The Reading and Vocabulary Project: What happens as pupils transition from primary to secondary school?

By Jemma Baker, Royal Holloway, University of London

New faces. New subjects. New opportunities. Transitioning from primary to secondary school is a big deal for 11-year-olds. For some, it may prove nerve-wracking; for others, exciting. Not only does this transition come with the challenge of adjusting to a new school environment, but also with the challenge of encountering lots of new and unfamiliar words in each subject. As highlighted in the Oxford University Press (OUP) report, Bridging the Word Gap at Transition, teachers are particularly concerned about a dip in vocabulary and reading progress as pupils move from primary to secondary school, known as the ‘transition slump’.

Is there a transition slump for reading and vocabulary?

Despite the interest and concern surrounding the transition slump, we don’t have strong evidence one way or the other. In particular, two pieces of the puzzle are missing. First, do we see a transition slump when we use the same assessments over time? Second, does progress during the transition summer holiday differ from a non-transition summer holiday?

To address these questions, researchers from Aston University and Royal Holloway, University of London have tracked the vocabulary and reading development of 296 pupils aged 10-13 years. Pupils’ everyday vocabulary (e.g., ‘vehicle’), school curriculum vocabulary (e.g., ‘refraction’), reading comprehension and word reading were assessed. The same measures were used at five time points from Year 6 to Year 8 and they looked at progress during the school year, across the primary-secondary transition summer holiday and across a non-transition summer holiday from Year 7 to Year 8.

No evidence for a transition slump

The pupils’ progress in everyday vocabulary, school curriculum vocabulary, reading comprehension and word reading showed the same pattern across the transition summer holiday as that of the subsequent summer holiday.

Figure: Progress in everyday vocabulary (left) and curriculum-related vocabulary (right) from Year 5 to Year 8.

Everyday vocabulary and curriculum vocabulary show different patterns

For everyday vocabulary, there was progress within each school year and across each summer holiday. In contrast, curriculum vocabulary showed progress during the school year, but not during any of the summer holidays (transition or otherwise). Why? This indicates that the school environment is more important for curriculum vocabulary than everyday vocabulary. It also reminds us that vocabulary knowledge is complex and hard to estimate: it matters when it is measured and what kind of words are included in assessments. The distinction between ‘tiers’ of vocabulary was highlighted in the OUP report, Bridging the Word Gap at Transition. Our everyday measure captures mostly ‘Tier 1’ words, and our curriculum measure captures mostly ‘Tier 3’ words. The other tier, ‘Tier 2’, encompasses words that are academic but are not subject-specific (e.g., ‘analyse’). An important next step for research will be to measure ‘Tier 2’ word knowledge during the primary-secondary transition.

Adolescents from higher SES backgrounds show better vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension than peers from lower SES backgrounds

The researchers also set out to examine how the primary-secondary transition affected progress in vocabulary and reading for pupils from different socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds. They found that pupils from lower SES backgrounds performed more poorly than their peers from higher SES backgrounds on all of the vocabulary and reading comprehension assessments. However, these differences in performance between pupils from lower and higher SES backgrounds did not become any more pronounced following primary-secondary transition.

No SES gaps for word reading in adolescence

In contrast to the vocabulary and reading comprehension findings, pupils from lower and higher SES backgrounds did not differ in word reading. This is really interesting because we know from earlier stages of the project that SES differences for word reading were there when these pupils were in early primary school. This indicates that high quality phonics-based reading instruction can mitigate early word reading disadvantages.

So how can we promote vocabulary and reading comprehension? Our new intervention

The researchers are excited to see whether choice and goal setting can encourage adolescents to read more in their new intervention study. Using an online reading diary sent via text messages, the researchers will track the specific words that pupils read in a selection of OUP Rollercoaster novels and examine how the pupils’ knowledge of these specific words grows. From this, we can test if independent reading helps adolescents to learn new words.

Ultimately, having a wider vocabulary knowledge can help pupils access the curriculum and achieve greater success during school and onwards. Our research can offer new insight into how best to support vocabulary acquisition and how we can encourage pupils to read for pleasure.

Researchers involved in the project: Dr Laura Shapiro, Dr Jessie Ricketts, Dr Sanne van der Kleij, Professor Adrian Burgess, Amrita Bains, and Jemma Baker.

To learn more about this research, please visit:

Aston Literacy Project website:

Language and Reading Acquisition (LARA) lab website: