By this point, you should know whether you and your child want to try for the eleven plus exam. It’s a big choice: one that will determine whether your child goes to a grammar school or an independent school – or whether they attend a comprehensive school like everybody else – for their secondary education.

If you haven’t decided on this just yet, you can check out our guide, What is the Eleven Plus?, to understand a bit more about what you are letting yourself in for.

However, presuming that you have decided to sit the entrance exam, it’s time to talk about what you will need to do as test preparation in the lead-up to exams. And, as a necessary prerequisite to that, you’ll need to know what sort of exams you and your child can expect.

As you’ll know, these exams can differ from school to school and from region to region – with private schools in Buckinghamshire holding different tests to ex-grammar schools in Northern Ireland – however the general principles remain the same across the board.

What you can anticipate without much doubt is four separate test papers that encompass four different topics: Maths and English, and verbal and non-verbal reasoning. These inform the vast majority of different entrance exams for selective schools – even those that are set by the schools themselves.

We deal with how to prepare for the English and Maths exams over in our article on Eleven Plus English and Maths, but here we’re focusing on the latter two: verbal and non-verbal reasoning.

Let’s take a look at what these different exams are in detail.

grammar school test
Do you know what verbal reasoning is?

What is the 11 Plus?

The eleven plus aims to test how academically able primary school children are. It’s not just about how much they know straight up; it’s about how capable they could be, or how much potential they could have.

As such, it is not just about testing what they know from their revision of the curricular subjects from the primary school system. Rather, it is also about how they might respond to new challenges and problems in their future throughout secondary school. So, it is not so much about their ability to accumulate information – but about their ability to reason, to solve problems, and to think for themselves.

This is what the non-verbal and verbal reasoning test is all about – and that’s why exam boards such as CEM are trying to make the 11+ examination something that you can’t really revise for.

However, if you do want to go to some of the best grammar or independent schools in England or Northern Ireland, you’ll need to do at least a bit of exam prep. Because going into the examination hall blind – and not knowing what sort of questions you are going to be asked – would be something fairly counterproductive.

So, let’s take a look at what you can do to make sure that you stand the best chance possible in your eleven plus exams.

Regional Differences

And, remember, all we can do here is to give you general advice. Different secondary schools provide their own specific exam papers, with their own assessment criteria, and their own question times. Obviously, we cannot cover every single different school in the country.

Whilst some schools do this and others that, what we discuss here are the general characteristics of the eleven plus. For specifics on the precise test that you are going to sit, get in touch with the school to which you are applying for information and guidance. 

What are Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning Skills?

Let’s talk about verbal and non-verbal reasoning skills then. These will make up half of your eleven plus exam – pretty much regardless of where you will sit it or for which school. Knowing what you are expected to do in the exam is going to be crucial for both your peace of mind going into the test – and for your ability to achieve.

So, what are verbal and non-verbal reasoning skills? These are not things that you’ll have ever heard of in your normal school life. They are not subjects on your timetable nor topics that you are tested on usually.

The reason for that is obvious. Verbal and non-verbal reasoning are not subjects or topics. No. Rather, they are, as their name suggests, skills: skills that play into every single different subject, discipline, or topic that you will ever study or can ever hope to study.

For this reason, you are often encouraged to start your eleven plus prep with Maths and English revision. In these subjects, you will be doing verbal and non-verbal reasoning already.

non-verbal reasoning
Intelligence isn't all about using words

What is Non-Verbal Reasoning?

Non-verbal reasoning skills are those abilities you have to analyse information solve problems that aren’t presented in linguistic form. We might call this numerical reasoning or logical reasoning – however, in these exams, it is just as likely to be spatial reasoning too.

You will most likely be presented with a visual problem that you will need to solve. Imagine a sequence of diagrams or images. You will be presented with this sequence with the last entry missing. It’ll be your job to choose, from the multiple choice options, what the appropriate missing entry would be.

These tests are based on the acknowledgement that cleverness or academic ability is not synonymous with being good with words. Rather, being able to think in terms of shapes or numbers, diagrams or inductions, are all skills that pupils need to thrive.

What is Verbal Reasoning?

Verbal reasoning, on the other hand, is that collection of skills that enables you to solve word-based problems. It’s not just about recognition of vocabulary, but rather about your ability to think productively and independently. You’ll need to be able to work with the definitions of words and the implications of different texts.

For example, you might be presented with a series of lists of five or six words. In each list, you would have to identify which two words are most similar in meaning – or which two are most out of place in the given list.

In these examples, you can see how it is not just about knowing what a given word means. Rather, it is about how you can distinguish that meaning from the meaning of different words.

As another example, you might be asked to find the words hidden in different sentences – or to find the words that fit in the space where letters are missing.

Again, vocabulary recognition is not the point: the point is for you to reason for yourself.

How You Can Prepare for the Reasoning Exams

Verbal and non-verbal reasoning skills tests are exams for which it is quite difficult to prepare with any certainty. There is no content for you to learn, there is no certainty that any given question types are going to come up, and the only resource that you can really use is your brain.

This is precisely the point, as exam boards for the eleven plus have designed these exams specifically like this on purpose.

However, there are ways that you can improve your verbal and non-verbal reasoning skills in preparation for the exams. None of them are fool-proof certainties that you are doing precisely the right thing. That, in itself, is a good thing, though.

Here are some tips for improving your reasoning skills – both for your exams and beyond.

verbal reasoning problems
How are you going to practise for verbal reasoning?

Become Familiar with the Exams

The best way to start getting ready for the reasoning exams is to know what to expect. That means making yourself as familiar with these tests as possible.

We’ve said, though, that these differ from place to place – and from year to year. However, there are only so many questions you can be asked.

Doing as many past papers as possible is the best way to ensure that you are ready for everything you can be asked.

Read Widely and Think about Your Reading

Reading helps your verbal reasoning skills. An exposure to language in all its different forms – in newspapers and novels as much as online or in learning contexts – helps to develop a comfort with language which is crucial for the verbal reasoning test.

These preparations are long term – but are worth it.

Find a Private Tutor

Private tutors can help to steer your learning in the direction that is required for the exam – and they can give you dedicated attention when no one else can.

They are a great investment – and a real bonus for your learning. 

Check out our introduction to the 11+ whilst you are here!

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