Transition from primary to secondary school
Here you will find summaries of research papers that relate to Transition. Each summary is worded to be reader-friendly, and covers no more than one side of A4. If you have any questions about the research, or would like to know more, please contact us or the theme leader, Suzanne, at s.j.graham (at) reading.ac.uk
Issues for primary school teachers
Broadly speaking, primary age learners have positive attitudes towards language learning, and have high levels of intrinsic motivation – that is, they value and enjoy language learning for its own sake, and also for the opportunities it brings for communication with, and learning about, people from other countries. Such positivity at primary school should, potentially, lay the foundations for continued positivity as learners move into secondary school. It can be maximised by teaching that focuses on what research suggests that learners value and enjoy: games and songs, using language as part of a creative activity, activities that allow them to learn more about the culture of the target language community or to use the language in a communicative, purposeful way, such as corresponding with pupils from the target language community.
Research also suggests however that learners are not always so well motivated by the end of primary school. Factors that seem to negatively impact on their motivation include them feeling that they are not making progress or are going over the same ground all the time; not feeling confident about their current abilities in the language or their future prospects for progress going forward. The latter might be especially problematic if learners have an unrealistic idea of what might be expected of them in secondary school. In turn, lack of confidence/poor sense of progress can be impacted by limited time for language learning in the primary curriculum, and teachers lacking proficiency and training in the language themselves, so that progress is indeed slow. Teaching that does not seem to meet learners’ needs can have a similar effect. In other words, the work is either too hard or not challenging enough, or less suitable for learners with literacy difficulties. Likewise, simply not giving learners enough feedback on the progress they are making can limit how motivated they feel to continue with language learning.
From the perspective of primary school teachers, transition to secondary school can be a source of frustration. On the one hand, they may be unsure of what knowledge and skills would best equip their learners for a good start at secondary school; on the other, if they fear that secondary school teachers will just start again from scratch, overlooking what has been learnt at primary school, then their own motivation may be negatively affected.
Issues for secondary school teachers
These fall into two main, interrelated areas. First, motivation for language learning. As noted above, motivation is generally high during primary school. At secondary school, it starts to decline in Year 7. However, the picture is mixed as to when this downward trend begins. Not all studies indicate that occurs at the very start of secondary school, with some reporting an increase in motivation and confidence at that point, because learners start to feel they are making more progress as they experience more language teaching of a more challenging nature. But the majority of studies do note a decline in learner positivity by end of Year 7.
Motivation can be negatively affected by abrupt changes in the style of language teaching experienced across transition. Teaching in the secondary school is often much more formal and literacy-based, with a greater emphasis on accuracy and testing and less on culture, oral interaction, songs and games. This may lead to a growing mismatch between what learners report as their goals and perceived rationale for language learning, namely to communicate in the language, and what they feel lessons at secondary school equip them to achieve.
Secondary school teachers are also faced with Year 7 learners with very varying levels of proficiency in the foreign language, especially if there is no continuity between what language is taught in feeder primaries and what is taught in Year 7. Furthermore, a greater emphasis on literacy-based work at secondary school also means that learners’ English literacy skills have a greater influence on how well they achieve in the foreign language. This may particularly disadvantage those with lower levels of English literacy, especially if there has been little explicit teaching of phonics for the foreign language at either primary or secondary school, widening the attainment range still further.
With such variation in attainment, secondary school teachers may resort to starting the language from scratch with all learners. Simply repeating what has been taught at primary school is likely to be a strong demotivator for students; by contrast, if key language is revisited and extended, within new and interesting contexts, it can also help with the sense of progress noted to be important for motivation across transition. To do this effectively, secondary school teachers need to have sufficient information about what has been covered at primary school and the attainment levels of learners at the start of Year 7.
What can be done?
At primary school, teachers should aim to plan for progression, so that learners do indeed make progress in their learning and feel more confident. This is more likely to be achievable if sufficient teaching time (60 minutes a week minimum) is allocated in the curriculum for language learning. Diagnostic assessment tools such as The Language Magician and others can be used to give learners better insights into how well they are doing, as well as helping teachers plan for progression.
In turn, such information can and should be shared with secondary schools to help them understand better what knowledge and skills pupils have at the end of primary school. Secondary schools should make use of such information to build on and extend what has already been covered, rather than simply repeating content. If a different language is studied in Year 7 from the one learnt at primary school, assessment information can still be used to help understand what learners’ differing needs might be.
Both primary and secondary school teachers would benefit from gaining greater understanding of the teaching approaches used in each phase, through reciprocal visits and mutual observation. Such information could then be used to help make any shift in pedagogy a more gradual one. Bridging units taught across the two phases can also be used to prepare Year 6 learners for secondary school work, and to build on prior learning at the start of Year 7.
In both phases, supporting learners’ literacy development through instruction in phonics and reading comprehension strategies may help ease the transition to more literacy-focused work at secondary school.
Policy changes needed
National Curriculum in England – languages programme of study at KS2
The development of non-statutory guidance on minimum core content, defining what should be taught, to whom and when a primary school, would go some way to ease issues of transition, by reducing the variability in attainment of learners when they arrive at secondary school. This would work in conjunction with the development of a nationally recognised benchmark by the age of transfer from KS2 to KS3, with clear descriptions of what children should know and be able to do, referenced explicitly to the expected outcomes in the programme of study.
Deckner, S.E. (2019)
- ages 11 to 12
- motivation over Year 7
- children’s attitudes and opinions
Graham, S., Courtney, L, Tonkyn, A., & Marinis, T. (2016)
- ages 5 to 11, 11 to 18
- motivation, type of teaching
Hunt, M., A. Barnes, B. Powell & C. Martin. (2008)
- Pathfinder in England programme
- MFL primary & secondary