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Comprehension: Common Mistakes in the 11+

Eleven-Plus Preparation Specialists

There are a few errors that are seen repeatedly in English comprehension exercises. If you can make yourself – or your child – aware of them in good time, then the first section of the 11+ English paper should seem much more straightforward. Here, we’ll look at some of these common mistakes.

Poor Time Management

Perhaps the most obvious, but often very hard to avoid. Some schools will feature long passages, or even two different passages – perhaps one piece of prose and one poem. Many students, especially those who are slower readers, will struggle to finish the paper whilst feeling that they have read through the extracts in sufficient detail. There are two ways of dealing with this, and one further technique that must be adhered to.

The first way that you can deal with the problem is by doing an initial ‘light’ read through, rather than reading in detail. You should look to get an idea of the narrative, of who the characters are, and what kind of tools the author is using. You might put a mark next to anything that seems particularly difficult, or next to the names of characters and places. However, avoid spending too long on difficult words or sentences – you may not need to agonise over them if they are not featured inthe questions. 

An alternative approach is to study through the questions first, then read the passage with them in mind. Remember, this will work better for some schools than others. It depends on the way the questions are laid out. If the questions are relatively simple and work in order through the passage, then this technique could make sense – if the school favours longer questions then it will be less suitable.

Lastly, the technique that you must adhere to is following the recommended reading time on the paper. If it says ‘10 minutes reading time’ then do not read beyond this, even if you are struggling. You can come back to a section if it is relevant for a question – but you can’t get wasted time back.

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Not reading the question correctly

Questions might try to catch you out by asking whether something is ‘certainly true’ or ‘definitely did not happen’ when in reality there is some level of uncertainty involved. This is particularly common in multiple choice type questions. Additionally, some questions will state that you must ‘use your own words’ whilst others will ask you to ‘use examples from the passage’ to illustrate a point. You must recognise what you are being asked to do here – either translate the author’s language into your own, or lift it directly in the form of quotes. If you fail to do so, you will fail to gain marks – even if you found the right bit of the passage.

Struggling with Specific Words

If part of the paper asks you provide the meaning of specific words, and you’re unsure how to define ‘meandered,’ for example, don’t worry – it’s unlikely that other students will have a brilliant definition to hand. You’re being asked to define it in context of the passage – so look at how it’s being used. If it’s talking about a river ‘meandering through the countryside’ then you can write ‘it means that the river is moving on a lazy route’ and receive marks – even though you missed the exact definition of ‘winding.’

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Answering from Memory

Don’t try to save time by answering a simple question from memory if you’re not 100% certain of an answer. Look back, and make sure to check exactly what was written. Our memories often fail us, and whilst you might remember the name of the main character, for example, it’s often very easy to get the names of places, people or things mixed up under the pressure of an exam. Double check and make sure to pick up these easy marks.

Not Recognising Inferential Questions

An inferential question is one that requires you to ‘infer’ – to use information in the passage to then deduce, or make a logical guess. As an example, imagine that we are told that Tom is a bully and mean. The question might then ask, ‘what do you think Ben would think of Tom?’ We haven’t been told what Ben might think, but we can infer that he would find him nasty, mean, and difficult to deal with – from what we’ve been told in the passage. If this were a direct question, then the text would read, ‘Ben thought that Tom was mean and a bully.’
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