What is non-verbal reasoning?

What is non-verbal reasoning?


When students first look at a set of non-verbal reasoning questions, it can be difficult to know where to begin. This article will provide strategies and techniques to help improve non-verbal ability and give suggestions on practical games to enhance NVR skills.

Non-verbal reasoning questions are testing several skills and it might be a surprise to find out that many of them are linked to areas of maths. Therefore, these unfamiliar questions are testing skills children already have, just in a slightly different way. Maths taught in the primary school curriculum can involve topics such as properties of shape, fractions, ratio and proportion, algebra, and handling data and these can all be related to non-verbal reasoning. Let us have a look at an example of this relationship between mathematics and non-verbal reasoning.

Odd one out 

One question type is called Odd One Out. This involves finding one shape or figure that is different from the rest. Can you work out which one is the odd one out?

A very useful approach to tackling any non-verbal reasoning question is to apply a mnemonic. This gives a structured method and ensures students are looking for the correct variables. See below a fun way to remember these key properties:


Shape – silly
Position - people
Angle – always
Number – need
Size – soggy
Shading - socks

Rotation – rotten
Overlapping – oranges
Symmetry – smell

Focusing on one property at a time as you look at the question is a good, systematic approach. On the example above, if we look at ‘shape’ we see a random collection of shapes that doesn’t identify one different image. Looking at ‘position’ and ‘angle’ there is no obvious difference. However, if we apply ‘number’ to the question we see that ‘C’ is the only figure that has only one triangle (the others have two). The question may look tricky, but the answer can in fact be found using a basic maths skill your child has been taught at school.


Another common question type set in non-verbal reasoning tests and papers is matrices. Sometimes they are referred to as ‘Complete the grid’ questions. They can appear in a variety of examinations including CATs, ISEB Common Pre-tests or the 11+. These questions involve a range of skills – identifying patterns, understanding proportion, knowledge of 2D and 3D shapes, recognising line styles and spotting angles. Matrices can have three rows and columns and often have a diagonal pattern as shown below:

The starting point on these questions is to break it down into different features (the taught mnemonic) to find the missing square. Follow one pattern at a time to discover the rules:

  • The same shapes appear on each row (square, circle and triangle).
  • The shading style is different on each shape.
  • The matrix has a diagonal pattern working top left to bottom right.

Now work out what features you would expect from the missing square:

  • The shape in the bottom right must be a square.
  • The shading of the square must be bold.

One useful strategy to apply in these questions (if completing a paper-based test) is to draw the figure in the missing box. This can give you a good idea of the shape required and can allow you to rule out potential options. This process is often referred to as ‘elimination’ and involves crossing out the wrong answers to help both limit your choices and often leave the correct answer.


Next, we will see how this process of elimination can be used effectively. A further question type commonly used in non-verbal reasoning is ‘analogies’. The main skill when solving these questions is finding a connection between figures. At this point, it is important to mention many questions also involve elements that are not relevant. These random elements are called ‘distractors’ and are put in to make it more difficult to spot the patterns.

Firstly, look at the first two pictures and see how they are connected. How has one changed into another? Consider the variables in the mnemonic. The small circle in the first picture has become the larger outside shape in figure 2. This same change needs to be applied from figure 3 to the answer options. Therefore, the small shield becomes the outside shape for the final image. This enables us to cross out options A, C, D and E because they have a hexagon on the outside, leaving only B or F. Returning to the first two shapes, we can now look for another association. The shading of the horseshoe shape is moved to the middle shape (triangle). Making the same change on the second pair, we require a bold hexagon in the middle of the shield leaving us with B as the answer (crossing out F).

Games to try at home

Developing a better understanding of non-verbal reasoning can be achieved through simple practical games. Here are a few to try out:

(1) Whilst travelling in the car, see if you can find different shapes e.g. pentagon or octagon. First person to spot the chosen shape wins a point. This could be an octagonal sign or pentagonal window.

(2) Directional games can be good fun, and link well with this topic area. Draw a map of the local park or school grounds. Label North on the map and provide different instructions to locate different features, e.g. turn 270 degrees clockwise – what part of the school are you in?

(3) With a family member, draw as many different line styles as possible. Who drew the most? How inventive were the lines?

(4) Create your own sequence using everyday objects and see if a friend or family member can finish it. Consider different properties, e.g. size, shading or shape (number of sides).

(5) Improving your memory can be useful in non-verbal reasoning. ‘Kim’s game’ is good fun and can enhance your memory skills. Place a selection of objects on a tray. Look at them for 30 seconds. Cover them up and see how many you can remember.

In summary, it is important to recognise that adults, as well as children, can find these skills challenging to master. Nonetheless, using a variety of activities and applying strong techniques can help develop skills in non-verbal reasoning. Having a list of properties to check for each question can really help identify the right features. Using the process of elimination is also a top tip to help pupils reduce the options. Practising different non-verbal reasoning question types will ensure your child becomes familiar with them before any examinations.

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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.