The content and difficulty level of 11+ English comprehension exercises can vary considerably. Although most children will have encountered reading comprehensions as a part of the national curriculum, during their 11+ exam they are expected to read and work to a strict time limit and often, for most students, this will be their first formal, important exam in foreign surroundings.
This in itself can make the comprehension exercise more challenging. However, in the past couple of years, children have encountered an added level of difficulty to this exam: GCSE level texts (texts set at a reading age of 16+), and, more notably, poetry and playscripts, including the works of William Shakespeare.
The 11+ has historically featured classic texts in the English comprehension section of the exam. In some areas (Essex, for example) students must read and understand the vocabulary of pre-20th century authors such as Charles Dickens or Mark Twain.
In these classic texts, vocabulary becomes a challenge. The language used in the extracts can be a real shock to children who have only read books published in the last 25 years.
Most recommended 11+ reading lists will therefore implore parents to encourage their children to read books from previous eras including these classics from before 1950. The logic here is that the more familiar your child becomes with older or more archaic forms of the English language, the more confident they will become when facing this in an exam setting, even if they do not know every word they see.
From Comprehension to Literary Analysis
The 11+ continues to increase in difficulty, especially for highly contested schools such as Queen Elizabeth’s School and Henrietta Barnett School.
In the past two years, poetry has been introduced to the English comprehension exams. Now, children not only have to contend with potentially challenging vocabulary, but also a new form of writing they may not have encountered before.
The English comprehension typically tests the student’s ability to extract factual information, draw inferences, and use their own judgement or reasoning skills in order to interpret a given extract. In addition, some questions test the student’s knowledge of vocabulary, grammar and literary techniques.
For poetry comprehensions, students are inherently expected to begin the process of literary analysis. They must interpret poetic language, read more between the lines and form their own opinions. They are no longer just comprehending the events of a story.
Most recently, students sitting the Queen Elizabeth’s School for Boys exam encountered the works of Shakespeare – having to answer questions on a passage from Macbeth. Here, the difficulties of the language and the unfamiliarity of verse is paired with an even more unfamiliar literary form for the typical 10 year old: the theatrical play.
Should children start preparing for Shakespeare in the 11+?
“Better three hours too soon than a minute too late.”
The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 2, Scene 2
Although these new styles of comprehension might be uncommon when compared to other types of texts that appear in the 11+, it is still essential that students feel adequately prepared to tackle them, lest their confidence be shaken during the crucial moments of their actual exam.
When it comes to reading comprehensions, the best way to prepare is practice. Exposure to different forms of writing seems to be more important than ever as examiners seek to include passages deliberately designed to surprise and challenge students.
However, digesting a whole five-act play may be quite the task for a Year 5 student. They do not necessarily need to have read the complete works of Shakespeare nor do they need to memorise every dramatic and poetic term from GCSE study to pass the 11+: what is crucial in the run up to exams is to simply feel confident with different types of writing and to feel prepared in approaching them in an exam setting. A student will not need to understand an entire play in their 11+ exam, after all. They will only need to understand a short passage from one.
Single scenes can be taken and read through, or single speeches and dialogue exchanges, to give children an introduction to this type of writing. A single soliloquy, sonnet or scene can be read each week, so as not to overwhelm students, but to still give them that essential exposure to this type of writing.
Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed: don’t underestimate this! Exam preparation can include reading through these scripts aloud to help your student or child come to grips with the sound of the language and the style of the Shakespearean meter in a more accessible manner, and to help students better understand how story and meaning are communicated through dialogue.
Of course, there are comprehension techniques and skills that any child will benefit from, regardless of the text they face. We at Eleven Plus Exams have outlined how students can begin improving their comprehension work with effective exam technique.
As with most things 11+, knowing can be half the battle and preparing for all possibilities is likely to give a student the best chance of success. In the words of the Bard himself, “all difficulties are but easy when they are known.”