Read to Succeed in the 11 Plus Exam

We often find parents who haven’t understood why reading is so important. We thought it might be useful to explain why reading is absolutely crucial to any successful 11 Plus campaign.

Firstly let’s look at some of the most common reasons for not getting the result you need in your 11 Plus exams:

  • Insufficient breadth of vocabulary (holds back progress in Verbal Reasoning, Comprehension and Creative Writing).
  • Poor spelling skills.
  • Slow reading skills (insufficient time to master long comprehensions)
  • Poor punctuation skills (particularly in punctuation tests or creative writing.)
  • Not reading Maths questions properly (linked to comprehension ability)
  • Not reading VR or NVR questions properly (linked to comprehension ability)
  • Concentration skills and stamina (v. important when doing perhaps three or four exams in a day).

While children may not actually sit a reading test ,reading is a magic tool and it can boost their development in all of the above areas (some more than others obviously).

Of course we haven’t mentioned the single most common reason for 11 Plus exam difficulties which is an excess of pressure and stress , reading can also help there.

How does reading help with many 11 Plus problem areas.

A child who reads every day will normally have a much wider vocabulary, much better spelling skills and much better grammar and punctuation skills than a child who doesn’t read, or only reads a little.

Children will build up a very wide vocabulary through reading. They may not be able to closely define each word but they will have built up an understanding of meaning based on context.

At the same time the more frequently children see words and read them then the more likely they are to naturally feel when a word is spelt wrongly. Words that are spelt wrongly look odd to those who can spell and reading helps children begin to develop this ability.

It is also true that regular readers tend to read more fluently and quickly than those who do not read every day. This ability to read quickly, whilst not missing meaning, is invaluable in a long comprehension exercise.

And finally of course those who read regularly are, in a way, training themselves to concentrate every day, and their focus on reading really does help them to concentrate hard enough to be able to make fewer mistakes when reading questions in subjects other than English or Verbal Reasoning.

The importance of a wide vocabulary

To emphasise the importance of a wide vocabulary think about these two facts… over 55% of mistakes in 11 Plus verbal reasoning tests specifically concern weak vocabulary and in comprehension tests mistakes are most persistent in the vocabulary test sections. These are not problems which doing test paper after test paper can solve, nor are they areas where technique can help. To show you what we mean let’s look at a typical vocabulary based question which you could find in a VR test or a comprehension test.

In an 11 Plus exam children may face questions such as this:

Identify the word on the right which is most similar in meaning to word on the left.


You can see that no amount of technique or question experience could help children with this sort of question. They will either know it or they won’t and will have to guess. Children who do read a lot are however likely to have seen many if not all these words before and may well have a feeling for which one is correct, or they may have a feeling that perhaps two of the options given are not correct and so will have a better chance guessing.

Children who read more will have a much wider vocabulary than those who don’t. Children who are readers may have 1,000-2,000 words in their vocabulary, more than those who don’t; this is one of the key points of difference between those who succeed at the 11 Plus and those who don’t. Reading every day is essential for 11 Plus exam success.

How does reading help with the issues of pressure and stress encountered by many children when they prepare for their 11 Plus exams?

Firstly the act of reading every evening for pleasure before sleep helps children to switch off. This is especially relevant in year five when some children may be working very hard and maybe feeling the pressure mounting. Adults use reading as a tool to switch off and relax and it works the same way with children.

Secondly readers will find everything to do with the 11 Plus so much easier than those who read less or who have only just started reading. Readers have a very large start when it comes to things like comprehension or vocabulary based Verbal Reasoning exercises. Equally when they are trying to make their writing more interesting by adding new adjectives or adverbs they have a much wider choice than those who don’t read or only read a little.

Finally we know through research that every child feels some degree of pressure when they go into the exam and we know that in many cases this reduces ability to recall vocabulary by over 10%. With children who have acquired their vocabulary over a long period thanks in part to reading these effects will be less marked.

When should children start reading as part of an 11 Plus exam preparation programme?

We’d suggest whether you are going for the 11 Plus or not that reading should be happening in every family every day. As soon as children have become independent readers – normally by the time they are in year 3 – then they should be reading every day.

We’d suggest children will benefit from reading all the through any 11 Plus preparation, it’s not something to ditch when the work gets a little more intensive in year five, it is something children will benefit from doing throughout.

There’s an old adage- ‘ Those who read, succeed.’ It is as true today as it has ever been.

What books to read as part of an 11 plus preparation programme?

Bearing in mind you need to get children turning the page and falling in love with reading the simple answer is to get them to read something they like. Often children fall into a series whether it is Horrid Histories or Harry Potter. Some children like fiction, others like non-fiction and some like science fiction. Some children like reading novels others might like a newspaper or even the Guinness Book of Records. To start with at least getting enjoyment from what they are reading and reading every day are the important things to achieve.

It often helps to have a school book on the go as well as a special book they are reading for their own enjoyment.

If your child is a reluctant reader or you feel they don’t read as much as they should then we’ve put together two reluctant reader book lists for children.

Recommended book list for reluctant readers 7+

Recommended book list for reluctant readers 9+

Reading Classic books as part of an 11 Plus preparation exercise

Many 11 Plus Grammar Schools and Independent Schools do sometimes have a knack of giving children some quite tricky comprehensions, and there’s no doubt that a piece of twentieth or nineteenth century text (Charles Dickens for instance) can throw many children into a tail spin.

It is also true that classic books tend to use a range of vocabulary that many children just do not come across.

We’d suggest the following as a potential approach which works with many children.

1/ Recognise that it will be useful to cover some classic books.

2/ Have a look through a classic book list and pick one or two that you both think your child might like to try by themselves (this could be done over the Easter holidays as an example).

3/ Pick one or two classic books and then use them as work books for your paired reading activities. You can either choose to read the book together from start to finish or go through the book and choose passages (a page or two at a time) and treat them a little like comprehension exercises (as you read you can ask if a word is known or if they understood why something was said or done etc.). It is not the most exciting of activities but it can be done and actually where there are words that neither of you know you can have some fun guessing and finding out.

The key thing is that children are regularly exposed to various classic authors so they are not thrown by the comprehension which can often be a rather difficult text. The skills they learn using the context to try and understand the meaning of new words will help them when they face the real thing.

Recommended classic book list for children