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11+ English practice; Five top tips for the 11+ English common entrance exams

During the summer and early autumn is the time of year when I am often asked to tutor students that are due to take or sit an English 11+ test or a common entrance test. It is also the case that many of those clients; who are mostly parents or carers are equally keen for me to impart some extra tips and things that they can do to help their child to do well. I can honestly say that while there are lots of tips and advice I could give people on this subject; there are too many to mention, so I've tried to condense them into a few for the purposes of this blog.

Here are ones that I feel parents/carers can do today with their child/learner to help them when they're working towards this test.

1. Reading: Get your learner 'skilled up' on their reading.

If your learner is taking these tests in the Autumn term this would make them around 9 or 10 years old (In Year 5; going onto Year 6).

Sometimes it's often assumed when a student gets to this age, that all the reading they do should mostly be on their own. On the contrary, this should not be the case all the time. When a student is prepping for this test, it's important that parents try to actively listen to their child read. (If they are able to). This is so that they can engage in conscious reading.

Conscious reading allows you to "Read what you see; not what you think you see."

Conscious reading is a technique designed to encourage a student to become aware of everything they have read in a text or story. Reading out loud, is a way great way of becoming alert to what is on the page and this is where parents, carers and adults come into play.

All this means is that when you listen to them read; encourage them to read EVERY WORD. This may seem a bit tricky at first; you may even have to get them to re-read passages again. So many times when a student is reading; they put words in the text that aren't actually there or they might miss out chunks of words, due to the fact that they might be reading too quickly. If students "Read what they see; not what they think they see", it goes a long way to skilling up on their reading. Accurate reading is crucial when being able to try and decipher a challenging piece of comprehension text and being able to answer the questions that follow in an 11+ test; or even upping their vocab knowledge.

Please Note: I am aware there are some students who have learning conditions such as Dyslexia; a common learning difficulty that can cause problems with reading, writing and spelling, so therefore conscious reading may not be for you. While I believe that for the purposes of prep for these tests; a learner should try to engage in conscious reading; it is important that if you believe your young person has dyslexia or any sort of learning condition, you should seek professional advice on the best way forward for them.

2. Ask open-Ended questions: When listening to your learner read, remember to ask them open-ended questions about what they've read; rather than closed ones.

"Remember; Who, What, Why, Where and How are open-ended questions; Did is not! "

An open-ended question gets your learner talking.

So, how is this done?

Look at the three questions below:

  • WHAT did the [man, boy, girl etc] say to the station controller and WHAT happened next?

  • WHY is [x,y,z] feeling this way? HOW do you know? WHAT part in the text tells you this?

  • WHERE was the [house, building] located and HOW can we tell the author wanted us to feel it was neglected in the text?

These type of questions will encourage a learner to tell you more about what they've read. The dialogue that follows from the conversation you have with them, can't end with a simple yes or no response. However, with a closed question it can, such as the example below:

Did you enjoy reading that story?

From this question it's more than likely all you'll hear from this response is a 'yes' or 'no'.

"When a closed-question is asked; it is more than likely to get a one word response." Encourage your learner to talk in detail about what they've read so they will be able to write an answer that equally gives detail.

3. Reading and vocabulary knowledge:

It's important to practice working through past papers, however sometimes a student will come across a paper that has a challenging comprehension/reading piece; mainly because the text is from a classic novel or story; rather than a modern one.

Classic novels are essentially stories or plays that were around or written in the 19th Century or earlier. Novels such as Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and even Shakespeare's Twelfth Night are all considered to be classics and have all made it onto past 11+ English exam papers.

One of the main reasons that classic novels are used on these papers is because there usually isn't many copyright issues surrounding older work, so they're usually easier to reproduce. But the main reason is more likely that when entering Year 7 at secondary school, students will be reading texts such as these, so it makes sense for schools to look at how adept potential students are at tackling them.

Therefore when encouraging your learner to practice reading; make sure their repertoire goes beyond reading modern children's literature and delves into some of the classics. It will mean they may become familiar with how they're written and be able to explore and learn some of the challenging words and language that may be contained in them.

The good thing about these classic novels is that there are many free downloads available so you don't have to buy the book.

Here is a link to a site that I recommend using. It has a wide variety of classic novels and books, all in one place and could save you a few quid, as it's all available for free!

4. 11+ Vocabulary knowledge: As well as reading more for the 11+ tests, it's equally important to get your learners vocabulary knowledge up to a standard where they can competently understand a piece of challenging comprehension; or even understand the words that may be contained in the verbal reasoning part of an 11+ English test.

As a tutor I regularly feature in my lessons discussions, worksheets and spelling lists aimed at encouraging learners to add tricky words into their work; whether that is when writing a response to a comprehension question or tackling the creative writing side of an 11+ English test. You too must also make sure you're encouraging your learner to stretch their vocab knowledge to include grammar such as; differing synonyms, conjunctions or similes when they're writing.

Here are a few sentences to demonstrate what I mean.

"The house was at the end of a long road. It had a big door as well".

As a sentence; this is a pretty dull one! Yes, it may perhaps be acknowledged for using two adjectives with the words 'long' and 'big', as well as the fact that it is adequately punctuated with capital letters and full stops, but there is not much else making this sentence stand out. It needs lifting off the page a bit.

Here's what can be done to make it a sentence that 'pops' a bit!

"The colossal house stood like a chuckling, jolly clown at the end of a road that was elongated, winding this way and that. Its door was just as striking; majestically standing proud waiting for someone to open and explore the gifts inside ... "

Key: Black = A simile (figurative language) Blue = Personification (figurative language) Green = Punctuation for effect and also to demonstrate advanced writing skills

Look at the key to see how a few things have been added to make the sentence really stand out. Note how the sentence length is also slightly longer to demonstrate a writing standard that shows your learner knows how to use a simile etc by writing it into your story. This is something a learner needs to practice more; rather than quoting or saying what a simile is to their tutor, teacher or an adult all the time but not using it in their writing.

In other words; Always show in a story or creative writing a demonstration of what a simile or metaphor etc is, rather than just saying you know what it means!

5. Writing and Comprehension skills: This is a really important skill to master when attempting an 11+ English test. Aside from reading well, the test is designed to see whether a learner is adept at understanding the text they've read in a more in-depth way by writing a response.

The type of questions that test these skills are:

- Basic straightforward questions designed to work out whether you have understood the text: These questions will be similar to the ones above that feature a who, what, why or where concept. For example: What did the teacher say to her class to encourage them to do well?

It is important when attempting an answer that they are written in full sentences and ideally use part of the question in your answer; as well as a quote to back up a response.

So the answer might look a bit like this: The teacher said to her class to encourage them, that they should "Aim to do their best at all times." A full sentence starts with a capital letter and ends with a full stop. Yes, most of us know this, but you'll be surprised to learn that sometimes students forget this under the spotlight and may end up just putting something like; "Do their best at all times." Hence, this is not a full sentence!

- Synonym and Antonym questions: A synonym is a word with a similar meaning to another. Therefore a question might ask you; Find a synonym for the word 'surprise' as it is mentioned in the text. Simply put, you will need to find a word with a similar meaning to the word surprise. Depending on what is in the text, it could be something as simple as the word 'shock' but it could easily be a more challenging word you need to find such as 'astounded'.

- Inference and deduction questions: This skill is at times tricky to master, as it's asking the learner to find the evidence in the text and then make an assumption based on it to deduce (or draw their own conclusion) as to what has happened.

An inference and deduction question may look a bit like this; What do you think the boy is feeling after he sat the exam? So the answer should be something along the lines of:

I think the boy was feeling a bit apprehensive after the exam. I can infer or deduce this based on the text which says; "I felt nervous after I finished the exam, as I didn't revise much."

This technique strays from the usual comprehension jargon us tutors say about the answer being in the text. A question like this WANTS you to give your opinion. However it MUST be based on what you've read and the evidence in the text. Overall this method is testing whether a student can write factually about something and give their opinion in a well thought out way, along with a quote to back-up your answer.

Coming soon! My blog about Inference and deduction for more in depth detail on how to do it.

So there it is. These are my top five. There are probably more tips that are useful too, however as a tutor these are the ones I work on with students often and I would encourage parents and carers to look at (if you can) with your learners as well.

It is also really important though to remember one more thing...

It is just a test and even though your learner may not get into their preferred school; it's not as bad as they may think. There are a lot of good schools out there that doesn't require a student having to sit these tests. So if they are feeling stressed about it all, consider this option for their overall well-being.

While it pays to practice and work on these tests a bit, try not to put too much pressure on your learner so that they are getting too stressed about it all. Encourage them to do their best, but please remember that their lives should have some balance so that they're doing the fun stuff too and more importantly; make sure they rest and get plenty of sleep as well.

I wish your child the best of luck with it all and whatever may happen or come their way!

© SjS July 2023


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