Finding America

Me and Tarah

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Anyone who has raised children in both Great Britain and the United States will be highly aware of the fundamental differences between the respective education systems of both nations. And while that particular post is probably for another time, those same ocean-hopping parents will no doubt be familiar with some of the education lingo used on each side of the Pond.

As a guide for British expatriates living in the United States, here is a list of 10 words and phrases used in British education circles that are not used in the United States. For each one, I have listed the American equivalent.

1. Maths
A shortening of mathematics, the equally pluralised word maths would seem like appropriate usage. Try telling that to Americans, who simply refer to this school subject as math.

2. Term
The academic year for British schools is mostly split into three terms: Autumn, Spring and Summer. While a split also happens in the U.S. (typically two 18-week blocks), the word semester is preferred over the word term.

3. Year 1 to 13
In Britain, the standard progression of a pupil's school life is measured in years. E.g. pupils in the 12-13 age range are usually in year 8. For their part, the Americans measure by grade, and as a general rule, any specific grade level is usually one number below its British counterpart. In other words, American students in the 12-13 age range will typically be at grade 7 level. It should be noted that year 1 in Britain equates to kindergarten in the United States.

4. Reception year
In Britain, the stage in between playgroup and infants school - known as reception year - is referred to in the U.S. as pre-k or pre-kindergarten. Note: the American terms for playgroup are day care and preschool.

5. Exam
While the American education system is replete with exams, the word exam (or examination) is not in wide use in the United States. Rather, American students take tests.

6. Primary school
For British pupils aged roughly between five and eleven, primary school houses early education development. In the United States, however, this same school is typically known as elementary.

7. Break time
In between class time, pupils will take a brief period of relief from study. In Britain, this is known as break time, while in the United States, it is referred to as recess or free period.

8. Head teacher
In British schools, the leader of a school is known commonly as the head teacher (or to distinguish between gender, head mistress and head master). This terms is not used in the USA, where the word principal (and sometimes head of school) is preferred.

9. Supply teacher
A teacher who is hired for temporary services in the absence of the regular teacher is known in Britain as a supply teacher. In American education circles, this same role is referred to as a substitute teacher (or more commonly, just sub).

10. Pupil
As you might have noticed above, the word pupil is used broadly to describe an individual who is in any phase of education before university, where they will usually become a student. The latter word - student - is used in the United States to describe all learners, from kindergarten to grade 12, and beyond.

What other word differences are there in British and American education? Let us know in the comments below.

Laurence is a British expat living in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is a contributor for BBC America and writes a weekly column for Anglotopia. Having graduated from Lancaster University with a degree in English Language and Creative Writing, Laurence runs this blog, Lost In The Pond, charting the endless cultural and linguistic differences between Britain and The United States. 

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  1. When my mother was teaching in England, the supply teachers were called "peripatetics". Sounds awful.

  2. Mocks, mock exams , a phrase I didn't hear when I lived in The states.

  3. Elementary or "grade" school has been common in my American academic life.

  4. "Mocks" are practice exams administered by the school to prepare pupils for the national exams 6 months later. e.g. "mock--A-Level."

  5. O-Level, A-level, Sixth Form, never heard in the US. Prom has a different meaning and in British English sport doesn't have a plural.

  6. US students would also be shocked if the British expat student would ask to borrow his rubber during class!

  7. stating the bleedin obvious in UK a public school is a paid for private school while in the US it is a state school with no fees

  8. "Pupils" I last heard in school where they kept teaching us the "proper" English aka. British English :) Well, I ended up in America, so I had to learn it "all over again" ;)

    Hey, I just came back from my very first trip to England (London to be exact). It was fantastic. Great city! But you guys drive like maniacs ;) I tried to put my impressions into words in my newest blog post, if you're interested. Might be funny to read for a British person.


  9. The word "school" itself is widely used in US to include post-secondary education.

    Here's some more comparisons:

  10. There was so source I found, that could give me exact UK Property Advice. I was very disappointed and upset before finding George Gannon, who removed tensions from my life. With his expertise and knowledge, he makes me rich and well-known person in the arena.

  11. We do actually use the word "exam" in the US, especially in higher education. It's generally reserved for major tests like end-of-year exams, though we tend to shorten it to "mid-terms' and "finals". You'll still sometimes hear people say "I can't, I've got exams next week" but they may say "it's finals week" instead. We don't often use the word test after high school, but a shorter or less important exam may sometimes be referred to as a test or even a quiz.

  12. vp said...
    The word "school" itself...
    That's true! Between two adults, it's understood that the question "where did you go to school?" means "which university?" unless the subject of conversation is already, say, middle school. When an adult says "when I was in school", he means university; he would say "in high school" otherwise.

    The entire American vocabulary surrounding education is hairy! I'll explain. This could take a while.

    "Higher education" means after high school. The first few years are grade-, primary-, or elementary school, then middle school, then high school. But we *don't* have an agreed-upon general term for school before university! I've seen "K-12" and heard primary school used, but primary implies very early school. Has anyone got a solid term for it?

    When we mean university, we invariably call it COLLEGE; in fact, the word university is very rarely uttered here at all, and I've never once heard an American say "uni". If someone said "at my university", frankly it would just be weird to us. Some people use the exact phrase "four-year university" if they must exclude any another form of higher education or certification, but otherwise, it's all college all the time.

    When naming a specific university, we abbreviate it (LSU for Louisiana State University, BYU for Brigham Young), we call it by its 'first name' (Tulane, Stanford), or we otherwise shorten it (Oklahoma State, Georgia Tech, Texas) by removing the word university. Some universities have nicknames, like Bama or Ole Miss, and those names are often used in place of any other. I think we can afford to be so familiar with university names because of how prolific college 'football' is here; nearly everybody has heard of nearly every university that has a team.

    Almost the only time you'll hear or see a person use university is if he's calling a school by its full name to be posh (a newscaster, maybe), if the school in question is relatively unknown (perhaps Ashford University), or if there is a drastic shift in context where simply saying "Howard" would be confusing. It's worth noting, though, that when naming a school, people never replace the word university with college; nobody says Yale College or College of Maryland.

  13. (continued!)
    Now, college doesn't only mean university over here, even if that's the way we use the word. Technically, a college is a division or discipline within a university, for example [Cornell University, College of Veterinary Medicine] or [Michigan State University, College of Law]. Some universities' colleges are named after benefactors, like [The Leonard N. Stern College of Business at New York University]. It's been my experience, however, that using university college names is rare in all conversation that isn't specific to university divisions per se. People normally simply say Michigan Law or NYU Business, if they ever go into that level of detail at all. Also, [University of Maryland University College] exists. What!? I don't have a clue about that one!

    And then there are community colleges, which cannot be called (and are not) universities. Speaking or writing about specific ones, we often specify "community college" rather than college, and I don't know of any other colloquialisms for them. They're often abbreviated to something like ACC (Austin Community College) or Collin County (Collin County Community College/CCCC/Quad-C) in casual conversation, and I don't think people say "I go to community" they way they would say "I got to Tech" even in local company that is familiar with the school. It's still considered college when not specified, though, as in "when I was in college" etc. I think Community colleges need to be identified because they're much smaller schools which are not at all famous (no sports!), and there is a lingering implication of snobbery about them as they are amazingly less expensive.

    Ohhhhh, me. That's everything I can think of at the moment. I may write up an explanation of primary school and the age ranges later, if anyone's interested. I hope I've been helpful and haven't bored anybody to tears!

  14. In Australia,
    1 - Maths is a plural. "Mathematics" is a plural, therefore the abbreviation of it is, too. In fact, my sister's main objection to the Big Bang Theory is that it goes "math, science, history...". I say, at least it's followed by "science" so you don't notice it so much - my objection is that "the wall" comes before "the pyramids".
    2 - Australia uses both. The year is divided into two "semesters" (late Jan- early July, late July- early Dec) and four "terms". Generally, this means you have a two-week break between and in the middle of both semesters - holidays in April (Easter to ANZAC Day), July, and October). Thus Semester 1 includes Terms One and Two, while Semester 2 includes Terms Three and Four (the Northern Territory, due to have whacky seasons - The Wet and The Dry, rather the four seasons like the rest of us, has four weeks between semesters and one week in the middle). Once you hit high school, some schools like to start Semester 2 in the last week or so of Term 2, for reasons no-one is entirely able to understand but we think has something to do with mid-year exams.
    3 - We're with Britain on this one. We have Year 1 to Year 12, and sometimes (increasingly) Year 12 is split over two years, but even if you do that, you usually still refer to it as "Year 12" and not "Year 13", except sometimes on official enrolment forms.
    4 - This varies from state to state. In South Australia, we have "child care", followed by "kindergarten" (abbreviated as "kindy") at age 4, followed by starting primary school at age 5. The first year of primary school is called "reception" (or, in some schools, "prep"). In the eastern States (Vic, NSW, ACT, Queensland), they have child care, pre-school, and start primary school with "kindergarten" (abbreviated as "kinder").
    5 - We differentiate between "tests", which are largely informal and given by the teacher during class time for fun or formative assessment (such as weekly spelling tests, etc), and "exams", which usually aren't encountered until high school, and happen at the end of the semester/year, and are sat by all the students doing that subject in the school or state (or, when the National Curriculum comes in, country). These are mandatory, summative, long, and stressful, and you get a day or two of Swot-Vac before them. I would add, however, that the compulsory nationwide testing in Years 3, 5, 7, and 9 are still called "NAP-LAN Tests" rather than "exams".

  15. 6 - There's not much more to be said - Primary School is the first 7-8 years of compulsory schooling, from Reception/Kinder to Year 6 (most states) or Year 7 (SA, WA, QLD). High School is 5-6 years after that, but it's often (informally) divided into "middle years/school" (year 7/8-10, although due to the new SACE, a lot of schools in South Australia have reclassified Year 10) and "senior years/school" (years 11 and 12, and sometimes 10). In Tasmania and the ACT, "high school" only goes to Year 10 and then you go to "college" for the final two years (basically the equivalent of a 6th Form College in the UK). In South Australia, a lot of students leave normal high school after Year 9 or 10 and start attending a "senior college" for the last 2 or 3 years - which offers the same curriculum, although often it's either more intellectual or more vocation-orientated, and the education style much more resembles a university to a high school - for example, very few senior colleges have uniforms aside from a jumper (jersey, sweater, whatever). This is probably why the idea of college as tertiary education sounds so silly to us, particularly as many R-12 private schools call themselves "College", as do vocational/technical high schools. The idea that colleges can give out proper degrees is even sillier - we have both words in the language for a reason, and that is to distinguish between institutions which give out degrees and those which can only give out certifications. Also, like the UK, we'd never ever refer to any tertiary institution as "school". It's uni.
    7 - We mostly have "recess", except in rural areas (meaning the NT, and parts of QLD, SA, and WA), where they still call it "smoko". I imagine both Americans and Brits would be appalled at that term!
    8 - The term for this varies from school to school and state to state, but generally, public schools have a "principle" and private schools have a "headmaster".
    9 - We say "relief teacher" (and a relief teacher does "relief work"), but the term "supply teacher" is readily understood. The idea of a "substitute teacher" is also understood, but if one were to refer to a "sub", we'd probably think of either takeaway sandwiches or underground trains.

  16. 10 - "Student" is becoming increasingly common, particularly for high school students, but I think primary school children are still mostly referred to either as "pupils" or "primary-school children". High schools still have "pupil-free days", though.
    Here's another one but. I've noticed that the UK has "Key Stages", which is a bit of a tricky term if you're not familiar with it. In Australia, teacher are trained to understand and teach to "Key Stages" (a cousin recently trained as a teacher and she talked about them), but it's not a generally used term and is very rarely, if ever, mentioned in general conversation.
    Some more British terms you don't often find elsewhere include Sixth Form (even though other forms are rarely used outside of Public schools), infant school, Prep and Pre-Prep (and of course, the whole idea of "Public" schools being the most expensive and exclusive sort of school), GCSEs, A-Levels, AS-Levels, O-Levels (which I don't believe exist anymore), if you're Scottish, National Standards, Highers, and Advanced Highers, if you're Irish, Leaving Cert and Transition Year, and the last one on my list, polytechnics (which, I think, in America much by community college or technical college. In Australia, the equivalent is called TAFE [Technical and Further Education], although you can also take VET [Vocational Education and Training] courses, usually during high school and mostly at a senior college (which as I explained, is basically the same as Sixth Form College and is the last 2-3 years of high school). New Zealand still calls them "polytechnics", though.
    I think that's just about everything I can say, and I hope I haven't been boring. I've recently been making an effort to learn more about the UK education system (somewhat belatedly, since I've only one cousin still left in it), but I've got to say the Australian system I went through is definitely much closer to the UK than anything I've heard about the American version, and the New Zealand system (which I had a couple of second-cousins in), is closer still (they've only just stopped using "forms").

  17. Scotland's always had it's own education system with it's own terminology. Most children attend some sort of nursery (pre-k) for part or all of the week. This may or may not be part of a primary school. Children start primary aged 4 or 5 depending on their birthday. Children born between between October and February who are the younger half of the intake can wait a year to start school if the parents feel they're not ready yet. The first year of primary school is called 'P1' and this goes up to 'P7' (turning 11 before the coming February). Sometimes a breaktime snack might be called a 'piece' which is an old word for 'sandwich'- a sugar or jam piece being the snack of choice for my mother growing up in the 1950s. Scottish country dancing seems to be inflicted on older primary children every year in the run up to Christmas. My classmates called it 'country prancing'...

    Secondary school (middle and high school combined) ranges from 11 to 17/18. Years are labelled/written as S1-S6 but referred to as 'first year' to 'sixth year'. The curriculum is in a state of flux due to new exams. National exams are held in May each year. In S4 these are changing to 'National 5' and you take about 8 subjects- maths and English are usually compulsory depending on the school. In S5 you take 'Highers' in 3-5 subjects depending on ability. In S6 you can take 'Advanced Highers' - 3 being the norm if academic- which are roughly-ish like English A-levels. But the system also allows flexibility now for someone to progress through lower exams first if they wouldn't pass National 5 with the majority. You can also do combinations in S5/S6 depending on school. So you might take extra Higher subjects in S6 instead taking your existing subjects up to Advanced Higher. You can also go to 'further education college' at age 16- and take more vocational subjects like horticulture, catering, hospitality. These also include English language, maths and IT skills as part of the required 'modules' (classes).

    Due to the different school admission birth dates used elsewhere, it's not unusual to go to university at 17 if, like me, your birthday was in November. In the past S5 was the year that really mattered for uni entrance grades so some would choose to go to uni then instead of 'waste time' on S6. So you could find the odd 16 year old undergraduate. I graduated at age 20 by 'cheating' :) I started uni at age 17 but attended an English uni where degrees are usually 3 years, not the 4 in Scotland (couldn't afford to do that these days due to English tuition fees!!!) But mature students are fairly common these days to. Both at FE colleges and universities. Traditionally, the Scottish ed system prided itself on it's breadth compared to the narrow subject choices English pupils have to make at age 16. Traditional style degrees at places like Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee let students take 3-5 subjects in their 1st year and you can change your degree (major) within your faculty (e.g. arts, science etc) far more easily and without restarting 1st year again.

  18. Wow, Anonymous (re: Scottish education), what a fantastic write-up. Thank you!

  19. The trouble for some people in America is they do not understand terms for their own education system, which is understandable. In this area of the U.S., college is a post-high school institution of higher learning that may specialize in a few areas, such as liberal arts, and in general offer bachelor's degrees. Universities may offer several focuses for learning, have more instructors who hold a Ph.D., and within the university may be several colleges, each focusing on one group of subjects, such as technology (cybersecurity, programming, gaming), business, the arts, law, engineering, education and health care. Top universities are accredited and have recognized authority to bestow master's degrees and Ph.D's. With that said, definitions within the States are as loose as the Wild West, meaning a college may wish to increase its perceived prestige by calling itself a university, misleading as that may be (Trump University is among the high-profile examples). As a result, average Americans cannot be blamed if they use "college" and "university" interchangeably and incorrectly. But, I submit, their teachers can and should be blamed.


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