The Journey from Primary to Secondary School: The Literacy-Related Demands in Transition

By Green, Pam | Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, June 1998 | Go to article overview

The Journey from Primary to Secondary School: The Literacy-Related Demands in Transition


Green, Pam, Australian Journal of Language and Literacy


In this article Pam Green provides a rich case study of a young boy, Ryan, as he moves from primary to secondary schooling. While the problems of transition have been well recorded, this article documents the literacy-related demands and in particular identifies disturbing evidence about the literacy demands of the secondary school. In conclusion Green offers some useful recommendations that need to be seriously considered if students are to continue to develop their literacy skills at secondary level.

Ryan has continued to work well and is making pleasing progress. He conscientiously applies himself to all tasks and is always an active participant.

(End of year report)

Although his school report indicates that Ryan successfully completed his first year of secondary school (Year 7 in Victoria), it reveals little about the nature of his journey from primary to secondary school. Significant changes occurred with respect to his attitude to school in general, and to writing and reading. Furthermore, his general work habits, in particular those pertaining to writing and reading, were much altered. Such changes were far from positive. What happened?

The research presented in this article involved tracking ten students for two years as they made the move from primary to secondary school (Year 6 to Year 7 in Victoria). The students, who comprised all of the Year 6 students within a Year 5/6 class in an outer western suburb of Melbourne, moved on to five different secondary schools. The findings indicate that the transition process is, for some students, anything but smooth.

Transition from primary to secondary school

The notion that transition from primary to secondary school is often problematic, at least in the short term, is not new. An abundance of research makes this point (Blyth, Simmons & Carlton-Ford, 1983; Canady & Rettig, 1993; Fenzel, 1989; Hargreaves, Earl & Ryan, 1996; Hill, Holmes-Smith & Rowe, 1993; James & Boyles, 1985; Nisbet & Entwistle, 1969; Sigurdson, 1981, 1982; Snow, Barnes, Chandler, Goodman & Hemphill, 1991). Such research on transition shows that there is much room for potential difference or discontinuity in the journey from primary to secondary school (McGee, 1989; Power & Cotterell, 1979,1980,1981). When viewed in terms of the literacy-related demands involved, the complexity of, and the potential for discontinuity within, such a journey comes to the fore.

Literacy practices in the context of transition

Until recently literacy practices have been largely peripheral to studies on transition. A national language development project was launched in 1977, from which occasional papers such as that of Christie (1979), and reports like that of Fairbairn (1982), emerged. However, the attention that the project drew to literacy practices in the context of transition was not followed up by many researchers and/or educators in the years hence. A glimpse at the Australian research on literacy practices and transition from the 1980s reveals only a few studies in this area.

The nineties has seen a renewed surge of interest in transition and literacy practices with the emergence of studies like those of Hill, Holmes-Smith and Rowe (1993),, and Cairney, Rowe and Sproats (1994a,b,c). The Victorian study by Hill, Holmes-Smith and Rowe (1993) notes that the bottom decile of students made minimal progress from Year 4 to Year 9 with regard to reading and writing (p. 28). The study points to `a discontinuity between primary and secondary schooling, for reading and spoken language especially, with a dip in the rate of progress of students in the first year (Year 7) of secondary school' (p. 9). Cairney, Rowe and Sproats (1994a,b) report many differences between the literacy practices in which students engage in the final year of primary school and those encountered in the first year of secondary school. Such differences include fewer opportunities for reading for pleasure, reduced access to texts, narrower reading experiences, and less opportunity for extended writing in Year 7 as compared with Year 6.

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