related to academic reading.

We know that the ‘academic code’ of school is complex and sophisticated. Indeed, texts in school can be laden with academic vocabulary that is seldom used in talk in almost any circumstance. Take this specimen exam insert from AQA GCSE Geography:

In a single passage, pupils have to grapple with Tier 2 (Isabel Beck et al.) sophisticated words and phrases like “susceptible”, “civic infrastructure”, “grossly inadequate” and “desilted”, as well as ‘Tier 3’ geographical terms like “cyclone”, “storm surge”, “tsunami” and “delta”.  Then they are faced with exam questions and tasks that are glossed with nuanced exam command words.

Of course, such challenging ‘expository writing’ (writing, or talk, that is used to explain, describe or give information) occurs commonly in primary school and increasingly younger children are having to tackle such complex reading challenges. Crucially however, as children move into the latter part of key stage 2, with greater exposure to non-fiction texts that require lots of specific background knowledge, they begin to struggle.


The ‘Fourth Grade Slump’

In the US, there is a well established phenomenon of the “fourth grade slump”. It describes the issue of children moving from ‘learning to read’ (decoding, building their vocabulary) to ‘reading to learn’. That is to say, the type of reading that has significant comprehension demands and requiring lots of vocabulary and background knowledge. For average readers, still struggling with a narrow vocabulary and exerting effort on decoding words, they begin to flounder.

Daniel Willingham, in ‘Why Students Don’t Like School’ (p86) describes the barriers it raises: “The difficulty is that there’s only so much room in working memory, and if we try to put too much stuff in there, we lose the thread of the … story we were trying to follow”. Now, this ‘fourth grade slump’ is the equivalent to year 5 in the UK. We can see the parallels with the increased reading demand in upper Key Stage 2.

The Reading Gap Between Primary to Secondary 

If we consider that the reading comprehension demand has been amped up in year 5 and 6, then think about the following issue. Year 7 pupils have moved from one teacher mediating an entire curriculum in the previous year, to moving between something like ten different teachers, each with their own teaching preferences, with different disciplinary approaches to reading in highly subject specific domains and using vocabulary far removed from that we use in daily talk.

Do we really consider how to help our pupils deal with the ‘reading gap’ at transition?

On any given day, Megan in year 7 may move from History, to Science, to English, to Maths and Art. Each subject has their own specialist lexicon. The extended fiction texts in English, with their familiar story structures, characters, and legions of verbs and adjectives prove radically different to reading a dense expository Science text. Complex nouns like ‘hydration’ in Science pack in lots of knowledge and scientific processes (not to mention the mathematical symbols and graphs routinely used alongside the language).

We see that Science teachers in secondary school are faced with becoming reading teachers. Indeed the evidence is that children at secondary school need to learn a whole array of subject specific languages – not just Spanish or French.

Science proves a pertinent example, as scientific knowledge and understanding relies on reading fluently. We know for instance that For many pupils the greatest obstacle in learning science—and also the most important achievement—is to learn its language” (Wellington & Osborne, p. 3). Alongside this, recent evidence from the Royal Society and the EEF has proved that for disadvantaged pupils, the language gap can prove even more pronounced as children move through secondary school.

We should ask the questions:

  • How well do secondary and primary school teachers understand this reading gap and the different reading demands in different school phases?
  • How effectively do we communicate at transition about the curriculum, reading comprehension and vocabulary knowledge?
  • How well are primary school teachers preparing their pupils for the reading demands of the subject driven curriculum at secondary school?
  • How can secondary school teachers learn from primary about how pupils ‘learn to read’ and the specific issues with reading comprehension during the latter part of KS2?

The evidence suggests we need to expand our transition work beyond the vital work of settling in and moving to ‘big school’. We need to work much more closely to master the most crucial of academic tools for our pupils: reading.