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How to structure 11+ preparation and avoid stress

Preparing for the 11+
Beginning your child's 11+ preparation journey and feeling a bit daunted? Teacher Robert Lomax offers tips to help you structure your practice sessions for maximum effectiveness (and to ensure your child isn't turned off by all talk of 11+ work after week one!).

If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you have a child at primary school, an ideal (but competitive) secondary school in your mind, and only a vague idea about the route from one to the other.

Read on for some ideas to help you structure your child’s exam preparation. A clear sense of what needs to be worked on at each stage is usually the best way to avoid unnecessary stress. Most of the suggestions are not specific to the 11+, but will help your child to succeed in their studies and enjoy their work, whether or not they end up taking a competitive entrance exam.

11+ preparation strategy 1: Start early… but don’t mention the 11+

It is vital to avoid dangling the prospect of the 11+ as a motivation or a menace for your child. As far as possible, take it as an incentive for yourself, spurring you to help them achieve their best!

The core of 11+ preparation has very little to do with the exams themselves. Comprehension tricks and maths test shortcuts are no more than useful extras – the brandy on the Christmas pudding. An in-depth knowledge of past papers is useful, but not fundamental.

Instead, by far the most important skills are central to the primary school curriculum:

  • Are your child’s times tables reliable and fast – and can they use them flexibly to solve problems?
  • Can they perform all four operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division) confidently, including with decimals?
  • Are they comfortable with numbers expressed as fractions, decimals, ratios and percentages?
  • Do they have a good phonetic understanding, which enables them to spell logically – even if not always correctly?
  • Can they write short stories with mostly accurate punctuation and simple but thoughtful descriptions?
  • Can they talk to you about the books they are reading, answering questions about characters and situations?

A child who can do these things well in Year 4 will be ready to start 11+ preparation confidently in Year 5. On the other hand, if you begin to look at exam materials without this core knowledge in place, the work is likely to be frustrating and ineffective.

To be really strong in these areas, children usually need some help from their parents. However, you shouldn’t present these things as though they are the first stage of exam training... even if, in your mind, they are! These skills are crucial to any young person’s academic progress – valuable in their own right – and helping with them can be an enjoyable way for you to become involved in your child’s development. Children associating academic work too closely with exams is very counter-productive. It creates the belief that the only reason to learn is to be marked for it; and, further down the line, that to fail an exam is to waste years of preparation.

11+ preparation strategy 2: Practise skills, not just exams

From the start of Year 5, more or less, your child will be ready to start thinking about exam preparation, and this will involve looking at past papers and other practice materials.

However, don’t fall into the trap of chewing through 11+ past papers at a tremendous rate. This way, your child will only reinforce their errors. Instead, use papers as a source of interesting questions. Go back over old work, learning the lessons from mistakes and repeating difficult questions. Encourage your child to put themselves in the place of the examiner. What is the intention behind each question? What skills are being tested, and how can they demonstrate them?

Save timed practice until later!

11+ preparation strategy 3: Set medium-term goals

Two common 11+ preparation mistakes are to set very short-term goals on the one hand, and on the other to motivate your child’s work by referring frequently to the exams.

Short-term goals can be frustrating, because children’s performance inevitably fluctuates over time.

Long-term exam goals are problematic for several reasons. The simplest of these is that children see time in shorter windows than adults, and an objective several months away can seem meaningless. Instead, set medium-term goals, and keep them achievable.

11+ preparation strategy 4: When to time – and when not to time

Don’t mix up skills learning and timed practice! Timed work tends to involve reinforcing mistakes as much as it does skills. What’s more, difficulties with exam timing almost always come about because core knowledge is weak, leading to slow work in some sections of an exam.

Instead always work slowly and thoughtfully, without pressure, and repeating questions as necessary, until the last couple of months before the 11+. At this stage, it is important to introduce time limits – but very relaxed ones at first. Build up step-by-step to completing a practice paper according to the exam’s actual timing.

Robert Lomax is a teacher and educational author. He writes the popular RSL Educational school admissions blog and the 11 Plus Lifeline home tutoring programme. TheSchoolRun users can claim a 20% discount on 11 Plus Lifeline packages by quoting TSR.

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