Published on 20/06/2023
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  • Study finds one in five children enter secondary school without the reading skills they need to access the curriculum
  • Research finds more proficient readers better able to learn and remember new vocabulary and more likely to read for pleasure
  • Researchers call for more detailed assessment of children’s reading in secondary school so that support can be better targeted to needs

Reading skills are critical for children to succeed at school, but many are not getting the targeted support they need, new research has found.

The Reading and Vocabulary project, by researchers from Aston University and Royal Holloway, University of London, found that about one in five children enter secondary school with their reading or vocabulary skills two years or more behind expected levels. 

The findings, and recommendations based on them, are published today in a report funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

Weaknesses in reading proficiency, vocabulary or comprehension each require different types of support, but tests typically used in school fail to differentiate between them.

The researchers say that increased monitoring and more targeted support for reading and vocabulary are needed in upper primary and secondary schools.

They also call for better continuity between primary and secondary school basic skills curricula to help students make a successful transition.

The Reading and Vocabulary project tracked 598 children from age 10-13, testing their reading skills at five points during their transition from primary to secondary school and over the following summer holidays. The study involved children from 16 primary schools and 53 secondary schools in Birmingham, just over half of whom were girls. 

The team looked at whether the summer between primary and secondary schools was any different to other summers in terms of children’s development in reading and vocabulary. 

Secondary school teachers often report that children’s attainment in their first year is below what would be expected from their national curriculum test (SATs) results in year 6. This has led to the theory of a slump in attainment during the transition from primary to secondary school.

In fact, the Reading and Vocabulary project found that children’s development followed a similar pattern in all summers. Children continued to learn everyday vocabulary at the same rate all year round (words like adjustable, citrus, foundation), but their learning of specialist vocabulary linked to the curriculum slowed down each summer, compared to during the school year (words like hibernate, periscope, translucent).

Study lead, Dr Laura Shapiro, reader in the School of Psychology at Aston University, said:

“Our results show that the issue is not a slump in attainment, but a jump in expectations. In secondary school, students need to learn a wide range of vocabulary, across different subject areas taught by specialist teachers.

"If students don’t have the reading proficiency to learn in this new environment, then that presents a barrier to accessing the secondary curriculum. Closer coordination between primary and secondary schools, such as a basic skills curriculum that continues through the transition, could help to mitigate this.”

As part of the Reading and Vocabulary project, the team tracked the books children were reading in their leisure time, and the number of times they encountered particular words (e.g., “tempest”, “courtroom”, “rogue”). They found a direct relationship between the number of times children read a word, and their ability to understand and remember it. This shows how important leisure reading is for vocabulary learning. The team also found that children who were more proficient at reading were more inclined to read in their leisure time. More proficient readers also found it easier to learn new words. 

Study co-lead from Royal Holloway, University of London, Professor Jessie Ricketts said:

“The connection between reading proficiency and learning new words might seem obvious, but this is the first time this has been demonstrated in a real-life context. We show that, if we can help children to read more proficiently, then other benefits are likely to follow, such as better learning of new vocabulary and more time spent reading.

"Similarly, if reading proficiency is low, then children are going to be struggling to learn new words, which will disadvantage them in the transition to secondary school.”

The team recommends that reading skills continue to be monitored during secondary school so that children’s needs can be addressed with targeted support and interventions. They also recommend a two-step process with initial screening using broad group-level tests to identify children with difficulties. These children can then be given diagnostic assessments that pinpoint the nature of their reading needs, such as lack of fluency, difficulty decoding words, challenges with reading comprehension or a limited vocabulary. 

Ruth Maisy, Programme Head of Education at the Nuffield Foundation said “Time spent reading improves children’s vocabulary and understanding. So, it is clearly important to encourage children to read for pleasure. We hope this work will assure teachers and parents that anything they can do to encourage a love of reading will be time well spent." 

The report, Exploring how Skilled Independent Reading Supports Vocabulary Learning in Primary and Secondary School, is available for download here from 22 June 2023. 

Notes to Editors

About Aston University

Founded in 1895 and a university since 1966, Aston is a long established university led by its three main beneficiary groups – students, business and the professions, and the West Midlands region and wider society. Located in Birmingham at the heart of a vibrant city, the campus houses all the University’s academic, social and accommodation facilities for our students. Professor Aleks Subic is the Vice-Chancellor & Chief Executive.

Aston University is ranked 22nd in the UK in the Guardian University Guide, based on measures including entry standards, student satisfaction, research quality and graduate prospects. The Aston Business School MBA programme was ranked in the top 100 in the world in the Economist MBA 2021 ranking.

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