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Article published 9th March 2009

Confident, relaxed ‘average’ children perform far better than brilliant, anxious ones.

As parents, all we can give our children is opportunities and support. It’s nice if you can be a good teacher with them but, far more important is to be a good parent.

Key 11+ English questions

My son is taking the 11+ exam in English. The school he is applying to doesn’t issue sample papers. What should he expect?

  • Schools can set what they like. However, the tried, tested and almost universal format is a comprehension test and an essay (composition).

His primary school doesn’t do proper comprehensions. I’m not even quite sure what a comprehension is. Can you help?

  • A comprehension exercise tests the child’s ability to understand what he reads and then to express, in his own words, his answers to questions on what he has read. The usual format is a shortish passage which may be fact or fiction followed by a series of questions. The questions may require an answer in sentences or in multiple choice form which requires the child to choose an answer out of a selection he is offered. Many state primary schools do not do formal exercises like these and not to a time limit. The time limit - and getting used to it - is obviously crucial if a child is to garner maximum marks in an exam and to feel confident beforehand.

My daughter hates reading. I’ve bought her loads of good books and I’m always taking her to the library. She just never picks up a book. She has a very small vocabulary. I’m worried this will go against her in the exam.

  • Reading is one of the best ways to learn new words but no-one will read if they don’t enjoy it and are not interested in what they read. At this age, what they read is less important than that they read. Look at your daughter’s enthusiasms. Some children will read eagerly if they are given a book or magazine about something that interests them. Does your daughter like horses? play stations?  fashion? dinosaurs? pop stars? You may find that a book on something she cares about will change her attitude. What matters is getting the habit of reading. Once she has the habit, her vocabulary will grow without the need to learn lists of words.

I want to help my daughter read and enjoy books but the books I read as a child seem to have disappeared and I don’t like much of what is published for children today. How can we find books she will like and I will be happy with?

  • There are some excellent writers who write for children today. But the books you enjoyed as a child should, mostly, still be around too. Do look in your local children’s library or ask the librarian to search the catalogue for you. Developing the habit of library visiting is a good one anyway! Charity shops are a great place to find the books from your childhood. But you also need to ask the advice of your child’s teacher who should know what would suit your daughter. The school should provide a reading list of recommended books too. School Librarian is an excellent publication and website if you need help. Also, your daughter may well have friends who are avid readers and who would know what she would like. Children adore recommending their favourite books!

We speak a different language at home. My son is fine in the playground and copes well at school as he is very bright but I worry that other children will hear more complicated, adult English at home than he will.

  • You probably don’t need to worry. If your son’s teachers say there is a problem, then you might need to ask for some extra help with English at school. Otherwise, encourage him to watch some of the more intelligent programmes on TV, buy or borrow CDs of good books for him to listen to and buy or borrow the books themselves. Try for books recommended by his friends and those with a wide range of vocabulary - Harry Potter is first rate - and he will probably learn it without any extra help being needed.

My daughter’s spelling is weak. We had her tested for dyslexia but the school said she was fine. She seems still to have problems with really easy words like ‘does’ and ‘their’.

  • Life is unfair. Some people seem never to need to learn spellings and spell accurately without thinking. Others, while not being actually dyslexic, need to learn words individually and it’s a real labour. The words which catch people out are often the same ones and these just need to be learnt. 

My children’s school doesn’t teach grammar. Do they need to know about nouns and verbs and so on for the 11+?

  • Some test papers may well include a question which assumes a knowledge of simple grammar. It is a good idea to make sure that your child knows, at least, what nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs are and how to recognise them.

My son is quiet and well-behaved. He never seems to ask questions at school and the teacher never seems to give him any attention. I’d really like to work with him at home - and I was quite good at English at school - but I don’t know where to start.

  • Not everyone can work with their child and it is never worth compromising the parent-child relationship in an effort to become your child’s teacher. However, some parents and children love working together and  if you can work collaboratively and sensibly with your child then there is much you can do. All children come on fast with good one-to-one help - either from a teacher or a parent.  The first thing is to read aloud with your child - make sure you both enjoy it. It’s the easiest and most enjoyable way to make sure he reads accurately and understands what he is reading. You can then discuss what you have read, making sure you both understood it in the same - or similar - ways.Then you can work on structuring stories and writing. Again - this comes naturally for some but is much more difficult for others. 

I have bought lots of English test papers. Is this helpful?

  • Lots of parents who want to help their children make the mistake of buying heaps of test papers. The child cannot learn from doing these unless there is someone who can go over her answers with her and explain where she has gone wrong or could do better. Otherwise she will merely keep on replicating her mistakes. Once she has the right techniques, these papers can be useful to build up speed and confidence. Non-verbal and verbal reasoning papers are worth practising as speed and accuracy are all-important.


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