The beginner's guide to the 11+ English task

What is the 11+ English test?
An English task is a key part of the 11+ exam in many areas, but what does the test actually involve?

Once you make the decision as a parent to explore the possibility of grammar school education for your child, their academic abilities will then be assessed as part of the 11+ exam to see if they are in fact grammar school ready. In many areas, this includes a paper designed specifically to test their English skills. 

What does the English task involve?

The kind of English test your child will have to sit as part of their 11+ exam will depend on where you live, and varies considerably between areas of the country. Some grammar schools will expect children to complete a creative writing task and a reading comprehension, while others will just set a multiple choice test to assess your child's skills in comprehension and grammar. Some don't set an English paper at all. You will need to visit the individual websites of the schools you’re interested in to find out more detailed information about the tests they set.

When a writing task is set, test times seem to vary from 20 minutes for a short writing task to 50 minutes for an extended piece, usually with 10 minutes' planning time allowed.

The reading comprehension tests are commonly multiple choice in style, and again vary in time from 30 minutes to an hour. Many schools set a combined paper that includes both English and Maths based questions.

Virtually all schools set a verbal reasoning test, which can be multiple choice or written answer in format. The tests are usually allocated 45 to 50 minutes and will include questions that will assess your child’s grammar, vocabulary, comprehension and literacy skills.

What sort of skills does the English paper test?

The English aspect of the 11+ aims to test children on the skills they should have acquired as part of the school curriculum. English is a key part of your child’s everyday learning so they should be familiar with many of the topics that are covered in the 11+ English exams.

'The exams will assess your child’s command of the English language and test their comprehension, grammar, spelling and punctuation, and in some cases, their writing ability too,' says Jennie Varley, Vice Chairman of the National Grammar Schools Association (NGSA). Your child’s writing is likely to be assessed on its composition and style, grammar, punctuation, spellings, sentence structure and vocabulary.

What sort of questions are involved?

In the writing task, children are typically asked to write a story, script or diary entry or produce a leaflet, letter or news report. Some areas give children a choice, while others expect them to complete a set task.

A reading comprehension test will ask questions based on a long or short piece of fiction or non-fiction to assess how well your child has understood the text. There may also be questions based on punctuation, parts of speech and English grammar.

The verbal reasoning test has typically 21 different question types, and the English-based questions include finding the odd word, finding words with similar or opposite meanings, and finding the appropriate word to complete the sentence. Your child will need a wide vocabulary and a good grasp of grammar to do well.

Who administers the test?

Most of the 11+ exams are either set by GL Assessment or CEM (University of Durham) but some grammar schools choose to write their own exams. It's quite common for schools to use one of the exam boards for their reasoning tests, but produce their own English task.

What skills do children need to perform well?

It goes without saying that your child needs to have a good grasp of the English language, be confident with spelling and punctuation and have a wide vocabulary to do well in the English test. But equally important is their ability to be able to read the question, work within the time limits, and remain calm. 'If your child is an avid reader with a wide vocabulary, they will be better equipped to interpret what the question is asking of them,' explains Jennie Varley of the NGSA. 'This should give them the confidence they need in a situation that can feel very pressured.'

Do all grammar schools require children to take an English test?

Not all grammar schools set a specific English test, and as a rule, the schools that set extended writing tests are those in areas where competition for places is fierce, like Kent, for example.

In some areas, the English paper is only taken into consideration if your child is a borderline case or in an appeal situation. But virtually all grammar schools expect the children to take a verbal reasoning test, part of which will assess your child’s skills in English. 

How to help your child

'A large vocabulary is hugely beneficial when sitting English or verbal reasoning tests,' explains Jennie Varley, 'so just encourage your child to read, read and read some more!' It’s also a good idea to encourage your child to have a go at writing in different styles as writing stories, leaflets or newspaper reports require different skills and techniques.

'Having a look at practice papers can certainly help to familiarise your child with what to expect from the 11+, but a parent's priority should be to keep things as calm as possible,' adds Jennie. 'It’s so important to establish a good balance between work and leisure, keep an eye on computer time and make sure they get plenty of sleep.'