The Exam

With over 40 years of experience, we understand the demands of the exam, and what each school is looking for.

What is on the school entrance English Exam?

What is on the English syllabus and how can you prepare your child for the exam? Read on for everything you need to know and our top tips.

This article is about typical English 11 Plus exams. Uniquely, for January 2020, most English written papers were replaced by the digital ISEB exam. We have more details on this in our guide to the ISEB Pre Test.

We are as yet unsure whether schools will return to their former written papers or continue with the ISEB for their entrance exams. Please call us on 020 8883 2519 for the latest update.

The English syllabus tracks the National Curriculum but accelerates Year 6. For more selective schools, it also includes the start of the Key Stage 3 curriculum. You can find out more information about this by contacting our school entrance co-ordinator or speaking to one of our experienced tutors.

The English Syllabus


  • The pupil can spell most words, including complex words, accurately.


  • The pupil can make decisions about what vocabulary to use and leave out in order to create particular effects.
  • The pupil can experiment with new vocabulary.
  • The pupil can (use and not over-use) similes, metaphors and personification for effect.


  • The pupil can use a full range of punctuation accurately.


  • The pupil can use a full range of simple, compound and complex sentences confidently for clarity and emphasis.
  • The pupil can use a wide range of connectives appropriate to different text types.
  • The pupil can manipulate clauses for effect, including embedded clauses and conditionals.


  • The pupil’s handwriting can be read by other people.
  • The pupil always forms letters correctly.
  • The pupil uses joined up writing.

Imagination and interest

  • The pupil can consistently use and develop imaginative detail (eg. adding some clues to a character’s motivation in a story, writing an unexpected twist in a plot, giving an unusual example in a persuasive argument).
  • The pupil can develop, and shape use of language and ideas to suit the genre.
  • The pupil can adopt and maintain a clear viewpoint throughout (eg. An impersonal tone in reports, a neutral and opinion free tone in discussions, a clear point of view with exaggerated language in persuasive texts).

Different Genres

  • The purpose of the pupil’s writing is clear and maintained throughout the text.
  • The pupil can use the features of different text types confidently and sometimes blend or adapt these (eg. writing a persuasive letter, a report in comic strip form, a fictional recount such as a historical diary entry).
  • The pupil can make deliberate attempts to maintain the reader’s interest (eg. using humour, repetition for effect, rhetorical questions, asides).

Organisation of writing

  • The pupil’s paragraphs are made up of appropriate strings of sentences.
  • The pupil can make decisions about how to effectively structure the whole text (eg. ensuring that conclusions link back to openings, describing a detail in the setting to bring about the resolution of a story, deciding how to best present points of view in an argument.)
  • The pupil can use adverbs and connectives to clearly link paragraphs and move the text forward.

Grouping ideas and linking them together

  • The pupil can consistently structure texts using paragraphs confidently and precisely.
  • The pupil can write paragraphs that are cohesive, (hold together) through making sure that the use of tense, person and connective is consistent throughout.

So how does this syllabus translate into the English exam?

The English examination is in 2 sections: 

1. A prose passage followed by comprehension questions. 

The comprehension questions will test understanding, both of what has been read and the impact of the writer’s use of language. This section is typically worth 60% of the total marks.  


Children who read every day will have a distinct advantage over those children who do not. In particular, expose your child to some classic texts as these are disproportionally represented in comprehension questions. Because of their difficult vocabulary and syntax, schools often choose these texts. It may throw your child unnecessarily if they have never been exposed to 19th century language and grammar. Good examples of this are Little Women, Treasure IslandOliver Twist etc… You may need to read a couple of chapters of these type of texts to your children to get them started and into the story.

english exam paper

Gaining a breadth of vocabulary is invaluable and excellent resources for story writing include the Descriptosaurus books and Mrs Wordsmith. We also recommend RSL Educational 11+ Comprehension because they have detailed specimen answers with mark allocations.

2. Directed Creative Writing   

Candidates may be asked to respond to written or visual stimulus, writing a description or a section of narrative. This section is worth 40% of the marks. The prime criteria are clarity, fluency, accuracy of written expression, imaginative flair and presentation.


Set aside 1 hour each week to write in different genres, building in 10 minutes of planning time. Keep plots simple so as not to over complicate. Writing from personal experience can often produce the most honest and emotional work. Dissuade your child from complicated, forced denouements, where children typically make everybody rescued by the police at the end of every story! This is very common.

Topics set for creative writing pieces tend to have the same common themes. This is true whether you are looking at independent schools like Westminster or JAGS, or if you are looking at grammar schools. So, it is worth building a mental library of ‘stock’ stories that can be used for various titles. Given the speed demands of the English papers, anything your child has already thought through will help them to get their stories down in time. For example;

  • Being lost, scared or alone 
  • Doing something exciting or achieving something (’the best day of my life was . . . ’) 
  • Having an adventure 
  • Being in a city or in the countryside.

These are topics that have come up on past English papers around the country: 

  • A surprising spy  
  • Break time at school 
  • Write a story about a lost key 
  • Is life too hectic to enjoy fully? 
  • A farewell party 
  • An attempted robbery 
  • It was a while before I realised my cat could talk 
  • Moving Houses 
  • I don’t know what that noise was… 
  • The new pupils 
  • The storm.

And finally, we cannot enough that the best at home preparation you can do is to support your child’s reading journey. You may find our reading lists and guides helpful.

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We have plenty of information and top tips on the exam. Get in touch with out team today for more information.

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