How do I know if my child is capable of sitting the 11+?

How do I know if my child is capable of sitting the 11+?


Every year, the title of this article is often the burning question that many parents ask themselves. Other questions then follow on from this, and some of those most frequently asked are listed below:

  1. When should my child start preparing for the eleven-plus examinations?
  2. Should my child take the exam without preparation? 
  3. Can my child become disinterested in the practice and not want to attend a grammar school? 
  4. If my child passes the 11+ test but doesn’t enjoy their secondary education, will I have made the wrong decision? 
  5. Which materials should be used for the 11+ tests? 
  6. How many hours a week should my child be preparing for the exams?
  7. How many areas of learning are tested in the 11 plus exam?

This article will help answer some of the typical questions facing many parents when considering a grammar school education. Firstly, I would like to clarify how I am able to comment on, and unravel, these tough decisions. For the last 18 years I have been running a well-established tuition business supporting thousands of parents and pupils across the different examination boards. During those years I have garnered a wealth of knowledge. Multiple conversations, engagement in parent workshops, and my own teaching experiences have allowed me to acquire a broad understanding of these life-changing questions. Further, my team of teachers, headteachers, and knowledgeable administrators are supporting me by adding their thoughts and observations to enhance my own opinions on these important considerations. 

When should my child start preparing for the eleven-plus examinations?

Let us begin by tackling the first question regarding when to start 11+ preparation. If you are reading regularly with your child (both modelling and listening to your child read) this already has a direct impact on one of the most important skills necessary not just to pass the exam, but to ensure that your child will continue perform well in secondary education. The ability to read challenging texts demands a good understanding of inference skills, a wide vocabulary, an ability to pace reading appropriately to the demands of the text, and a strong contextual understanding of the world. With skilled reading lying at the core of the exam (even maths problems require extraction of the task from the text), early guidance and encouragement to read a variety of genres of texts gives children an advantage.

Our courses start in year 4 and allow for two years of preparation in all four areas of the exam. This gives us the opportunity to gradually build reasoning, numeracy, and comprehension skills. Children have more than one opportunity to hear the explanations about how questions work and how to tackle the problems efficiently. However, beginning with 11+ materials earlier than year 4 can lead to pupils resenting the process and becoming disillusioned before taking the actual 11+ test at the start of year 6. Children are far more likely to perform well in the exam when they are enjoying the challenge. This two-year plan allows us to build the children’s confidence up to the challenge level and to ‘peak’ at the right time. It is a crucial part of the teacher’s job to make learning as enjoyable as possible so that children are still eager to ‘show off’ their skills and their love for learning on the day.

Ensuring your child has a solid foundation in the basics of English and mathematics should be an important consideration before introducing 11+ concepts. It is important to recognise that a grammar school is not always the perfect match for all students. They are extremely academic institutions, and you want your child to flourish in their secondary school environments. Some children thrive in a challenging situation, and others with equal academic abilities will struggle to deal with the same demands. Further, maturity comes to us all, but the rate differs. Some children, though academically excellent, may need emotional support, whereas others mature academically much later and benefit from support to acquire the necessary basic skills (e.g., times tables) in time to access more challenging concepts. The trick is to know your child and offer support where needed.

Should my child take the exam without preparation? 

With grammar school places incredibly oversubscribed, it is recommended to receive support with the 11+ content. Some of the content is not taught in some schools (particularly verbal reasoning) and some concepts (particularly in maths) may not be taught in school until after the exam. To answer at the speed required in the exam, children need support to build familiarity with the various question types and ensure understanding of the format of the examination. These tests are timed: giving students the chance to practise under timed conditions develops their skill and confidence with time management. 

One of the key elements to success in the 11+ exams is keeping the practice engaging and interesting. Even with our best efforts not all children will pass the exam. It is important that, just before a child sits the exam, they feel that they have learnt much and largely enjoyed the challenge of that learning. Two years of preparation is a long time and there will understandably be moments when a child doesn’t want to work through the content. However, if pupils are usually motivated and are continually wanting to learn new ideas this can really influence the outcome.

Which materials should be used for the 11+ tests? 

Another important consideration is varying the preparation. What does this mean? Well, if your child is sitting a paper-based exam not all the preparation needs to be in books or using past papers. Consider using apps and websites, such as the following, that create a different stimulus which also provide instant results.  

There is a plethora of 11+ materials on the market but the key to selecting the right materials is twofold. Firstly, making sure the books are age appropriate. You don’t want to expose your child to materials that are too hard, as this can easily switch your child off their learning. The other major factor is making sure the materials are related to the correct exam board. This becomes relevant when studying GL, CEM or other 11+ exam boards. 

If your child is offered a place at a grammar school, it is worth considering whether the institution meets your child needs. It is important to attend school open days when you and your child will be able to get a ‘flavour’ of the school. Involve your child in discussions about the choices that must be made so that they know that their opinions count. Let them begin to take some ownership of their future. Does the school offer extracurricular activities that your child likes? Does the school have a subject specialism that your child would enjoy? What is the pastoral care like within the establishment? If the catchment area is not an admission criteria, are the logistics going to work for your child? For instance, do they have a long train or bus journey to get to the school? Will they possibly have friends going too? It is important to consider these questions before deciding in order to match the child with the right school for them.  

How should I start preparing my child for the 11+?

When introducing the 11+ question types it can be more enjoyable if the activities are treated more like puzzles. Often the verbal and non-verbal reasoning can be taught with this element of fun attached. An example could be playing a matching game with compound words. Decide on a series of compound words that could be used in the game e.g. heart = he + art, combat = comb + at, redraw = red + raw, seething = see + thing. Once you have chosen approximately 11 words write each separate word on a piece of paper. Spread all the words out on a table faced down. Each player selects two words and checks if they make a compound word. If it does make a pair have another go. The winner is the player who has the most pairs once all the cards are cleared. Play word games like Scrabble and Bananagrams. Involve yourself as often as you can in appropriate games.

The NEW Collins 11+ Activity & Puzzle Book for years 8-9 is the perfect book to introduce the 11+ topics. This book has a series of engaging activities related to the different question types. All subject areas are covered (Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning, Mathematics and English skills) and challenges are included to keep all users engaged. You can dip in and out to build skills at your child’s own pace. It is full of helpful hints and tips to aid understanding.

In addition to a thorough understanding of the four subject areas covered in the exam, a good general knowledge is also vital. Many of the questions, particularly in the VR section, will challenge the children’s knowledge of the world. Your child will need to become more aware of the wider world and related concepts. Names of capital cities, trees, flowers, animal babies, shades of colour, are just a few of many concepts to be explored. Children must be encouraged to ask endless questions and as well as stimulating and encouraging them you must be ready to answer them. Sharing an appropriate T.V. nature programme, watching the children’s news, or sharing a children’s newspaper will soon make you aware of what and how much needs to be done. Fun family games can be created with just paper and pencil, thus making your child feel that the exam is not a solitary challenge, but a family affair.

One of the biggest challenges in the exam is that of knowledge of vocabulary. The children must be word aware.  They need to become familiar with as many words as they can – both long and short – and confident that they can make connections which will help them to use elimination to make sensible guesses when necessary. Many children benefit from an awakening to the joy of power of words which continues well after the memory of the exam fades.

Finally, an important aspect of preparation for any exam is to encourage your child to learn organisation skills. Help them to feel ready for this big challenge by teaching them to organise their own books, bags, and homework. Children who begin to take responsibility in this way feel more empowered to face the challenges before them. 

The challenges of the 11 plus exam can at first be quite exacting for children who are used to grasping concepts easily and quite quickly in their primary classrooms. However, with consistent praise and encouragement and the knowledge that they are fully supported, they engage with enthusiasm and are delighted to discover how far they can progress when challenged.

By Chris Pearse

Chris Pearse is a qualified Primary School Teacher with 10 years' experience in teaching. He started Teachitright in 2006 to provide support for children taking secondary school exams and is passionate about helping children achieve their potential whilst enjoying education.

Discover more from Collins 11+ here