Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Literacy in the Transition Years

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Literacy in the Transition Years

Article excerpt

The transition from primary to secondary school is a constant source of concern for teachers, parents and students. In this article Trevor Cairney et al. report on a major study that particularly focussed on literacy development and practices in this transition period. The study, which followed Year 6 students into their first year of secondary school, identifies some important issues for teachers, parents and administrators to consider.


The divisions between primary, secondary and tertiary education have long been considered at best arbitrary, and at worst open to challenge (Nisbet & Entwistle, 1969). While the divisions are longstanding, educators have increasingly begun to examine the impact of the structure of our educational system into phases with 'hard' transition points. One area of inquiry has been the impact on students' literacy practices of movement across these educational boundaries. The study described in this article was funded by DEETYA under the National Children's Literacy Projects program (Cairney, Lowe & Sproats, 1994) and investigated variations in literacy practices across the primary /secondary divide. In particular, it focussed on the effects of transition on students' literacy development.

The nature of school and the transition process

While many have claimed that the transition period is disruptive of students' literacy development, little systematic study has occurred concerning the literacy practices experienced by Year 6 and Year 7 students. The common belief that the transition period is disruptive of students' learning is evident in the number of educational systems that are currently placing an emphasis on curriculum and professional development work in years 6-8.

Much of this interest can be linked to a recent influential study that showed that literacy development, like other scholastic abilities, seems to plateau in the first two years of secondary school (Hill, Holmes-Smith & Rowe, 1993). Other earlier researchers such as Power & Cotterell (1979, 1981) have also observed that despite a degree of continuity between primary and secondary practices, a change in emphasis, from the mastery of literacy skills to their use, is evident. It was the desire to more systematically explore the differences and the impact of changing literacy practices across the primary/secondary transition that led to this study.

Foundational to the study was a belief that schooling is a social practice, or rather an amalgam of social practices. Its practices reflect, and at the same time shape, the culture to which they belong. If observed at one level, as skills to be mastered, the literacy practices of primary and secondary schooling look remarkably similar. However, this study was driven by the belief that differences in practices require more than a simple analysis of the products or processes of literacy. All literacy practices are social phenomena which are part of the cultural fabric of groups. As such, the literacy practices of schools may in fact privilege certain academic procedures (Gee, 1990), and randomly promote certain social expectations (Bourdieu, 1977). Others have gone as far as to suggest that schools arbitrarily privilege certain academic procedures, and also promote specific definitions and traditions of literacy (Bourdieu, 1977; Friere & Macedo, 1987; Lankshear & Lawler, 1987; Street, 1984). Primary and secondary schools differ not only in their highly visible structures, but also, more subtly, in their cultural expectations. Students are faced with this adjustment during the transition into adolescence (Bezzina, 1988) with its inherent pressures related to social, physiological and emotional changes.

Studies of the transition period

Some studies of the transition period have focussed on broad curriculum issues and the degree of contact between primary and secondary. For example, Power and Cotterell (1979,1981), in a study of sixty-two primary and seventy-two high schools in Australia, observed that compared with primary schools, high schools created environments which are more goal-orientated and cohesive, less structured and more conducive to independence. …

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