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Blog post Part of special issue: Spotlight on language and literacy

The change in science language as a result of transition from primary to secondary school

Michael Inglis, Lecturer in Science Education at University of Leeds Alice Deignan, Professor of Applied Linguistics at University of Leeds

When students move from primary to secondary school, one of the numerous challenges that they encounter is language. The language of school academic activity is importantly different from the language that children encounter in their daily lives outside school, and the language of key stage 3 (KS3) is very different from that of KS2. To go beyond anecdotal and small-scale text studies, our team from Leeds and Lancaster Universities worked with Huntington Research School in York, England, and 12 other local schools to collect written texts and transcribed audio files of teacher talk, from lessons in years 5–8. We currently have around 2.5 million words of data from various subjects, which we are analysing using the techniques of corpus linguistics (McEnery & Hardie, 2012; Deignan et al., forthcoming).

Fang (2006) writes that school science shares some linguistic features with professional science, including technical words, specialist meanings of words that have everyday meanings, lengthy noun groups, abstract nouns and nominalisations, through which actions are turned into nouns – so that, for example, we get condensation or evaporation, rather than sentences with condense and evaporate. Fang’s analysis was based on previous studies and on his work supporting science teachers in the US. We took a different approach, using software (Brezina et al, 2020) to automatically identify frequent uses and patterns in our corpus.

‘We have found that the move to KS3 entails a significant leap in linguistic sophistication that is potentially challenging for many students.’

The most frequent words in our KS3 science data (discounting grammatical words such as the) are energy, light, cell, force, mass, speed, reaction, weight, work and gravity. At a first glance, none of them seems to be especially difficult to understand. Most or all are used in everyday life. The corpus software allows us to drill down to individual citations of words, and undertake qualitative meaning analysis. This showed that most of these words are polysemous to some extent – that is, they have more than one meaning, albeit related ones. For instance, the word energy will be familiar to almost all students in year 7 from uses such as:

‘Breakfast is known as the most important meal of the day; it gives you energy.’ (from a year 6 English text).

Its use in year 7 might seem the same:

‘The mechanical energy of motion, e, of a car is proportional to the square of its velocity.’


‘It takes more energy to separate water molecules.’

However, the year 7 use is a technical scientific one, which is very specific and precise, and cannot be fully understood with reference to the everyday sense.

There are many other examples of polysemy between everyday meanings and scientific uses. In the following interview extract, year 7 students discuss the meaning of model, which they have encountered in a science text. The students explain the everyday meaning, but do not show awareness of the meaning in science, which we roughly paraphrase as ‘a theoretical account of a phenomenon, simplified but intended to have predictive power’:

Researcher: what is a model?

Student 1: like a picture.

Student 2: it’s like a mini thing that’s like it could be like it’s fake but it looks real … like a model of a bike would be fake and you couldn’t ride it and you’d probably crush it.

Student 3: like a fake version of something; I don’t know.

We found that technical scientific words (‘Tier 3’) occur less often than these polysemous uses, though collectively they are a fairly large group. When KS3 is compared to KS2, the following technical words are the most significant (in descending order):

atom magnesium copper oxide compound hydrogen particle sodium alkali kinetic acid combustion decrease hazard bunsen

We have conducted similar analyses for other subjects and for the KS2 and KS3 materials as a whole. Overall, we have found that the move to KS3 entails a significant leap in linguistic sophistication that is potentially challenging for many students. The wider project team are currently developing materials to support teachers.


Brezina, V., Well-Tessier, P., & McEnery, T. (2020). #LancsBox v. 6. [software].

Deignan, A., Candarli, D., & Oxley, F. (forthcoming) The linguistic challenge of the transition to secondary school. Routledge.

Fang, Z. (2006). The language demands of science reading in middle school. International Journal of Science Education, 28(5), 491–520. 

McEnery, T., & Hardie, A. (2012). Corpus linguistics: Method, theory and practice. Cambridge University Press.


We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Economic and Social Research Council, UK (grant number: ESR006687/1).