Countdown to the 11+ exam: Vocabulary

The Bond Countdown to the 11+ exam series offers step-by-step guides to answering key 11+ exam questions.

Previous articles in the series: Comprehension

A broad vocabulary is really important for the 11+ tests, particularly for verbal reasoning. In recent years it seems that the need for a wide vocabulary has become more significant in the 11+ exam, but it is also clear that there is no quick fix to building vocabulary. Sure, we can make our children memorise lists of difficult words but, out of context, these are soon forgotten.

The verbal reasoning test will often ask children to find a common word, or the synonym or antonym of a given word. Here’s an example question:

Choose the word which has a similar meaning to the words in both sets of brackets:

verbal reasoning question

We are being asked to find a word which suits the word pairs in both brackets. To begin with, we need to think about the meaning of each word. We also need to remember that the meaning of a word can change depending on whether it is a noun or verb: for example, ‘kid’ can mean 'child' as a noun, or 'to joke' as a verb. Therefore, we need to find a word that matches the word pairs in both brackets, and the word could be a noun or a verb.

Our word pairs are ‘trendy’ and ‘fashionable’, ‘unfriendly’ and ‘distant’ and our potential answer is either ‘calm’, ‘cool’, ‘indifferent’ or ‘stylish’.

  • Calm: we can see that this word does not have the same meaning as either ‘trendy’ or ‘fashionable’, nor does it fit with ‘unfriendly’ or ‘distant’ – so we can rule this one out.
  • Cool: this can mean ‘trendy’ or ‘fashionable’ in a colloquial or slang sense; it also fits with ‘unfriendly’ or ‘distant’ – so keep this word in mind while working through the others.
  • Indifferent: this word typically means unconcerned, and therefore doesn’t fit with our first or second pair of words – we can rule this one out.
  • Stylish: while ‘stylish’ fits with ‘trendy’ and ‘fashionable’, it’s not consistent with ‘unfriendly’ or ‘distant’ – we can omit this word too.

After working through each word, we can see that the word ‘cool’ is the best match for both word pairs, and we have our answer.

Another area of verbal reasoning that some children find tricky are synonym questions, where children must find a word which is the same, or nearly the same, as another. Here’s an example :

Choose the word which means the same, or nearly the same, as the word on the left.

 verbal reasoning question

This question is testing a child’s knowledge of vocabulary rather than their ability to reason. Firstly, your child should consider the given word’s meaning. In this example we are looking at ‘contemplate’, which means to think deeply about something.

Some children may not know what ‘mediate’ means. So, try to encourage them to find the root of the word to see if they recognise another word inside the word. If we look at ‘medi’ we may think of medium – between small and large, or halfway between two extremes. This may relate to being in the middle and relates to the word 'mediate' in which the mediator may be seen to be 'in the middle', between two opposing views.

Moving onto our other options, ‘suggest’ means to put forward an idea or opinion and ‘identify’ means to establish or indicate something, therefore these don’t fit with the word ‘contemplate’. So our final option is ‘ponder', which means the same as to think deeply, therefore ‘ponder’ is our answer.

Helping at home:

While there is no set method for learning vocabulary, retention is key, whatever method we use. Try the following and see what works best for you and your child:

  • Read: reading presents new words, in context, which is a brilliant way of building vocabulary. Children can either check words as they meet them, with you or in a dictionary, to ensure that they understand them. Alternatively, they can read through to see if the context of the sentence or paragraph helps them to see what the words mean. My son often uses his Kindle to find the definitions of words. He highlights and adds them to his Vocabulary Builder, which makes flashcards for him to refer to and learn from. Reading with your child not only provides quality time, but a chance for you to learn from each other, ask questions and discuss.
  • Discover vocabulary: new vocabulary can come from anywhere, not just books! Television, posters, even the backs of cereal packets can expose your child to new language and afford them the opportunity to learn. Look up the meaning of new words and try using them in conversation; why not choose two or three new words today and find different ways to use them in conversation with your child? Consistent use of language will help a child retain it, and if it’s fun, retention is even easier.
  • Make flashcards: you can do this the ‘old-fashioned’ way with cue cards or sticky notes as a fun activity to add some creativity to your child’s learning.
  • Use technology: Now that we have technology at our fingertips, why not try a sample verbal reasoning quiz from Bond Online, or download a 11+ verbal reasoning practice paper from the Bond website (requires free registration/login)?

Try out these techniques and see what works for your child – and have fun doing it!

Sharon Kim

About the author: Sharon Kim has owned her own tutorial business for over 20 years, tutoring students for entry to local grammar schools in Surrey, as well as for the the 11+ and 13+ exams for independent schools such as Cheltenham Ladies College, Eton, Harrow, Winchester and many others.

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