Research School Network: Unlocking the Power of Language to Support Schematic Development: Bridging the Primary Science Attainment Gap Polly Crowther and Kirsty Simkin


Unlocking the Power of Language to Support Schematic Development: Bridging the Primary Science Attainment Gap

Polly Crowther and Kirsty Simkin

Polly Crowther, ELE at East London Research School and Deputy Head at Cobham Primary School and Kirsty Simkin, Associate Assistant Head at Reach Academy Feltham


Science education is a gateway to comprehending the world, nurturing health, and future careers. Yet reports show primary pupils often engage in fun activities’ without delving into scientific concepts. Year 6 pupils’ performance in national tests is declining, with only 21.2% meeting science standards in 2018.

The existence and expansion of a science attainment gap mirrors disparities in English and maths, starting at Key Stage 1 and widening throughout primary and secondary school. Barriers identified included literacy and scientific reasoning skills. Yesterday, the Education Endowment Foundation released the Improving Primary Science Guidance Report. This guidance report provides six practical recommendations, underpinned by high quality evidence, about how to make meaningful improvements to primary science teaching.

Recommendation 1 in the Guidance Report is: Develop pupils’ scientific vocabulary.

Physics, biology and chemistry are vocabulary words not necessarily used in primary schools, and one reason they’re so helpful is because they help children to construct their schema with labels that reflect organising principles that they will develop further at secondary school. At Cobham Primary School and Reach Academy Feltham, the curriculum allows children to build physics, chemistry, and biology schema for long-term learning.

Schema, webs of organised knowledge, underpin our understanding of the world. Since understanding the world is what primary science is really all about, supporting children to build schema from early stages has potential.

Understanding schema

In cognitive science, a schema is a mental framework that organises knowledge about a concept, object, event, or situation. It helps us make sense of the world and process new experiences efficiently, acting as cognitive shortcuts for easy recall of ideas.

Novices’ schemas differ from experts’. Novices have less knowledge, and their schemas are disorganised, with isolated information. For example:


A novice retains key science facts but lacks an organised schema. They understand life and reproduction but haven’t connected it to lifecycles or broader concepts. This could pose challenges when introducing evolution to a Year 6 pupil.

Experts have highly organised schemas, with interconnected networks for efficient thinking. Key facts are linked to various topics and linked to multiple topics. Teaching evolution to this learner would be easier:


Connecting vocabulary and schematic development

Organising the curriculum around key themes and making these themes explicit to pupils helps them build coherent schemas. The question is, which themes or topics to use? While there’s no single correct answer, using the three scientific disciplines (biology, chemistry, and physics) as organising pillars is a valid approach. If we rely solely on the topics in the National Curriculum as organising structures, topics like Earth and Space’ would stand alone. By organising Earth and space’ with light’ and forces’ under physics’, pupils and teachers can make links between important concepts like gravity, reflection, and shadows when learning about space.

As the Guidance Report says, When teaching new vocabulary, plan when and how you will introduce new words and definitions, ensuring they link directly to the content being taught, and build on prior knowledge.” Labelling the areas of science being learnt about, supports children to build on prior knowledge, make explicit links between their learning in different topics and aligns vocabulary meaningfully with the schema we support children to develop.

This approach aligns with how science is timetabled in secondary school. When children hear that they have chemistry lessons in Year 7, their brain can make connections like materials, properties, particles, separating mixtures, reversible, and irreversible changes. To set up pupils for success in chemistry, using consistent organising structures throughout their education provides coherence to their schema and key vocabulary enables them to organise their schema more effectively.

Implementation – Physics, Biology and Chemistry at Reach and Cobham

At Reach Academy Feltham, children build schema in physics, biology, and chemistry annually. The development of each schema is made explicit to children. By Year 5, a child can explain their physics learning clearly. Children excel at connecting this with other schema, as seen in the example below:


At Cobham, adopting Reach’s approach allows children to link learning with previous topics more quickly. These links were missing in our previous curriculum. Teachers also benefit from the explicit schema construction, which has provided excellent professional development for those without science expertise or confidence.

Long-term benefits at Reach include increased engagement in subjects in the secondary phase, particularly encouraging girls to enjoy and pursue physics beyond Key Stage 4. Science outcomes at Reach in Key Stages 4 and 5 improve each year.

Both schools find that modelling the schema-building process is key to effective implementation. Teaching how new topics link to previous ones is essential, leading to complex mental models for children to build on indefinitely.


The guidance report makes clear that prioritising key vocabulary is a powerful tool for building children’s long term knowledge about science at primary school. Although the process of identifying the key vocabulary can be complex, we have found that linking our understanding of vocabulary learning to schema-building has powerful potential for curriculum development and instruction in primary science. What has had a great impact in our primary science curricula at Reach and Cobham is:

- Understanding the mental model
- Explicitly drawing it out and labelling its components and
- Ensuring this key vocabulary is built on meaningfully over time.

Education Endowment Foundation Improving Primary Science Guidance Report

The Ten Key Issues with Children’s Learning in Primary Science, 2020. Dr Lynne Bianchi, Christina Whittaker & Amanda Poole, March 2021 

Outcomes of the 2018 key stage 2 (KS2) science sample assessment and conclusions about national trends in pupils’ performance. 

How can we improve girls’ uptake of maths and physics A‑Level? Rachel Cassidy, Sarah Cattan, Claire Crawford & Siobhan Dytham, August 2018

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