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Five Ways to Help Your Child Through the 11+

="Five Less Obvious Ways to Help Your Child Through the 11+, useful tips for exam preparation"
29 November 2016

Help your child by asking 'why?', teaching them to manage time, check their work, giving them magazines to read and feeding them well.

Putting a child through the 11+ is a stressful experience for pupils and parents alike. With most top schools heavily oversubscribed and having to think up ever more stringent entry requirements, the exams are tougher and more competitive than they have ever been. Tutoring can be invaluable in helping prospective candidates get to grips with the usual English, maths and reasoning tests, but parents can do a lot to compliment the work of the tutor. Let’s have a look at five less obvious ways in which parents can help their children achieve success in the 11+.

1. Ask ‘why?’

Most schools offer a comprehension test as part of their English exam, while some, such as St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith, dedicate an entire paper to the subject. As the name would suggest, comprehension tests a child’s ability to understand a passage, and questions range from the straightforward and fact-based — “how many people are there travelling in the car?” or “what is it that makes the windows rattle?” through to demanding a thorough exploration of the intentions, desires and personalities of characters. Most candidates have no problem with the easier questions, but many stumble when it comes to more in-depth analysis.

The best way to help your children tackle these sorts of questions is simply to ask them ‘why’ questions on a regular basis. These might relate to the emotions of characters — “why is Hermione upset?” – or intentions — “why do they decide to go to the beach?”, and can be asked during reading time, when watching films, playing with pets, or even when breaking up an argument (“why do you think your brother responded that way when you tried to stab him with a piece of Lego?”). Doing so will make get your child into the habit of carefully analysing behavior and situations, and is the perfect preparation for those six and eight-mark questions.

2. Do papers together under timed conditions

One of the biggest shocks for any 11+ exam candidate is how fast time passes in the actual exam. Maths and English tests usually come in between 45 minutes and an hour and 15 minutes, and these are usually split into two or occasionally three parts, meaning that candidates must work quickly, all the while being judicious about how much time they spend on each question. To prevent your child from being caught out, do a few sample papers with her under timed conditions, following this simple method:

  1. Make sure you have a very visible clock in the room where you are doing the exam.
  2. On opening the paper, ask your child to scan through, and identify the questions which are worth the most marks. Very quickly write down roughly how much time you’re going to dedicate to each question. Remember to keep five minutes spare at the end for checking.
  3. As your child works through the paper, provide a running commentary of the time as it passes. Make statements such as “we’ve been on this question for five minutes now, perhaps time to move on” or “we’re almost at half-way, shall we move on to the next section?”.
  4. Emphasise the need to leave room at the end of the exam for reading through and checking.
  5. Follow this method for the first couple of papers, and then ask your child to provide the time commentary themselves as they work. Gradually allow them to take responsibility for how they organize themselves in the exam.
  6. The goal should be for your child to talk to you as they work through the paper, constantly referring to the time and to how many minutes they have available for each question.

By following this method you can simulate the urgency of the real exam, and in doing so help your child to develop both their technique and their psychological resilience.

3. Check, check, check!

A couple of years ago I did a test with one of my tutees. She was an extremely bright girl, a voracious reader and an excellent natural mathematician, but she had a tendency – as many of the cleverest ten year-olds do – to work too fast. Whenever I gave her a sample paper to do she answered most of the questions correctly, but her scores were undermined by punctuation errors, missing words, or, in the case of her maths, incorrect (or missing) units. To make the point I started to give her two separate marks at the end of the paper: the score that she received in the paper, and the score that she would have received had there been no silly mistakes. It immediately became clear that she was dropping roughly 15 to 20% because of these errors, and by making this so visible to her she gradually started to work more carefully.

Pupils usually don’t check their work for the simple fact that they can’t be bothered; you’ve asked them to sit down and work through a sample paper and they want it to be over as soon as possible. Since checking can be the difference between success and failure, though, it’s a habit that parents should try to encourage. The best way to do this is to integrate checking into the time management routine (see point 2 above) but also to have a checking method. For example, in mathematics the candidate should leave five minutes at the end of the exam to go through looking at the units provided in each question, and to simply ask whether their answer is plausible – if the question is 783 – 205 and your answer is 14,763 then it’s likely you’ve gone wrong (this is a real example from a recent lesson – the child had put the correct answer in the wrong box). Likewise in English every question should be read through – this is particularly true of the creative writing aspect of the exam that usually appears in the second half. Reading through will help your child to critically appraise his work – making adjustments if needed – and to catch any unwanted mistakes or missing words.

Positive incentives are always the most effective when it comes to encouraging good working habits, but if all else fails there is the nuclear option: if more than a certain amount of marks is lost to silly mistakes the paper gets written out again. Very harsh the first time around, but a sure way to make your child work more carefully!

4. Buy them magazines

There is so much good children’s literature available these days that it might seem strange to advocate reading magazines to help your child in the 11+, but let me explain. Many children don’t read, not because they aren’t interested in the content of books, but rather because their capacity to read, their reading skill, has not developed sufficiently to allow them to enjoy books for their age group. (This is why Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid is so brilliant: the text is easy enough for a very young reading ability, but the content is appropriate for older children.) Parents should not, then, try to make sure that their children are reading the ‘right’ things, but rather that they are reading anything at all, with the aim of developing the actual skill of reading as painlessly as possible. This is where magazines come in.

Whether their parents are happy about it or not, many young boys are interested in video games. They might not be allowed a PlayStation at home, but that doesn’t stop them from playing on one at a friend’s house, or from watching YouTube videos about games on the school computers. Many parents would rather that their child read rather than play video games, without realizing that they can use their child’s interest to develop his reading ability. A quick look at the shelves of WH Smith reveals a wealth of video game magazines that contain an enormous amount of text, and that their child (provided he can only read rather than have access to the computer) will engage with enthusiastically, despite the fact that it involves reading. Magazines are perfect for weekend trips away or for holidays, offering something interesting for reading on the plane or on the beach, and they cater to all sorts of interests, from natural history and astronomy to film and photography.

Aside from the obvious fact that the more your child reads the better his written English skills will be, reading magazines provides further benefits to 11+ candidates. This kind of reading material is an essential accompaniment to books, because it introduces children to a wider range of vocabulary and broadens a child’s general knowledge. Furthermore some schools deliberately choose texts on science or history to see how well candidates can deal with non-fiction material – magazines such as BBC History and BBC Focus are perfect for preparing for these kinds of tests.

A couple of extra points:

  • Make sure that your child chooses which magazine they want to read. Only veto it if you feel it’s not age appropriate. It’s vitally important that your child is choosing according to his or her interests.
  • While reading books on a Kindle has its advantages, reading magazine-style pieces on the internet is not an appropriate substitute for a real magazine. For more information have a look at this piece from Scientific American.

5. Make a good breakfast!

The final way you can help your child through the 11+ is very simple: give them a good breakfast. The importance of breakfast to school performance is well known: breakfast provides a glucose boost to the brain, which in turn helps with mood and concentration. Studies have shown that children that eat a healthy breakfast outperform their peers, and are less susceptible to obesity and heart disease in the long run.

  • Ask your child in advance what breakfast she would like to have before the exam.
  • On the day make sure she is up and ready to go well in advance so that there’s no rush.
  • Try to avoid fruit juice — the high levels of sugar contained in it can lead to a drop in energy a few hours later.

Raphael Hetherington is an experienced tutor and educational consultant at UK Study Centre. 

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