A skills-based approach

A skills-based approach 

The exam at 11 divides opinion. Whether you call it the 11+ or the Common Entrance the response is often the same: why shouldmy child be under enormous pressure at such an early age, and oh my goodness, what on earth am I going to do to get them to pass it?

What often gets lost amidst the tutors, the cramming and the pressure is that the English component of the exam contains every literacy skill a pupil could wish for to set them up for life. 

Why is 11+ such a useful exam?

Hidden within the standard exam format of comprehension and creative writing are a number of smaller tests that seek out the skills we later use as adults in everyday life: summary, searching for information, inference, prediction, concision, description and several more. As part of my teaching practice over the last 10 years I have tried to isolate these skills and develop ways of improving them for the average pupil. So, rather than just sitting past paper after past paper, you can actually improve your performance in literacy as a whole and set yourself up for secondary school and far beyond. The skills improved willimprove your overall performance in the 11+ exam.

The skills

In a series of blogs I will outline what each of these skills are and offer thoughts and advice on how to approach improving them. There is plenty that can be achieved without even meeting a tutor! However, I would like to start with the skill that most crucially underpins the whole exam: reading. 

Lost in a book

There are few things better for your child than a reading habit. Reading develops not just the obvious things like vocabulary or the ability to organise and express thoughts, but the intangibles, like expanding the limits of the imagination.

That does not necessarily mean knowing your hobbits from your orcs, but developing your thinking, your ability to think or feel what it is like to be in other people’s shoes – and that is a skill that can be applied to just about anything in adult life, from science to business.

As a rough idea of what a good reading habit entails, you should be looking at about 100 books completed between the ages of 8 and 13. After the age of 13 the amount of school work increases and the distractions mount. So, that 5 year period (20 books a year or a book every 2.5 weeks) is crucial.


Try to develop an interest in authorsIf a child likes one book by a particular writer, then the odds are they’ll like others. Children’s books often come as a series and you may just find that having read the first volume your job is merely to continue getting the rest of the series for them.

Books for children shouldn’t exist to teach ‘values’ – they should just open up the imagination – they should take the reader to another world. As a general policy watch out for how many titles your child starts and abandons. You can waste a lot of energy looking for just the rightbook when in reality it is reading itself that your child either doesn’t enjoy, or doesn’t have the concentration levels to enjoy. Of course everyone abandons a book every now and then (generally it happens before about page 50), but a healthy reading habit means not abandoning more than about one in ten. One way of avoiding this is by selecting by author rather than subject. 

Reading is not work

Engage in your child’s reading. You could buy two copies of a book and read one yourself, reading simultaneously. You can ask questions about what you think will happen next. Judge a book by its cover – often they will pick a book that has an intriguing cover image. Google exhibitions or events about a theme in the book or the author themselves. Talk about the book at dinner.

But there is one golden rule. DO NOT WATCH THE FILM BEFORE YOU HAVE READ THE BOOK. The reasons should be obvious, but it is important, as pretty much any decent children’s book has been made into a film. Of course, once your child has read the book, watching the filmed version is a very good idea.

Reading is not work – that is why it is so good for you. The ideal situation is a child who reads to relax after doing their homework. Realistic? It might be!

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