Reading to Help Pass

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Reading to Help Pass the 11 plus

When advising parents at the beginning of their 11 Plus journey, we always stress that a daily reading habit is the first building block to success. Often parents understand that their child reading is generally a good thing, but they fail to understand its specific importance and relevance to their exam preparation.

Here is Mentor Education’s guide to why reading is absolutely crucial to success. Or, skip to some of our top picks by category:

Firstly, here are some of the most common reasons why children can fail their entrance exam:

  • Insufficient breadth of vocabulary, which holds back progress in Verbal Reasoning, Comprehension and Creative Writing. This is particularly the case for CEM tests where breadth of vocabulary is fundamental to Verbal Reasoning success.
  • Poor spelling skills
  • Slow reading skills (insufficient time to finish reading long comprehensions)
  • Poor punctuation skills (particularly in written answers)
  • Not reading Maths questions properly (linked to comprehension ability)
  • Not reading Verbal Reasoning or Non-verbal Reasoning questions properly (linked to comprehension ability)
  • Concentration skills and stamina (very important when sitting several exams in a day).

Reading really is the magic wand that can boost performance in all of the above areas (some subtly and some rather obviously).

Of course, we haven’t mentioned one of the biggest problems that parents worry about in relation to the 11+, which is the pressure and stress their children unavoidably face. Reading can also help here, providing a daily dose of escapism and relaxation.

How does reading solve so many problems?

There is a myth that children who pass their school entrance exam know 10,000 more words than children who do not, and whilst this certainly sounds too many, we believe that the sentiment is correct. A child who reads every day will obviously have a much wider vocabulary, much better spelling skills and much better grammar and punctuation skills than a child who doesn’t read, or only reads occasionally. 

The importance of a wide vocabulary

To emphasise the importance of a wide vocabulary, consider that over 50% of mistakes in Verbal Reasoning tests specifically relate to weak vocabulary, and in comprehension tests most mistakes are made in the vocabulary test sections. You can’t solve these problems with practice papers, nor are they areas where exam technique can help.

To demonstrate this, here is a typical vocabulary-based question which you could find in an Verbal Reasoning test or a Comprehension test:

Identify the word on the right which is most similar in meaning to the word on the left.


You can see that no amount of technique or question experience could help children with this sort of question. They will either know it or they won’t and will have to guess. Children who do read a lot however, are likely to have seen many if not all these words before and may well have a feeling for which one is correct, or they may have a feeling that perhaps two of the options given are not correct and so will have a better chance guessing.

Vocabulary expansion must be built up gradually over time and can’t be crammed for. A daily reading habit is by far the best way.

There are of course other resources to help children improve their vocabulary and the one we recommend is Mrs Wordsmith. This company sells beautifully illustrated children’s dictionaries, card games and story writing books based on increasing children’s vocabularies.

Find out more by contacting our dedicated school entrance co-ordinator or speaking to one of our experienced tutors.

Understanding the meaning of words: Vital for Verbal Reasoning and Comprehension

Avid readers may not always be able to closely define each word they read but they will have built up an understanding of meaning based on context. At the same time, the more frequently children see words and read them, the more likely they are to naturally feel when a word is spelt wrongly. Words that are spelt wrongly look odd to those who can spell and reading helps children begin to develop this ability.

It is also true that regular readers tend to read more fluently and quickly than those who do not read every day. This ability to read quickly, whilst not missing meaning, is invaluable in a long comprehension exercise.

And finally, daily readers are practising concentrating every day. Their focus on reading really does help them to concentrate hard enough to be able to make fewer mistakes when reading Maths and Non-Verbal Reasoning questions and instructions.

The importance of reading to support creative writing exams

Quite simply, the more stories they read, the more your child will absorb on a conscious and subconscious level what a story is and what makes a story interesting and compelling. Regular readers will become more and more familiar with what a ‘beginning’, a ‘middle’ and an ‘ending’ look like and how they should work in order to leave the reader feeling satisfied. Children given the opportunity to read widely also tend to experience different types of fiction, for example, mythological, science fiction, historical novels and are therefore more likely to have ideas about what to write, no matter what story stimulus is presented to them on exam day. They are also more likely to avoid the common stereotypical story denouements that young children often come up with, unless they have read widely.

Little girl sitting on the floor and reading books in library

The beauty of all these learning improvements is that, hopefully, your child will accomplish them while snuggled up, relaxing and without being aware that they are doing anything academic at all!

How does reading help with the issues of pressure and stress encountered by many children when they prepare for their entrance exams?

Firstly, the act of reading every evening for pleasure before sleep helps children to switch off. This is especially relevant in Years Five and Six when children will be working very hard and feeling the pressure mounting. Adults use reading as a tool to switch off and relax and it works the same way with children.

Secondly, readers will find everything to do with exams so much easier than those who read less or who have only just started reading. Readers have a very large start when it comes to things like comprehension or vocabulary based Verbal Reasoning exercises. Equally, when they are trying to make their writing more interesting by adding new adjectives or adverbs, they have a much wider choice than those who don’t read or only read a little.

Finally, we know through research that every child feels some degree of pressure when they go into the exam and we know that in many cases this reduces their ability to recall vocabulary by over 10%. With children who have acquired more vocabulary over a long period of time, these effects will be less marked.

When should children start reading as part of an entrance exam preparation programme?

We believe whether you are going for school entrance exams or not, reading should be happening in every family every day. As soon as children have become independent readers – normally by the time they are in Year 3 – then they should be reading every day.

We also recommend that children continue to read all the way through their exam preparation, and this is not something to ditch when the work gets a little more intensive in Year Five, it is something children will benefit from doing throughout.

There’s an old adage – “Those who read, succeed”. It is as true today as it has ever been.

What books to read as part of an exam preparation programme?

To begin a daily reading habit with your child, start with anything that they really enjoy. If it is not a novel, the monthly Minecraft magazine or the Guinness Book of Records will do just as well. Often children fall into a series whether it is Horrible Histories or Harry Potter and this is something to encourage. Some children like fiction, others like non-fiction and some like science fiction. Some children like reading novels others might like comics. To start with, enjoying reading and reading every day are the important things to achieve.

It often helps to have a school book on the go as well as a special book they are reading for their own enjoyment.

Ideas for children who don’t love fiction

Magazines relating to their hobby:

Children’s Annuals:

Reading Classic books as part of an exam preparation exercise

Many Grammar Schools and Independent Schools often give children some fiendishly difficult comprehensions, and there’s no doubt that a piece of nineteenth century text (Oliver Twist or Little Women) can throw even the brightest children into a tailspin.

Classic books tend to use a range of vocabulary and syntax that many children just do not come across in the modern fiction they read. We suggest in the first instance that you buy some classic texts from our reading list, allow your child to choose one and read it to them, at least until they get caught up in the story. Even if you read the whole thing to them, they will still absorb all the benefits and they will really enjoy this relaxing quality time with their parents when the pressure is off.

The key thing is that children are regularly exposed to various classic authors so they are not thrown by any comprehension which can often be a rather difficult text. The skills they learn using the context to try and understand the meaning of new words will help them when they face the real thing.

Find links to all of our reading lists below.

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