The challenge of the primary-secondary school transition: the vocabulary of science

I will present an ongoing project researching the linguistic challenges facing school students when they move from primary to secondary school[i], based on data gathered in the north of England. Our team have worked with five secondary schools and eight primary schools to build corpora that aim to represent the language encountered by students in Years 5-6, and in Years 7-8, in academic contexts. We aim to develop a detailed description at the lexical, grammatical and discourse levels of the spoken and written language of Key Stage 3, contrasted with Key Stage 2 and with language outside the school. Our database allows for comparisons at the broadest level between late KS2 and early KS3, between separate year groups, and between individual subjects at different levels, and we are working on a number of such studies.

This talk will focus on the science corpora, and in particular on the issue of word meaning. Polysemy in academic vocabulary is a known phenomenon, with many words having an academic meaning and a related, more general meaning. For example, expand has the general meaning of ‘get bigger’ in non-academic discourse and a precise meaning when describing an algebraic process. I identified the most frequent lexical words in our KS2 and KS3 science corpora, and keywords of each compared with each other and with a reference corpus. I used concordance and collocation analysis, and tools such as WordSketch to develop descriptions of use and meaning of the frequent lexical words in KS2 and KS3 science. I show that potentially problematic polysemy is very widespread, with almost all frequent school science lexis having more specialised and narrow academic meanings in KS3 than in KS2 or non-school language. Examples are cell, force, energy and reaction, ranked 1, 2, 5 and 6 in frequency of lexical words in KS3 science. Even where words appear to have the same meanings as in everyday language, such as water and light (ranked 3 and 4), there is a subtle difference in use, from contained, tangible instantiations in everyday language, to generalisations and abstractions in the language of science. In contrast, technical scientific words that are rarely used outside school (such as photosynthesis) are not especially frequent, and are almost always glossed by teachers. I argue that the vocabulary challenge of secondary school science lies in the move from concrete to abstract explanation, with the shift in meanings of everyday lexis that is entailed, rather than in the accumulation of new technical lexis.

[i] The linguistic challenge of the transition from primary school to secondary school, funded by ESRC, grant number ES/R006687/1.