Research School Network: The Vocabulary Gap at KS2-KS3 Transition How to bridge the academic transition gap at KS2- KS3 through a reading lens


The Vocabulary Gap at KS2-KS3 Transition

How to bridge the academic transition gap at KS2- KS3 through a reading lens

by Derby Research School
on the

Academic Transition Gap

Why do students struggle with vocabulary?

The transition from primary to secondary usually creates feelings of excitement and anxiety in all our young people; the excitement of feeling grown up, looking forward to new subjects and the challenges that may lie ahead. One of those challenges our young people encounter is the stress and anxiety regarding the language leap’ (Quigley 2017) or the vocabulary jump at transition (Ricketts, 2023). Transition from primary to secondary is a pivotal time. If there is a lack of coherence in the expectations for language coverage and how it is taught across primary and secondary schools, the language gap is at risk of becoming an impassable ravine.


As children advance through primary school, they progressively move away from story-driven reading primarily based on action-filled lived experiences. What we read and how we write necessarily shifts to a more tricky, academic style […] by the time they reach secondary school, they are expected to move between multiple, discrete disciplines in a single day. For many young people, the complexity of the very different academic codes they need to crack in order to achieve and thrive is frankly bewildering. (Quigley2017a, p. 65)

As a first step to succeeding academically, students need to be able to access the materials presented to them in class and through texts. Language and literacy have a central role in school success (Clark, 2019, p. 6) and difficulties with the language can present a significant barrier to academic achievement.

However, Language barriers aren’t solely confined to students studying in an additional language, or to our disadvantaged students. Many children and young people who are highly linguistically proficient in everyday situations find that their skill does not transfer to school (Gee, 2004). This is because the language of school is different and more complex to the language of home and the playground (Leung, 2014), and it becomes increasingly more challenging as they navigate through the disciplines each year.

Ricketts’ (2023 ) Reading and Vocabulary (RAV) project investigated students’ reading and vocabulary development as they move from late primary (Year 6) through to early secondary school (Years 7 and 8). The main findings were that word reading proficiency and everyday vocabulary (tier 1) measures showed progress during the school year, holidays and transition. This was down to the amount of exposure and expressive use at home. However, curriculum vocabulary (tier 2 and 3) and reading comprehension did show growth that was slower during the transition periods, again due to the lack of engagement and use of the academic register outside of school. The research suggests that the transition period between KS2-KS3 could more accurately be described as an increase in challenge and expectations, rather than a reduction in attainment.

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Jessie Rickett’s RAV Project

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This has further been supported via The linguistic challenges of the transition from primary to secondary school’ project. The University of Leeds, 13 schools in the north of England, and Huntington Research School explored the reality of the academic transition through a vocabulary lens by following an average school day at secondary.

They concluded that in a typical five hour school day, a student in KS3 is exposed to vastly more language, in terms of tokens, than in a typical day in KS2. The project defines the amount of words experienced by year 7 including repetitions as Tokens.

This is because all written materials are much, much denser at KS3 than in KS2: PowerPoints, worksheets and textbooks are all crammed with words and students are pushed through them quickly. Furthermore, from lesson transcripts teachers talk for a higher proportion of lesson time, and at a faster rate. Even if this language was all very familiar to students, the increase in quantity would pose an increased cognitive burden. However, at secondary as well as volume of words, there is a lot of new vocabulary.

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The increase in the volume of words encountered from KS2- KS3

New individual words students encountered as defined as Types and do not include repetitions.

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The increase in the types of words heard at KS3 from KS2

This project highlights not only the volume of words students are exposed to but also the complexities. At secondary there are numerous disciplinary polysemous words, (words with multiple meaning). For example, concentration’ in science, reflection’ in Maths and Art, current’ in Geography etc. If these words haven’t been discussed in a disciplinary manner in year 6 and when they transition into year 7, teachers can assume a level of knowledge and then don’t articulate the complex disciplinary literacy demands in comparison to everyday language or other disciplines.

In the table below are some common tier 2 and tier 3 words experienced in year 7 that weren’t taught in depth or in a disciplinary manner previously in primary.

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Frequent disciplinary words used at KS3, not taught at KS2
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The linguistic challenges of the transition from primary to secondary school’ project.

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Book transition

These findings highlight that students at the transition do not yet have the academic and specialist vocabulary that they will need to
be successful academically as they progress through school. 

To bridge this transition gap there is a need for a coherent approach to vocabulary embedded through curriculum, pedagogy and
transition activities at KS2-KS3 that ensures certain words are given more emphasis and strategies are in place for making sure instruction around the word goes beyond merely a definition. There are a range of different options available, in-house developed approaches will be just as valid, as long as they provide opportunities to unpack the meaning of words.

Alex Quigley’s Confident Teacher Blog - has numerous suggestions for teaching vocabulary and the evidence/​theory that sits behind it.

What’s Next?

If that’s the research, what can we practically put in place?

In collaboration with Derbyshire Local Authority, we embarked on an academic reading transition project across Derbyshire to coordinate and create progressive curriculums, reading strategies, and pedagogies around reading from KS2- KS3

We delved into the research base and then began to build a project with a range of stakeholders to see if there was a way that we could begin to build networks and established shared ways of working to support the academic transition gap.

We ran two cohorts of the project with over 80 schools in clusters of primary and secondary schools. Our shared model of reading, the EEF Reading House directed us to cover content and practice around key themes such as oracy, vocabulary, reading comprehension strategies all within a range of subject disciplines to improve reading success.

The project ran for 12 months and had various iterations. 

Every week we will share a new blog post for this series. We will share the evidence base first with links to all key resources and reading that underpinned the training. The following blog will share the projects created, the resources used, and the impact evaluations of the two cohorts. 

The blog next week will be sharing the case studies around KS2-KS3 Vocabulary and the impact it has and continues to have.

Deignan, A., Candarli, D., & Oxley, F. (2022). The Linguistic Challenge of the Transition to Secondary School: A Corpus Study of Academic Language (1st ed.). Routledge

Quigley, A. (2017b). The Language Leap’ at transition. https://www .theconfidentteacher .com /2021 /04 /​the ‑language ‑leap ‑at ‑transition/​

Clark, U. (2019). Developing language and literacy in English across the secondary school curriculum: An inclusive approach. Palgrave Macmillan.

Gee, J. P. (2004). Situated language and learning: A critique of traditional schooling. Routledge

Leung, C. (2014). Researching language and communication in schooling. Linguistics and Education, 26, 136 – 144.

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