11 Plus English: How to ace your English Exam

Updated:May 19, 2023
Author:Creative Hare

The 11+ examinations are taken by Year 6 children to gain a place at a state funded grammar school or a selective independent (also known as private) senior school.  

 The structure of the Grammar school exam will depend on what area of the UK you live, however, the core areas that are tested include:  

  • English (reading comprehension and creative writing)
  • Maths
  • Verbal Reasoning
  • Non-verbal reasoning

When will your child sit the 11+ exam? 

Children sitting a grammar school entrance exam will normally do this in September. ISEB tests are more flexible, with schools choosing anywhere between September and January.  

Entrance procedures vary between schools, so it’s a good idea to do your homework, especially if you intend to prepare your child independently, at home.  


What are the names of the exam boards for the 11Plus?  

There are three main 11+ plus exam boards:

  • GL
  • CEM 
  •  ISEB 


GLGranada Learning Assessment (They administer the majority of the 11+ tests) and they also write the Cognitive Ability Tests (CAT4) used by many independent schools.  

The exam is split up into several papers:

  • English
  • Maths
  • Verbal Reasoning (VR)
  • Non-verbal reasoning (NVR)

CEM – Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Cambridge Assessment  

The CEM 11Plus exam focuses on the following components:

  • English and verbal reasoning (VR)
  • Maths and non-verbal reasoning (NVR)

The key difference between the 11+ GL and CEM 

  • Unlike GL assessments, the CEM test is normally delivered as two papers, one paper combines English and verbal reasoning and another paper combines maths and non-verbal reasoning. The exam timing is approximately 50 minutes for each paper and there’s a very strong emphasis on vocabulary. 
  • GL exam questions come from a bank of questions, so regular practise will ensure your child is familiar with all the different question styles.  

ISEB (Independent Schools Examining Board) is used by a select number of independent schools for pre-testing at the 11+ and the 13+. Children sit the test in Year 6 or Year 7.  

The ISEB online test comprises of four sections:

  • English: reading comprehension
  • Verbal reasoning
  • Maths
  • Non-verbal reasoning

ISEB online, an adaptive test with an on-screen timer  

For the English component, children have to read several text extracts with a series of multiple-choice questions.

  • The text can be fiction, non-fiction or poetry
  • The ISEB format is known to be challenging so familiarisation is essential
  • Some schools who have signed up for the ISEB pre-test may invite successful candidates to sit a separate creative writing task

When do children sit the ISEB pre-test? 

Children in Year 6 who currently attend a prep school will normally sit the ISEB pre-test in their school. If your son/daughter attends a state primary school they’ll normally be invited to sit the test at a target school.  

It’s also worth noting, that if your child is sitting the ISEB pre-test, they’ll only need to do it once as their results will be shared with the relevant schools.  


Schools who set their own entrance exam paper 

A few schools choose to set their own entrance exam paper, for example, Westminster, Eaton and a several other schools in different regions of the UK.  


Summary of entrance admissions:  

Although the 11Plus exam boards differ in their approach to the exam style and format, they essentially test the same core English skills.  

Before you begin preparation for the 11+ it’s essential to find out the exact entrance requirements for your target schools.  

You may also find that schools pick and choose subject areas to focus on and will sometimes combine GL and CEM papers.  

Therefore, being clear on the specific entry requirements will ensure a clear and positive start to your child’s preparation.  


Why is the 11Plus English important?  

The 11Plus English examination will stretch your child’s core comprehension, writing and critical thinking skills. These crucial skills will help set them up for the rest of their educational journey and indeed, their life beyond school exams.  


Benefits of a top-notch education  

Parents are keen for their children to have access to a top-quality education, which will help pave the way for future success. Demand for school places is fierce as parents know that having a quality education opens doors to a rewarding and successful career.  

Start early


"‘There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure’ Colin Powell "

Starting gentle with consistent preparation in Year 4 means you can identify strengths and weaknesses and establish a positive routine – get ahead of the game to reap the benefits! 

Ensuring foundational skills in both writing and comprehension are solid means that your child will be in a strong position to tackle past exam papers in Year 5.  

Introduce past papers methodically 

  • I recommend a structured approach to using past exams as jumping in too early can result in a sudden drop in confidence.  
  • Begin with practising exam paper questions, both the comprehension and creative writing sections as they have the same weighting.  
  • Ideally, you want to ensure your child has a solid grasp of the basics before applying their English skills to past papers. 

Practice Papers:

  • Step 1: Practise a wide range of exam comprehensions (analyse, get things right and wrong and learn from mistakes, this will build stamina and resilience)
  • Step 2: Practise a wide range of creative writing questions
  • Step 3: Practise completing entire past papers, without being timed
  • Step 4: Finally, introduce timed practice, when your child is ready

Does my child need a tutor? 

Whether you decide to prepare your child for the 11+ or engage a tutor is a personal choice. Smart parents decide what they want to do early on and commit to their chosen process.  

Although it’s completely possible to prepare your child independently, being prepared for the commitment is highly recommended for a successful outcome.  


What is tested in English?

  • The English reading comprehension exam can comprise of either multiple-choice or long format questions.  
  • Use of reasoning skills to identify the meaning of sophisticated vocabulary  
  • Identifying and explaining the effects of literary devices in a poem, fiction or non-fiction text.  
  • Verbal reasoning skills  
  • Where creative writing is tested, the tasks can include a personal recount/reflection, continuing a passage, an image-based story prompt, a written story prompt, a diary extract, a description or a persuasive argument.  


Practice makes perfect 

Don’t assume that being a passionate reader will automatically translate to reading comprehension success. Long format 11+ comprehension questions are meant to be tough, demanding skill, patience and plenty of practise.  

 Creative writing is a multi-layered process and your child’s confidence and skills will develop with focused and consistent practice.


What’s your next step? I’d love to hear from you!  

You want the best for your child but you may be wondering whether or not you need a private tutor for the exam preparation – I’m here to help! 

 Email  to book a free writing assessment for your child today.