The Five Questions Method – Tips For Tackling the English 11+

image containing a lot of question marks

The field of Entrance Exams is becoming increasingly competitive with ever more refined selection, and growing numbers of schools having entrance points at ages other than 11 (such as 7+, 9+ etc).

However, the majority of Entrance and Selective exams are still sat in the first half of Year 6, and the basis of the exams themselves – Maths and English testing in comprehension and composition – has remained largely unchanged (except in the case of the North London Girls’ Consortium).

The Maths element largely results in a “flat grading curve” with most well-prepared students gaining high marks due to being able to transfer skills and knowledge already learned in school to the exam.

The English set, conversely, produces large fluctuations in grades. While the broad tasks involved in Entrance Exams for English vary little from school to school, students can often be confused by the idiosyncrasies of a given schools’ tests and find the jobs involved difficult to complete under time pressure.

Over many years of working with 11+ students, I have picked up many tips to guide them through the English section of their exams. Too many, in fact, to list here.  But for shorthand purposes, I have found certain key tips form the basis – and only the basis – for successful English 11+ students.

Through years 1-6 most pupils are encouraged by their schools to write for pure self-expression and fun. While examiners are keen to see that a student is enthusiastic about expressing themselves, the structure of an exam demands that they adopt a “tighter” writing technique. On the most basic level this involves writing answers which tightly match the question. (A four mark question should contain at least four elements in the answer. A “Why?” question requires a subtly different approach to a “How”? question.  A question which asks you to answer “in your own words” demands that the student paraphrase the text whereas most answers will lose marks if they do not quote it directly. Etc)

In terms of the reading comprehension section, most students would be well advised to read the questions before the extract in order to establish what they are looking for and to use their time more effectively. There are five key questions students should ask themselves about the comprehension texts they have been given.

1 What is it about?

A surprising number of students have been so encouraged to look out for language features and key quotes, that they do not take into account the simple fact of what they are reading about. An awareness of story and setting will add depth to their answers. If a pupil is answering questions on a piece of writing with a strong sense of how it is written but a weak sense of what it is about, it is usually necessary to go back to basics with it.

2 What don’t I understand?

Schools will normally select a piece of writing with a few new words or mystery elements to test a student’s ability to infer through context and how they react to new factors they may not immediately understand. If a student responds to the questions, “Is there anything in this piece of writing that you don’t understand” by saying no, it is usually the case that they have overlooked the part included to test their detective abilities. It may sound counterproductive to say that students should look for elements they don’t understand as much as ones they do, but finding and tackling these parts of the test will automatically impress the examiner and increase their overall grade.

3 How is it written?

Broadly speaking, this consists of noticing and naming language features. The difference between writing, “In line four, the writer says Jane is “like a snake’” , and,  “In line four the writer uses the simile “like a snake” to describe Jane” can mean the difference between one and three marks for a given question and so have a significant effect on a student’s overall grade. If your child’s school encourages students to write without reflecting on language features, it is definitely worth ensuring that they are able to identify around ten different simple language features early in the run up to their exams.

4 Why is it written that way?

More than any other element, the ability to reflect on why a writer has used certain language features and certain key words will boost a student’s overall English mark. This is a simple skill to understand but a difficult one to learn. At its most straightforward, a student should be encouraged to notice language features and writing style and imagine why a writer has consciously used them. Answer prompts such as “The writer has done this because….”, and, “The writer is trying to….”, are a good start in getting a student to develop the key skill which will boost their overall mark.

5 How do I answer the question?

Checking the questions first gives a student a clearer idea of what they are looking for and prevents them from concentrating on less important and less mark-heavy elements. It is therefore a key practice in using time more efficiently. One of the most common remarks from examiners on 11+ exam scripts is that the student has done well but, “Not addressed the questions directly.” Fortunately, this can be quite an easy fix and doing so will provide the magic sense of “focus” that marks out the best exam papers.


For the writing section, many of the five questions above can be reversed, (“What should I be writing about?”, “What is the task don’t I understand?”, “What language features should I be using and why?”, etc). One key tip is to make sure that student’s writing isn’t over-descriptive. Many learners have been so encouraged to write descriptively that they do not include any speech, or sometimes even any people, in their writing. This robs them of the chance to demonstrate their knowledge of punctuation and how to write characters. A solid guide is that all descriptive writing should include some characters, and all writing about characters should include some description.

Finally, it is also worth remembering again how competitive the world of Entrance Exams has become. If two students both gain, for example, 39/40 on their English or Maths paper, a school will often select based on *how* they have gained their 39 marks, and how well they have addressed the question or shown their working out. Entrance Exams build on skills learned in school, but are a highly distinct form of learning which is many ways removed from direct school work. Parents are well advised to seek out an experienced 11+ tutor – of which Newman Tuition has many – as early as possible to help guide their child through the process.

William is an English and History tutor with Newman Tuition. To book a lesson with him, or one of our other excellent tutors, please call us on 020 3198 8006, email us at [email protected], or complete the form on the ‘Contact Us’ page.

Logo of Facebook with 5 stars