What is verbal reasoning?

Alphabet letters
Verbal reasoning tests are a key part of most secondary school selection and Eleven Plus exams, as well as Year 7 CATs – but your child won’t necessarily be taught the skill at school. We explain just what verbal reasoning involves, and how you can help them prepare for their test.

What is verbal reasoning?

Verbal reasoning is, in a nutshell, thinking with words. ‘As the name suggests, it’s a form of problem-solving based around words and language,’ explains Stephen McConkey, a headteacher and author of the Learning Together practice books. It involves thinking about text, solving word problems, following written instructions to come up with a solution, spotting letter sequences and cracking letter- and number-based codes. Verbal reasoning exams are intended to test a child’s ability to understand and reason using words, and are a test of skill, rather than of learned knowledge. The theory is that they allow the examining body to build a picture of a child’s potential for critical thinking, problem-solving and ultimately, intelligence.

What sort of questions are involved?

‘It’s generally agreed that there are 21 standard types of verbal reasoning question,’ says Stephen. These include:

  • Finding one letter that will complete two words, e.g. hoo (D) oor
  • Finding a word hidden inside another word, e.g. dePENd
  • Spotting the odd ones out in a list of words, e.g. apple, pear, banana, CREAM, PUDDING
  • Finding the words that mean the same from two lists, e.g. PLAIN/expensive/rich and SIMPLE/money/earnings
  • Finding antonyms (opposites) from two lists of words, e.g IN/on/over and through/between/OUT
  • Breaking a code where each letter of the alphabet is represented by a different letter or number (e.g. A becomes B, B becomes C, C becomes D, so that ‘cat’ would be written ‘dbu’)

‘Although the majority of verbal reasoning tests are word-based, some are based on numbers,’ adds Stephen. For instance, a verbal reasoning exam could include questions where you have to give the next number in a sequence (1, 5, 9, 13…), or where you have to solve a sum where the numbers are represented by letters (so if A=1, B=2, C=3, D=4 and so on, C+A=4). Although these questions require a basic grounding in maths, the main principle is the same as for word-based verbal reasoning problems: to test your child’s ability to solve problems based on written instructions.

What skills and knowledge do children need for verbal reasoning tests?

‘Children perform best in verbal reasoning tests if they’re widely read and have an extensive vocabulary,’ says Stephen. They need a solid grasp of synonyms (words that have the same meaning), antonyms (words that mean the opposite of each other) and plurals, good spelling skills, and strong maths skills. ‘A good general knowledge is also needed for verbal reasoning tests,’ Stephen adds. Even if your child understands the question and can follow the written directions, if one of the possible words in the answer is unfamiliar, they may trip up.

Why can verbal reasoning be hard to master?

Some children have a knack for verbal reasoning, but for others, it doesn’t come so naturally. And it’s not just about being ‘good at literacy’ – children who can read and spell very well may still struggle with some of the code-based questions. Moreover, verbal reasoning isn’t a curriculum-based skill, so your child won’t be taught the techniques at school, and while they may make sense once they’ve been explained (and practised), at first glance, they can be baffling.
Children also need to be good at reading questions carefully, and following the directions exactly, which can be an issue for those who tend to rush or skim-read. ‘However, research shows that with practise, children can improve their verbal reasoning,’ says Stephen.

Helping your child practise verbal reasoning at home

‘The best thing you can do to improve your child’s verbal reasoning is encourage them to read,’ says Stephen. ‘Children who read widely have a big head-start, as they’re building their vocabulary and general knowledge.’
You can also try the following tips to boost your child’s verbal reasoning skills:

  • Play word games and quizzes, for example, spotting the odd one out from a list of words, giving a synonym or antonym for a word, solving anagrams.
  • Encourage your child to do crosswords and word searches, and play games like Hangman.
  • Play word-based family games like Scrabble and Boggle.
  • Set your child spelling challenges, focusing particularly on commonly misspelt words (there/their/they’re) and homophones (words that sound the same but are spelt differently, like fair and fare).
  • Become a family of culture vultures, taking your children to museums, shows and exhibitions to build their general knowledge.

To help your child practise verbal and non-verbal reasoning for the Year 7 CATs or the Eleven Plus our Verbal and non-verbal reasoning: an introduction learning pack offers 90 practice questions and answers as well as a general overview of secondary school selection tests.