11 Plus vocabulary is one of the toughest aspects of the exam.
Not many kids take kindly to it…
You poke your head around the door of your ten-year-old son’s bedroom one night.
He’s completely engrossed in the complete works of Shakespeare, eyes shining. He doesn’t even notice you’re there.
You clear your throat, and he looks up, smiling.
“Mummy,” he says, “isn’t it just confounding how some children remain so unreservedly ignorant regarding the brilliance of Shakespeare until much later on in their educational careers?”
“Absolutely, darling,” you say, and ruffle his hair before closing the door.
This might not sound like a scene plucked from a typical day in your household. Quite possibly, you are more likely to poke your head round the door of your son’s bedroom to find him consumed by Minecraft. When he notices you’re there, he may possibly grunt in your direction. Does that mean you have failed as parent?
It means simply that you are the parent of a ten-year-old.
It’s natural to worry about the level of your child’s vocabulary. Particularly if they are due to take the 11+ exam, and they are – dreadful gasp – a reluctant reader. There are ways you can help your child with their 11 Plus vocabulary, however.
None of them involve forcing them to read the complete works of Shakespeare. Unless, of course, that’s their thing.
In my decade-or-so of experience as an 11+ tutor, I’ve found that by far the biggest stumbling block to success for students is subpar vocabulary.
Sure, some students struggle with maths. But maths, in general, is more easily taught. Don’t get me wrong, either. By ‘subpar vocabulary’, I don’t mean that the child is still pointing to pictures of dogs and saying ‘woof-woof’. Not usually, anyway. It’s just that the standard of vocabulary needed to pass the 11+ exam in most regions is – quite frankly – ridiculous.
Contrite. Crestfallen. Capricious. All are words I’ve seen included in preparation materials for the Buckinghamshire 11+.
And it’s no wonder. The exam is notoriously competitive. Only around a third of children who take the 11+ exam in Buckinghamshire end up passing. There are limited spaces in schools, and they will only take the cream of the crop. It’s tough. It’s really tough for ten year olds to be judged so harshly so soon. Your child has to really want to go to Grammar school for it to be worth it, and they also have to be capable of keeping up when they get there. However, if you really do believe that your child would be suited to Grammar school, but you’re worried about their vocabulary, here are a few pointers to help get them up-to-scratch.
Worth noting before we begin, of course, is that vocabulary doesn’t start and end with the 11+. A strong vocabulary will help your child in so many aspects of life. Most importantly, it will help them to express themselves. Whoever they are. Whether they end up a superstar Grammar student, or whether they end up perfectly happy at the local comprehensive.
Don’t go into this process wearing 11+ blinkers. You should encourage your child to build their vocabulary for all sorts of reasons. Certainly not for a single exam. Anyway, let’s go.
Here are my top 9 suggestions for boosting your child’s 11 Plus vocabulary:
1. Get them to actually enjoy reading.
Groan. I know.
If the instructions for developing a deep love of words in your child were as simple as ‘make them read’, you wouldn’t be trawling the bloody internet for answers. That doesn’t change anything, though, because reading is the number one thing that will develop your child’s vocabulary.
I’m sorry. I know some kids hate reading. I know that some kids have dyslexia or other SEN-related issues that make it hard for them to enjoy reading. But do try.
Remember; we’re not talking about Billy Shakespeare, here. Find out what your kid is into. Maybe it’s horses, or explosions, or gymnastics, or sodding Minecraft. There are books about everything nowadays. It doesn’t have to be fiction. Find out what your child’s passion is, and get them books about it. Trawl the bookshops. Set them loose in the library. Try to make sure that what your child is reading contains a decent level of vocabulary, but don’t just choose books based on that fact. Nothing will turn your child off reading faster than being forced into reading vast, dry tomes about topics that bore them. Show them that reading can be fun. It’s the only way to start.
2. Get them Interested in the news.
Current affairs isn’t at the top of a lot of kids’ lists of interests. Sometimes I wish it was. Adults are doing a terrible job of running the world, lately. Perhaps it might be better to turn things over to the children?
Jokes about the depressing state of the world aside, the news can actually be a really great way to improve your child’s vocabulary and to get them into reading.
There are a couple of really great kids’ newspapers available, namely ‘The Week’ and ‘First News’. They in no way dumb things down, but they do explain what’s going on in the world appropriately, in ways kids can identify with. The Week is free for the first six issues, then £21.50 for every 13 issues if you sign up to their subscription. First News has an offer where you can try the first three issues for £1, and then it’s either £34.99 for 26 weeks, or £62.79 for 52 weeks. Both newspapers are known for being unthreatening and unbiased.
3. Enlist the help of Mrs Wordsmith
The crew at Mrs Wordsmith have teamed up with the Hollywood artists behind Madagascar to make effective vocabulary building actually fun. Before I start going on about how awesome Mrs Wordsmith is, I should probably disclaim that Fraser Stevens Learning is in no way affiliated with it. Some of our students have used it and raved about it, however, so we thought it was worth spreading the news far and wide.
Mrs Wordsmith’s website explains the following:
“Between the ages of 7-11, children are expected to develop complex storytelling skills. With words mined from literature and exams, Mrs Wordsmith focuses on the most relevant words, and makes them memorable with hilarious illustrations.”
Mrs Wordsmith uses data science to identify the 10,000 most relevant words for academic success. It also uses vivid, engaging illustration to help children learn them. It’s amazing.
A monthly subscription to Mrs Wordsmith is £19.95, or you can make one payment of £105, which works out as £17.50 per month.
4. Take advantage of their screen addiction
It can be tough to yank your kids away from a screen nowadays. Try using that to your advantage.
A number of apps and games exist that are specifically designed to improve your child’s vocabulary. The best thing about these apps is that children often don’t see them as ‘work’. That means you’re much less likely to get kick-back from them when you suggest they have a go. Less tantrums equals less stress for mum, and (slightly) less need to polish off a whole bottle of wine on a weeknight.
Kids on FSL Year 4 and 11+ programmes get access to our own vocabulary app, but some of our other favourites include:
They’re well worth a go.
5. Play board games
Scrabble, Boggle, Articulate, Trivial Pursuit… board games are an amazing way to boost your child’s vocabulary without them even realising it. Board games get brains whirring, and those like the ones above introduce new words entertainingly and organically. They’re also a great (and cheap!) way of getting the family together for some quality time. Who knows, maybe the entertainment will continue when Dad gets a little too competitive and ends up flipping the board off the table.
Just don’t tell the kids that the reason you’re playing this game is ‘for the 11 plus’…
What a way to kill a fun evening.
6. Make flashcards. But don’t make them boring
Flashcards tend to be the bog standard response that tutors give when they’re asked how to improve a child’s vocabulary. They work great for some kids. They don’t work at all for others.
The main thing I have to say about flashcards is that they shouldn’t be boring. Don’t just write the word on one side of the card and the definition on the other. Try to inject a bit of fun into the process. For example, if your child is artistic, encourage them to draw a picture that they will associate with the word. If they’re techy, try putting flashcards together on a platform such as Anki.
Also, be strategic about when you go over them. Pick a time when things are calm at home. Don’t pull out the flashcards when your kid’s favourite TV programme is about to start, or when your toddler is having a full on meltdown in the bathtub. That’s a surefire way for them to quickly end up ‘lost’ or ‘in the woodburner’ (the flashcards, not the toddler.)
7. Get them to write you a story
If your child is in any way imaginative (the kind of lies they tell about who ate the last chocolate digestive should reveal this), try including story writing in your arsenal of vocab building tools.
Challenge your child to come up with an awesome story: the only rule being that they have to include between five and ten vocabulary words of your choosing.
Getting your child to use a new word in a sentence is the best way for you to see how well they actually understand it. Don’t focus too much on spelling, grammar, or any of the usual suspects that sneak up in children’s stories. Instead, embrace creativity, encourage your child to use words correctly in context, and praise them for trying out new vocabulary (even if it didn’t quite go to plan).
8. Have New Experiences
Again, this isn’t the kind of thing you want to do simply to boost your child academically:
“We’re off to the Science Museum today, Johnnie: the word ‘antimatter’ might come up in the 11+.”
Most likely, you’re already going on regular trips with your kids, but it’s important to realise how beneficial they can be. Introducing your child to new places, cultures and experiences will broaden their mind. Their vocabulary will follow.
Obviously, in an ideal world we would all be jetting off to Machu Picchu and The Forbidden City every second weekend, but thankfully it’s also possible to have exciting new experiences much closer to home. Look out for exhibitions, events and museums in your hometown that might pique your child’s interest. Almost all offer discounts for children, and many of them are completely free.
9. Appeal to their humanity: introduce them to Freerice.com
Freerice.com is an awesome little resource that boosts your child’s vocabulary whilst doing good for the world.
The idea is simple:
Click on the correct answer by choosing the meaning of the word. If you get it right, you get a harder word. If you get it wrong, you get an easier one.
For every word you get right, ten grains of rice are donated to the United Nations World Food Programme. No word of a lie. It shows you a little picture of a bowl that slowly fills with the rice you’re donating as you mark correct answers. It really is a very addictive game. I just got hooked playing it for ten solid minutes after I hopped on the site just now to get the link.
So, there you have it.
I know it’s not easy. You can wave every one of these things underneath your kid’s nose, and they still mightn’t deign to take a sniff. It’s worth a try, though.
In any case, if they fail to broaden your child’s vocabulary, they’re almost certain to broaden their mind.
Even if the caveman grunts continue.