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Literacy in the transition years: Evaluation of literacy practices in upper primary and junior secondary school

Trevor H. Cairney and Eira Sproats
School of Lifelong Learning and Educational Change
University of Western Sydney Nepean

The divisions between primary, secondary and tertiary education have long been considered as open to debate and 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 children's literacy practices of movement across these educational boundaries. The Literacy in Transition project1 investigated variations in literacy practices across the primary/secondary divide. It sought to describe literacy practices in 13 primary and four secondary schools and investigated ways in which 35 children coped with the literacy as they moved from primary to secondary school. In particular, it focussed on the effects of transition on students' literacy development.

An expected outcome of this study was the provision of information concerning effective strategies to bridge the gap between the primary and the secondary school. The project results were presented in three volumes. The first was written for schools and school education policy makers and provided an overview of the research. It was designed to help schools examine the project results as well as strategies for facilitating a successful transition from primary to secondary school. The second volume contained a comprehensive report of all findings, conclusions and recommendations. The third volume contained 35 detailed case studies for the focus students.

Four major themes were identified that have direct relevance for curriculum and policy developers, as follows:

a) Students', parents', and teachers' apprehensions. The level of apprehension about secondary school varied for students, parents and teachers. Most students' fears regarding secondary school were unfounded or short-lived. Some of the students actually looked forward to the new social and curricular opportunities secondary school offered. Parents were more anxious than their children about the transition to secondary school, but the majority recognised that primary school had prepared their children well for secondary education.

b) Variations in resources. There were a number of variations in resources. For example, primary students had more direct access to a greater variety of texts than secondary students. Students and parents also readily identified variations in resources across the transition period as both an opportunity and sometimes a threat.

c) Variations in policies and classroom practices. A major factor identified as contributing to the varied nature of classrooms across the transition was the range of different policies and practices (for example, structure of the day, time constraints in secondary school, assessment and reporting, constant movement, etc.).

d) Variations in literacy, and literacy-related practices. Literacy was a dominant practice in primary and secondary classrooms. While the relative proportion of time devoted to literacy was similar across primary and secondary, there were many variations in the type of literacy practices demanded in primary and secondary classrooms. For example, primary classrooms tended to be less focussed on content and more on literacy processes and ensuring that students completed the prescribed curriculum. There was also evidence of less writing of extended discourse and more writing of short answers in Year 7 (the first year of secondary school in NSW).


The National Plan (DEETYA, 1998) stresses the importance of literacy for the world of work and participation in society more generally. Our research has shown that literacy is of fundamental relevance to students' success at secondary school. Just as the early years of primary education are vital for success, the first two years at secondary school have a critical impact on students' attitudes to learning and long term success. Patterns established in the first two years of secondary have the potential to either establish a firm foundation for later learning or disrupt students' learning across the curriculum. Our research has also shown that there is a significant shift in early secondary school from a focus on teaching literacy to teaching students how to use literacy to learn.

The Commonwealth Government has indicated in its National Plan that it intends to set agreed benchmarks in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 of schooling. This research project has shown that there are significant needs for the professional development of secondary teachers to equip them to support students as literacy learners in the various subjects encountered. While the National Benchmarks will allow teachers to know if their students are able to engage in specific literacy practices, teachers will need additional support to develop the strategies to support their students as literacy learners.


The results of the project highlighted the need for ongoing work in the transition years of education and continued professional development for teachers in both primary and secondary schools. As a result, the report made a number of recommendations that relate specifically to professional development. It recommended that: To achieve this it was recommended that schools should be encouraged to continue the use of a variety of transition programs that lead to staff engaging with the key issues. Various professional development strategies were suggested to facilitate this, including: Universities and employing authorities in Australia were also challenged to negotiate the development of a plan for the preservice and ongoing professional development of teachers in a number of broad areas that have a relationship to the ability of specific groups of children to have success in literacy. It was recommended that this should include: The project also identified technology as a critical issue in relation to literacy and suggested that there should be an increased emphasis given to its use in classrooms. This, it argued, could be achieved through professional development strategies which include:


One of the key concerns of the research project was the effects of the transition process on literacy development. Literacy could be described as the 'legal tender' of school and of society, the currency in which academic and social transactions take place.

Not surprisingly, literacy practices play a central role in any changes encountered in the transition process. Literacy's use constitutes an important indicator and potential determinant of one's membership of, or exclusion from, particular social groups. As such, it has been studied by a variety of researchers and educational systems.

Our research found that schools were aware of differences between primary and secondary schools and that they implemented a variety of transition programs. Some of these addressed the curriculum as well as the structural differences between primary and secondary schools.

Nevertheless, the research also indicated the need for more information sharing between schools. This, it seems, should include information exchange by both primary and secondary schools and an increased overlap of the purposes for and processes by which literacy is used at primary and secondary levels.

The study confirmed that literacy is a dominant practice in primary and secondary classrooms. The relative proportion of time devoted to literacy was similar across primary and secondary schools. However, there were many variations in the literacy practices evident in primary and secondary classrooms. For example, while spelling was taught formally in all but two of the primary classrooms, in secondary schools, it was dealt with in a less structured fashion embedded within the teaching of content areas.

As well, reading aloud was almost twice as common in primary schools as in secondary schools, and materials read also differed between primary and secondary schools. While primary students often read independently from novels, most oral reading in Year 7 consisted of reading from worksheets, overhead transparencies or the board, primarily to gain knowledge. Comprehension sheets and exercises were common in both years six and seven, but were used to different ends. In Year 6 they provided practice for reading skills, whereas in Year 7 they aimed to teach content.

Writing was found to be a central component in both the Year 6 and Year 7 classes. However, extended discourse diminished across the primary-secondary school boundary, from 39 percent to 28 percent of total time spent writing, and in Year 7, most of this extended writing consisted of prose narrative. Depressingly, short answer pieces of writing increased from 33 percent in Year 6 to 45 percent in Year 7. Nevertheless, like reading, it would seem that in Year 7, writing was used far more as a tool for conveying information than as a skill to be taught.

One interesting and yet worrying finding in this study was an apparent decline in student interest in reading in Year 7. This is similar to the previous findings of Bintz (1993) and Beavis (1981). However, for the students in this study, the main reason for this reduction appeared to be reduced time caused by increased homework. This area requires further detailed research to 'tease out' the reasons for this change in attitude across many students.

Given the differences in the purposes for which literacy is used from Year 6 to Year 7, we were surprised to find that most students adjusted quickly to the transition phase. Our research did not uncover significant problems for many of the students in making the transition to Year 7. Of course it may well be that some students do not experience literacy difficulties until later in secondary school (perhaps in Year 8). This needs to be explored further over an extended period of time, with students being tracked from Year 6 to Year 8. There is some evidence from the comments of students in this study and from other research (Hill, Holmes-Smith & Rowe, 1993) that schools may in fact 'mark time' for a period in Year 7, and some specific groups of students' do appear to suffer academically. This might partly explain the fact that this study did not uncover significant problems for large numbers of students.

It may also be the case that there are more subtle changes in literacy practices as students move from Year 7 to Year 8, something that was not a focus of the present study. Further research may reveal whether those who arrive at secondary school with the greatest 'scholastic capital' (Bourdieu, 1977) adjust more easily to changes, further widening the gap between the literacy 'haves' and 'have-nots'.


The success with which students adapt to their new academic environments bears testimony to the efforts, initiatives and partnerships established by schools. Some students defied their own and others' expectations by performing better in secondary school than they had previously. As well, our study found some support for the conclusions of Power and Cotterell (1979, 1981) that attitudes to secondary school are influenced by the extent to which student expectations prior to secondary school are fulfilled.

A major conclusion of this research project was that there is a need for additional research which considers the role that literacy plays in the empowerment of specific students. Of special interest would be the relationship of success in the transition years to gender, culture and socio-economic status. The examination of variations across specific literacy practices utilising more detailed discourse analysis of classroom events might also shed additional light on some of the more complex issues raised by this study.


Beavis, C. (1981). Secondary teacher looks at a primary school. English in Australia, 56 (July), 41-46.

Bintz, W. (1993). Resistant readers in secondary education: Some insights and implications. Journal of Reading, 36 (8), 604-615.

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Cultural reproduction and social reproduction. In J. Karabel & A. Halsey (Eds), Power and ideology in education. New York: Oxford University Press.

DEETYA. (1998). Literacy for all: The challenge for Australian schools: Commonwealth literacy policies for Australian schools. Canberra, ACT: Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs. http://w ww.dest.gov.au/archive/schools/literacy&numeracy/publications/lit4all.htm

Hill, P. Holmes-Smith, P. & Rowe, K. (1993). School and teacher effectiveness in Victoria: Key findings from the Phase 1 of the Victorian Quality Schools Project. Melbourne: Centre for Applied Education Research.

Nesbitt, J. & Entwistle, N. (1969). The transition to secondary education. London: University of London Press.

Power, C. & Cotterell, J. (1979). Students in Transition. Adelaide: ERDC.

Power, C. & Cotterell, J. (1981). Changes in students in the transition from primary to secondary school. ERDC Report, No. 27. Canberra: AGPS.


  1. Cairney, T.H., Lowe, K. & Sproats, E. (1995). Literacy in transition: An investigation of the literacy practices of upper primary and junior secondary schools (Vols 1-3). Canberra: DEETYA. http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/cls/clearinghouse/content_1994_transition.html
Author details: Professor Trevor H. Cairney,
Office of Pro Vice-Chancellor, Research,
UWS Nepean, P.O. 10, Kingswood, NSW, 2747.
Phone: (02) 47 360 036 Fax: (02) 47 364 186
Email: t.cairney@uws.edu.au
Homepage: http://tcairney.cadre.com.au/ [verified 1 Jan 2005 at http://www.trevorcairney.com/]

Please cite as: Cairney. T. H. and Sproats, E. (1999). Literacy in the transition years: Evaluation of literacy practices in upper primary and junior secondary school. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 15(1), 43-50. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/cairney3.html

[ Contents Vol 15, 1999 ] [ QJER Home ]
Created 1 Jan 2005. Last revision: 1 Jan 2005.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/cairney3.html