The transition from primary to secondary school can be overwhelming for educators and learners alike. A lot of the discourse around the issue seems accusatory: pointing the finger either at primary schools for not having enough learners up to scratch on core skills, or at secondary schools for not being prepared enough for the influx of new Year 7s. A fact that can be ignored is that educators face an entirely new cohort every year that will definitely have gaps in their learning; attainment is often arbitrary, there will always be learners who transition to secondary while behind on key skills.
As we all know, it’s a scary time for those learners as well; for many, it will be the first and biggest change of their young lives. Add the fact that many are underprepared for secondary learning, and it becomes terrifying for everyone involved.
As Sir Ken Robinson says in his TED talk Do Schools Kill Creativity? “Education takes us into a future we can’t grasp.” Entering secondary school is this future for our children. They’ve heard about ‘big school’ and have thoughts about ‘big school’ but they can’t grasp what it’s actually going to be like. The only thing they have are their prior experiences and prior knowledge to help them navigate secondary school. If you have reading vulnerabilities then the future, the secondary curriculum, instantly makes you feel that this future is something you can’t grasp.
But we’re here to help. This useful teacher’s guide will help ease the primary to secondary transition, with practical advice and strategies you can use to get your learners ‘secondary-ready’.
What do we even mean by ‘secondary-ready’?
Before we get into it, we first need to define what we mean by getting learners ‘secondary-ready’.
Fundamentally, for a child to be secondary-ready, it refers to a child being prepared for that key transition. Yes, it refers to academic capacity, but it also touches on confidence, self-discipline, socialisation and communication skills.
A child who is not yet secondary-ready, or does not seem to be, could be setting out on a disadvantaged pathway of limited progress. They might lack academic accomplishment at the level of their same transiting peers, or they may be less able to self-manage or to use the kind of critical thinking which can be needed in senior school compared with primary.
Significantly, a percentage of students could be behind on core skills that are developed at primary, but then are faced with a secondary curriculum that assumes these core skills such as phonics. As a result, a secondary school might have to take a different approach and consider the below to get their Year 7s ‘secondary-ready’.
However, we have to acknowledge that the term and concept of ‘secondary-ready’ is arbitrary, something akin to what Ken Robinson would coin ‘educating children by batches. Humans do not develop in a handy linear fashion, so the concept of ‘secondary-ready’ is flawed from the second we use it. However, our children are moving from one phase to another, so we must help them and their families embrace that shift.
Focus on Foundational Skills
One of the very first stops in a primary to secondary transition is evaluating and, if needed, developing the foundational skills of your new Year 7s. You need to get a sense of where they’re at first: assess, identify and then intervene.
Intervene is the key concept here. All schools diligently review SAT scores and implement base line assessments as part of their transition curriculum and routines. But what strategies, interventions and curriculum pathways are in place to ‘intervene’? What the data is telling you is that an 11-year-old student with a SAS below 85 is likely to have gaps in their phonics. As is a learner who has a SAS of 85 – 112 who doesn’t possess the fluency and vocabulary to begin to comprehend the challenging secondary curriculum.
We believe in this concept wholeheartedly at Lexonik. So much so that our literacy interventions come with diagnostic assessments to hone in on the gaps a learner may have. We also include bench marking assessments to highlight the progress of your learners.
Lexonik Advance comes with WRAT5 tests to assess learners and Leap comes with a 6-step diagnostic. Educators can then use Lexonik as a comprehensive solution - one that identifies problems for them and solves them in the same breath.
Recent work from the Education Endowment Fund (EEF) stresses how one significant challenge during periods of transition is difficulties adapting to academic challenges.
“Children who have the necessary academic preparedness and who are able to work independently are often able to cope with problems and difficulties and are more likely to be successful.”
We will mention fostering independence next but, for academic preparedness, work on the foundational skills overall as a bedrock of learning. It’s particularly important that learners have confidence in the key areas of Maths and English. Interventions can be necessary at this time and will really reap the benefits when learners progress. English, specifically, is a skill they will use in every lesson. Reading and writing are essential for accessing the rest of the curriculum, so focus here is vital before moving on to the trickier parts of the secondary curriculum.
Foster Independence and Responsibility
One of the biggest differences in secondary and primary learning is the amount of self-reliance the learner has when in the secondary environment. One of the goals of education is to give young people the tools to thrive in adult life, so it makes sense that as they progress through academia, they are given more and more independence and responsibility.
Consider the many and varied ways in which secondary life is different to primary. It’s not just about ‘academically ready’, but about the level of a child’s independence, confidence, and resilience. In order to excel at secondary, a learner will need to develop these skills. The dining space alone can be a challenging and overwhelming experience when we first enter secondary school. The noise, the smells, the number of tables, the fear of slipping on a chip are all real and part of that transitional process.
Learning structures, routines and habitual patterns are therefore crucial in lessening the impact of transition. Children need to be taught how to read independently, write a homework timetable, understand what we actually mean by an ‘optional’ reading list and their place within group work akin to reciprocal reading or collaborative learning protocols.
This often comes down to metacognition and self-regulation. Supporting learners to think about their own learning while teaching them planning, monitoring and evaluation skills can have great effects. As the EEF state in their research:
“The potential impact of metacognition and self-regulation approaches is high (+7 months additional progress)”
This is a great way to ease the transition into independence, as fostering independence and responsibility doesn’t mean throwing your new cohort in at the deep end and seeing who sinks and who swims. You can’t on day one just set a mountain of homework and overwhelm them with the change. There will have to be a bridging process of giving them gradual responsibility and independence throughout the year, while keeping an eye on those who seem to be struggling with it.
Explicit vocabulary instruction can be one way of supporting independence and curriculum confidence. Students will face challenging and unknown vocabulary from almost day one of secondary school, so if we adopt a whole-school systematic approach to vocabulary instruction using a classroom tool such as Lexonik Vocabulary, then we can be confident that teachers have the tool at their fingertips to make vocabulary instruction recognisable across the curriculum by asking students three key questions about the words in the curriculum: What does it mean? How do you know? Where’s your mind going? Afterall, we only ask questions in the classroom in the hope that one day students will start asking themselves those very same questions.
There are of course non-academic ways to do this as well. Kirsten Mould, a secondary school special educational needs and disabilities coordinator and a learning behaviour specialist at the EEF spoke to TES in a wonderful piece about the primary to secondary transition. She notes that learners need “a sense of agency” in Year 7 and that some good ways to do this would be writing to the Year 6s in their old primary schools to offer them advice and to have them show Year 6s around the school on taster days later on in the year. There’s a litany of ways to foster this essential skill that will not only benefit your new secondary learners in their transition but throughout their lives.
Address Concerns and Communicate
It should be noted that the TES article just mentioned opens with quotes from learners about how they have found their adjustment to secondary school. Because that’s exactly what educators should be doing with their new Year 7s: hearing them.
This can seem a daunting task when you have 20-30 learners in each class. But with frequent check ins and maintained awareness in the classroom this gets easier. Ask lots of questions to your new Year 7s, not just about the content of the curriculum, but how that content is being taught. What’s working for them? What isn’t? And how can things be presented differently to emphasise what works. No two learners are the same, let alone two cohorts, so there is no perfect approach, only approaches that work for the specific learners in front of you. Consider asking the question ‘what does support look like for you?’ and brace yourself for insightful, challenging and impactful responses.
Reinforcing communication can be a way to aid social skills as well. This helps pupils to be better prepared for meeting new peers and for embracing busier school communities. This can go hand in hand with addressing concerns and providing support. If you create a culture of communication from your end in the classroom that will carry over to them.
It may be that not every learner wants to communicate amongst their peers. So, it may be a good idea for your school to schedule one-on-ones between Year 7s and their tutors for any issues they would rather discuss in private.
Whatever path you choose, it’s important that those transitioning to your secondary school feel heard and understood. Issues left unattended only grow, so there can never be too much classroom communication.
Consider Your School’s Infrastructure
The onus for an easy primary to secondary transition is on the school, even more so than it is on the learners. Consider if you have enough resources and good enough infrastructure to support this new group.
As said, you’re never going to get a brand-new group of Year 7s with no gaps in their learning, there will always be things that need addressing. Is your school prepared for that? Have you received enough training and support? Do you have literacy interventions in place for those who need them? Think about your last new cohort of Year 7s and use that as the blueprint of what your school can do to improve. Consider what worked with them, repeat it and consider where improvements could have been made.
For example, if your last cohort of Year 7s were behind on essential skills, it’s a good idea to invest in interventions and professional development. It would be wise to make these investments before your new Year 7s arrive so that school staff can be upskilled, and interventions can be leaned on with minimal loss of learning for the learner.
“In particular, we were concerned about students who were ‘not secondary-ready’ and we felt they would need a degree of accelerated support when it came to their reading and vocabulary.”
Further explaining why the interventions were needed for these learners, saying:
“It’s much broader than reading and vocabulary when a child of that age group is falling behind. It meant that their shortfall in that specific area was holding them back across the whole of the curriculum. There’s no way they could have been getting the best level of education on any subject matter, if this aspect of their learning wasn’t speedily addressed.”
The results of this preparation led to our interventions being rolled out with a total of 121 students, who benefited from an average reading age gain of 28 months, making a significant impact in getting learners ‘secondary-ready’.
Investments like this empower educators to tailor learning strategies that address the diverse needs of transitioning students, fostering their success in secondary school.
Keep Success Simple and Celebrate it
We’ve used the word overwhelming before when talking about this transition, regarding both educators and learners. That’s because in issues like this it’s easy to miss the trees for the forest. We can get so caught up in the big picture of getting learners ‘secondary-ready’ that we forget to keep certain things simple.
We spoke to Lexonik Senior Manager and former Primary School Teacher James Ledger about the transition from primary to secondary school, he said:
“In my experience, working in primary, it can often be about showing pupils how to make improvements in small, measurable steps.
Children can become very daunted by seeing a huge task that seems impossible to achieve. Where I've seen significant success is in breaking tasks down to their component parts and making progress in more manageable chunks.
Whatever your focus is with the transition from primary to secondary, building confidence, developing essential foundational skills, emphasising communication or fostering independence, it’s important to break the process of that down into manageable chunks.
This makes it less stressful for you, the educator. Having clear and achievable goals should help you plan and deliver with ease, as well as making it clear what your focus should be with your cohort throughout the year. The primary to secondary transition is a marathon, not a sprint, and you need to know where the progress markers are before setting off.
As James mentioned, this also makes it easier on the learners, rather than giving them a big lofty goal to strive for. This comes with the added benefit of improving their confidence alongside whatever facet of the transition you’re working on. Or as James puts it: “For me, it's about building in little victories, that add up to bigger ones.”
Those are our top 5 tips for a smooth primary to secondary school transition. We hope you found them helpful.
If you’d like some more help from us, you can find out more about our literacy interventions here or you can contact us to talk to one of our dedicated members of staff about what we can offer your school.