School teachers and leaders are acutely aware of the ‘language leap’ pupils encounter between primary and secondary. How can we make the transition less traumatic for them, and equip teachers with the tools they’ll need to help bridge the gap?

Despite all the efforts often made by secondary schools, such as transition days and ‘settling in’ periods, the step up from primary to secondary remains huge. For some children, it’s less of a leap and more of a pole vault – only without a pole, across a cavernous ravine, and with nowhere to land.

Volume and difficulty

Not only are there new pastoral needs to be met, but also increases in the volume and difficulty of curriculum content to take account of.

According to a report by OUP and the Centre for Education and Youth, “In an average day at secondary school, pupils are exposed to three or four times as much language as at primary school.”

It follows that with secondary students studying a range of discrete subjects throughout the day – where a typical timetable might include geography, physics and computer science – they’ll be exposed to a considerable amount of language they may have no prior knowledge or experience of.

If our lower performing pupils are to therefore appreciate the curriculum in its entirety, we need to adopt a whole school approach to addressing the reading gap, beginning with ‘disciplinary literacy’. It’s important for all secondary school teachers to feel confident in teaching some degree of reading, writing and language development within their subjects, since there will be a bank of vocabulary that students have to understand in order to progress.

If less able students can’t read the basics, then there’s little chance of them being able to understand the subject overall.

Early assessments

Schools need to identify any related issues early on. Whether via initial reading assessments or simple writing tasks, it shouldn’t take long for teachers to identify those Y7 students needing additional support.

Providing them with targeted interventions as early as possible will give them the best chance of thriving as they progress through KS3. If left unaddressed until they reach KS4, it will be far too late.

There should be some targeted vocabulary teaching in every subject, involving teachers and subject leaders identifying words and phrases students aren’t likely to encounter in everyday speech. Specific guidance and instruction pertaining to these words can then be provided, which might include learning about their etymology and morphology in a way that helps students better understand the connections between them.

It’s also advisable to chunk complex texts. Reading books one paragraph at a time might feel time consuming, but it will save you teaching time in the long run. This method can be beneficial for all learners, too – not just those needing extra support.

Finally, make time for ‘reading talk’. A large portion of our text comprehension happens when we express our views and opinions on the material we’ve read.

Whether it’s a passage from a book or a case study, model critical thinking and expression to your students in a way that’s accessible to them.

The difficulties

Underpinning the reading ‘catch up’ schools have to do can be variously attributed to the six-week summer holiday – a desert of literary stimulation for some – as well as the inherent challenge of getting to grips with an unfamiliar secondary curriculum.

However, by ensuring their teachers are confident, and equipped with the right skills to deliver lessons that contain considered and targeted literacy practice, schools will quickly find themselves with the most powerful tool there is for tackling the literacy gap.


Hannah Rix is a SEND English teacher and has taught in both secondary and SEND schools for over eight years. This experience led to her co-founding Readingmate, producer of the Readingmate app – a free resource designed to help parents develop their children’s love of reading. Find out more at readingmate.co.uk or follow @readingmate.