How to gain a strong knowledge of 11+ spelling, punctuation and grammar questions
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.
In primary school education, a huge emphasis is put on to spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPAG). It is important to note that SPAG skills are the foundation of strong English language skills. Whether students are sitting their exams, writing an essay, or producing a letter, these key elements are needed to communicate accurately. Spelling errors and grammatical mistakes may also change the meaning of a message, which might result in misinformation.
In this article we will be focusing on how to improve spelling, punctuation and grammar in relation to the 11+ tests. In numerous 11+ exams children are exposed to questions which test these three components. Firstly, students will need time to build their confidence in spelling, understand punctuation conventions, and develop a good grammatical knowledge. Throughout this blog we will give plenty of tips and hints on how to best tackle these vital 11+ question types.
Predominantly, 11+ tests ask pupils to identify a spelling mistake within a sentence. This requires a good prior knowledge of spelling patterns and the ability to recognise when a word is misspelt. Below is an example of how this question might be presented. The letters underneath function to split up the sentence and are used to select where the error or omission is situated.
The programme about rodents was so fascinating that I was silent the whole way threw.
It is vitally important that pupils read the whole sentence before deciding if a word is incorrect, as this will put the words into context. One common ploy used by examiners is to insert homophones (words that sound the same but have different meanings) and these can generally only be spotted if the sentence is read and thoroughly understood. Interestingly, the ‘N’ is chosen if no spelling errors are given. This can sometimes be a hard option to select, as the assumption for many children is often that there must be a mistake somewhere! In the example above, the word ‘threw’ is used out of context and should have been spelt as ‘through’. This illustrates the point made about reading every sentence to the end and not just scanning across the words.
These spelling sections test pupils’ understanding of common prefixes, suffixes, words with double consonants and commonly misspelt words. A helpful piece of advice is that it is suggested that if words are themed when practising, they are more likely to be retained. For instance, if learning words ending with -ible and -able can be looked at in tandem, they will be easier to remember. Another key element to learning spelling patterns is looking at the shape of the words – this often helps identify if the word ‘looks right’. This is used more in key stage 1, but certainly builds the foundations of strong spelling skills. Can you think of a word that fits into this shape?
There are several ways to improve a child’s spellings. Below is a series of suggestions which can be used either in isolation or by simultaneously teaching a whole array of strategies, and then seeing which has the most impact on a child’s learning.
- Use mnemonics: Memorising letter patterns with comical mnemonics can be a great way to retain more challenging words e.g. Big Elephants Can Always Understand Smaller Elephants
- Keep a spelling log: Keeping a record of the more challenging words can facilitate pupils to revisit these and practise learning them before their examinations
- Complex plurals: Learning more complex plurals can help avoid common errors e.g. half – halves or ox – oxen
- Watch television with the subtitles on: Learning occurs through osmosis and this will help children to identify instances in which a word just written ‘just doesn’t look right’
- Check word origins: When you learn the origin of a word, a child might recognise it again in another word. When that happens, they might be able to get a basic understanding of the word. For example, ‘transport’. ‘Trans’ comes from the Latin word meaning ‘across’. While ‘port’ means ‘to carry’. So, it makes sense that to transport something means that you carry something across a space.
- Crosswords and Codewords: Puzzles are a good way to make a brain work harder and improve general knowledge, but they are also a good way to develop spelling. Codewords involve working out which numbers stand for different letters.
In the 11+ examinations pupils are often tested on their understanding of punctuation marks. The format is like the spelling sections where a sentence is presented. However, within this sentence there is either incorrectly used or missing punctuation. See below an example:
Windsor Great Park was where kings hunted deer, hare, fowl and other creatures.
Students need to read the sentence with expression, as this is the best way to identify where the punctuation marks should be located. If pupils just scan across the words, they will not understand the writer’s intended message. In these questions, too, the letters underneath split up the sentence and are used to select where the error or omission is situated. The letter ‘N’ is selected if no punctuation mistakes can be found.
No punctuation, or incorrect punctuation, in writing can be confusing to the reader. It can change the meaning. Below is a humorous example on how one piece of punctuation can completely alter the meaning.
Let’s eat Grandad!
Let’s eat, Grandad!
To perform well in this section, students need to know the key punctuation rules. For example, we use colons to introduce lists, or we can also use colons to indicate a subtitle or to indicate a subdivision of a topic. A further use is when we introduce direct speech. We commonly use a colon between sentences when the second sentence explains or justifies the first sentence. Knowing all the variations of the punctuation marks really builds up a strong picture of how they can be used. Without this understanding it can be difficult to identify when sentences are incorrectly punctuated or there are marks missing.
A very helpful diagram to show the key punctuation marks is a pyramid (often used in schools). The different levels show how the marks gradually build up in difficulty.
A fun task to help improve familiarity with punctuation is providing your child with an unpunctuated paragraph and asking them to add the marks appropriately. How many did they find? Set them different challenges. For example, there are 5 removed apostrophes – can you find them all? Remember that if learning punctuation can be made fun, it is more likely to be retained.
Another common section in the 11+ tests is based on a knowledge of grammar. Pupils need to make sure verbs are correctly conjugated. What does this mean? In grammar, when you conjugate a verb, it just means that you change the verb for a sentence to make sense. This is especially important when dealing with the verb to be in the present tense.
I am loud
You are loud
He is loud
She is loud
We are loud
They are loud
As you can see the verb changes depending on who is the subject. The example below demonstrates this understanding perfectly.
Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert a) is b) was c) are d) here e) wear buried at Frogmore Mausoleum
The answer is ‘are’. Because there are two people mentioned in the sentence, the verb has to be pluralised.
The other important factor when answering grammar questions is selecting the word in the correct tense so that it is consistent with the rest of the sentence. This is evident in the example below:
The changing of the guard is something to a) watching b) watched c) look d) watch e) look when you visit Windsor
The answer is 'watch' because the sentence is presented in the present tense e.g. look
Another common trait with grammar sections is asking pupils to select the correct homophone from the options A-E. Therefore, we would encourage pupils to learn the various definitions of homophones.
In summary, developing a strong foundation of spelling, punctuation and grammar conventions is vital not only for the 11+ tests but also in everyday written and spoken English language. We recognise that building up this knowledge of spelling patterns, punctuation marks and grammar rules takes time and perseverance. The Collins range of 11+ books can help improve this knowledge and give your child that ever-important practice before their tests. Hopefully, this article has shown that through practice and repetition it is possible to become super confident in SPAG.
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