Reading and Vocabulary (RAV) Projectaston_hls_rav_leisure_reading

Exploring how skilled independent reading supports vocabulary learning in primary and secondary school. 

Funded by the Nuffield Foundation. The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social well-being. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare, and Justice. It also funds student programmes that provide opportunities for young people to develop skills in quantitative and scientific methods. The Nuffield Foundation is the founder and co-funder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and the Ada Lovelace Institute. The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. Visit for more information.

Aim of the project 

The Reading and Vocabulary (RAV) project aimed to address concerns that limited vocabulary may be a barrier to learning and academic achievement during the transition from primary to secondary school. Sixteen primary schools and over 50 secondary schools in Birmingham and the South-East of England contributed to the project.

Word reading proficiency refers to the accuracy and speed with which someone can read words. Vocabulary knowledge refers to what someone knows about the meaning of words.

Key findings

Reading contributes to vocabulary development in two ways: 

  1. Proficient readers gain larger vocabularies.
  2. Proficient readers engage in more leisure reading, which increases vocabulary knowledge.



Together, word reading proficiency and leisure reading explained 45% of individual differences in vocabulary knowledge (a large effect size). 

Many students entering secondary school (10-20%) had reading or vocabulary attainments that were two years or more below average expectations for their age.

Progress in reading and vocabulary did not decline during the transition to secondary school. Although we observed slower progress during summer holiday periods for some of our assessments, the progress made during the transition from primary to secondary school was the same as a normal summer holiday.

The project also highlighted the difficulties associated with increasing students’ leisure reading.

Implications for education practice and policy

Targeted support: Many students entering secondary school will struggle to access the secondary curriculum due to reading and/or vocabulary needs. Screening and diagnostic assessments are essential to accurately identify their needs and provide targeted support.

Jump not slump: We found no evidence of a slump in students’ knowledge and skills during the transition to secondary school. However, secondary school presents unique challenges, requiring monitoring and support to ensure smooth adaptation. Policy change is needed to increase the continuity in the curricula and expectations across primary and secondary settings.

Promote leisure reading: Developing accessible ways to increase teenage reading is challenging and we highlight the need for co-designed programmes that are developed with teenagers and teachers from the outset. 

Proficiency and pleasure: School literacy strategies in primary and secondary schools need to integrate support for reading proficiency and vocabulary knowledge within a rich reading culture that enables reading for pleasure.

Read the full report here.


Cite this report as: Shapiro, L.R.*, Ricketts, J.*, Burgess, A., & van der Kleij, S. (2023). Reading and Vocabulary: Exploring how Skilled Independent Reading Supports Vocabulary Learning in Primary and Secondary School. Aston University.

*Laura Shapiro and Jessie Ricketts are joint lead authors.