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What is Verbal Reasoning?

Updated: Mar 21

11+ Verbal Reasoning Exam
11+ Verbal Reasoning exam

Many parents wonder what verbal reasoning is and why grammar schools use it as part of their Eleven-plus entrance exams.  In this blog, I will be looking at what verbal reasoning is, why grammar schools test it and how to prepare for the Eleven-plus, Verbal Reasoning entrance exam.

Verbal reasoning assessments, test a student's ability to work with language, analyse information, reason logically, work methodically and draw logical conclusions.

Exam Seat with Verbal Reasoning Assessment answer sheet on the table.
Verbal Reasoning assessment

In some circles, there is the belief that these skills are automatically learned at school and there is no need to prepare for an exam. However, unless your child is already attending a private or preparatory school, it is unlikely that the breadth of these skills have been covered at any depth.

In my experience as a primary teacher, private tutor and parent, the discrete teaching and development of strong verbal reasoning skills is incredibly valuable in preparation for the entrance exam and many academic/professional situations beyond the Eleven-plus. I have first hand experience of working with children who have high levels of academic ability but weak analytical skills and are unable to use critical thinking to solve problems. 

An A+ grade on a multiple choice answer sheet showing that no all children who are good academically are good at verbal reasoning.
An academic child is not always equipped with good reasoning skills

The use of verbal reasoning assessments and psychometric tests have also become more common place in the recruitment process, used by larger organisation and employers to evaluate a candidate's cognitive and verbal ability. Therefore, any work carried out to improve verbal reasoning skills at a young age, is good preparation for the tests they will face beyond their educational setting.

If your child attends a preparatory school, it is likely that verbal reasoning is embedded within their school curriculum at key stage two and therefore your child should have familiarity with the types of questions that may appear in the Eleven-plus test. On the other hand, if your child attends a state school, they are unlikely to have had any experience with verbal reasoning. My advice would be to work on developing strong verbal reasoning skills before entering your child for the 11+ entrance exam, to give them the best possible chance. (At the end of this blog you will find links to resources to help you prepare. You will also find out more about my 11+ Verbal Reasoning Programme).

Two children in school uniform with books ready to prepare for their Verbal Reasoing exam.
Verbal reasoning preparation for the 11+ entrance exam

The exam boards used by each grammar school vary and therefore it is important to find out which exam your child will be sitting (some schools also create their own exams influenced by a particular exam board). The most commonly used exam boards for the 11+ entrance exam are: GL (previously known as Granada Learning and NFER), CEM (Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring), ISEB (Independent Schools Examination Board) and CAT4 (Cognitive Abilities Test).  

The verbal reasoning sections within each exam differ. The best way to prepare for them is to develop familiarity and confidence with all the question types, using exam board specific materials. A word of warning though. It is more effective to explore and develop proficiency with all the different skills and questions before diving into practice tests. Children can become very test weary if practice papers are introduced too early. They are unlikely to see their scores develop unless skill gaps are addressed, explored and practised. When children see their scores faltering, their confidence dips and they can become demoralised.

Confident, well-rested children tend to achieve higher grades in test situations. For this reason, a balance needs to be achieved between learning, exam practice and enjoying their hobbies.

What skills are tested in the Verbal Reasoning exam?

An example of Missing Letters Questions from GL 11plus Verbal Reasoning Famliarisation Paper 2
Missing Words - GL 11 Plus Verbal Reasoning Familiarisation Paper 2

  • Analogy

  • Code breaking

  • Comprehension

  • Logical reasoning

  • Numerical reasoning

  • Sentence completion 

  • Vocabulary

  • Word association

  • Word puzzles 

What are the common question types in the Verbal Reasoning test?

Each exam boards uses a variety of different questions, here are a selection:

An example of a Letter Sequences Question in the GL 11 plus Verbal Reasoning Familiarisation Paper 2
Letter Sequences - GL 11 plus Verbal Reasoning Familiarisation Paper 2

  • Anagrams

  • Completing sentences grammatically

  • Finding the odd ones out

  • Letter sequences and puzzles 

  • Logic puzzles

  • Matching and categorising words

  • Mathematical puzzles and number sequences

  • Sentences with hidden or swapped words

  • Word codes, puzzles and pairs

Verbal reasoning tests the ability to comprehend, analyse, reason logically and draw conclusions from written information. It requires an excellent understanding of more sophisticated vocabulary and also requires an efficient and methodical approach to answer as many questions as possible within a given time limit. 

In some verbal reasoning exams, your child will be expected to complete a comprehension (a short passage of text with a selection of questions), where as other exam boards provide a longer comprehension within the English exam itself and therefore do not include one within the verbal reasoning test.

For some exam boards, like GL, you will answer the questions on a pre-printed grid with a selection of 5 answer choices (see picture).  For others exams, you will just have a blank space in which to write your answers. 

From my experience as a private tutor (preparing pupils for the 11+ exam over a number of years), it takes time and practice to be able to tackle the different types of questions. It also takes practice to develop the speed required to complete all the questions in the timeframe allocated. Therefore, I wouldn't recommend that any child sits a verbal reasoning exam without some familiarisation activities and preparation, whether this is at school, with a tutor or independently at home.

Exam timing is not important to begin with. It is more important children have a go at all the practice questions and build familiarity with the skills and the test itself. Once a child has mastered the necessary skills and developed familiarity with the test structure, a timer can be introduced in the last few months before an exam. Pupils need to develop pace and a strategic approach to answering the questions. It is important that they don't spend too long on a particular section but learn which types of questions can be answered more quickly than others.

Children sitting the 11 plus Verbal Reasoning entrance exam
11 plus entrance exam - Verbal Reasoning

Whilst many schools have a separate English exam paper, there is an element of English proficiency required in verbal reasoning too. The more well-read a child is, the easier they will find the vocabulary elements of the test, where children need to: solve anagrams, categorise words; find words with similar or opposite meaning (synonyms and antonyms); and alter words to complete a chain, amongst other skills.

There is no definitive list of words a child needs to know but my advice would be to ensure they understand and can spell all the words up to and including the words in the National Curriculum at Year 6 as a very bare minimum. There are some links at the bottom of this blog to vocabulary lists that you might find useful too. Learning new vocabulary can be tricky. The best way to learn new words is within a context so that children can relate to them and understand how they could be used both verbally and in their writing too. I have found the most effective way to teach vocabulary is using pictures and sentences. Vocabulary development is a key feature of my 11+ Verbal Reasoning Programme (GL).

Grammar schools are looking for pupils with a broader and more sophisticated vocabulary. It is for this reason that the short extracts of text used for comprehension, tend to be from classical literature, poetry, mythology or non-fiction relating to historical events.

Following years of teaching verbal reasoning skills, I have developed a 14 week, online Verbal Reasoning Programme (GL) to support children in developing all the skills they need for the GL Eleven-Plus exam.

If you are looking for some help in preparing your child for the 11-Plus entrance exam, my Verbal Reasoning Programme for the GL assessment may be the perfect solution for you. The programme runs for 14 weeks in January and September. I also run a Fast Track edition in April, where pupils have two sessions a week, for 7 weeks. Both editions of the programme feature:

  • 108 new words to stretch and breadthen vocabulary

  • Live and interactive teaching of the skills and question types featured in the exam

  • Exam strategies and techniques

  • 14 homework activities to develop confidence in each of the question types

  • Access to 14 lesson recording replays (in case you miss any of the lessons)

  • Access to 28 skills recordings (for revision purposes)

  • A copy of the CGP Verbal Reasoning workbook

At the end of programme, pupils will have covered all the questions types for the GL version of the 11-Plus Verbal Reasoning exam. Pupils are then ready to develop their speed, confidence and timing using practice exam papers at home.

Many pupils find the support of a tutor extremely valuable in their exam preparation. A professional and experienced tutor can use their expertise to provide a personalised structure and pace to preparations, ensuring that your child is as prepared as possible for the test.

Some tutors, from their experience in preparing pupils in previous years, are able to make an initial appraisal as to the likelihood of your child achieving the grade needed for particular schools. I am very honest with the parents I work with. If I don't believe the estimated pass rate is achievable, I do politely explain this to parents as I do not believe it to be in anyone's best interests to set a child on a track to failure. However, for popular schools, there may be more factors to consider alongside a high pass rate (such as the Catchment Area).

Girl studying for 11+ verbal reasoning test at home.
11+ study and exam preparation at home

Some families prefer to prepare without tuition. This is achievable with the right resources, routines and the ability to be honest in self assessment. Here are a few of the resources I use to help my students prepare:

My resource recommendations:

CGP have created some excellent resources to help children study the different skills. I use them with my pupils too. Remember, it is important that you identify the exam board used by your chosen school before purchasing or subscribing to materials.  

Joannd Adams: Teacher, tutor and founder of Primary Tuition Ltd.
Joanne Adams: teacher, tutor and founder of Primary Tuition Ltd.

To learn more about Verbal Reasoning and the 11-Plus, take a look at my Parent Webinar recording on You Tube.

To be the first to find out the details of my next 14 week Verbal Reasoning Programme or the Fast Track Programme in April, please leave your details on our waiting list or contact: direct to see how we can help your child.

You may also be interested in some of my other blogs relating to primary school topics too: Primary Tuition Ltd. Blog.

Joanne Adams

Teacher, Tutor and Maths Workbook Author

Primary Tuition Ltd. logo and social media platforms.
Primary Tuition Ltd. Logo and Social Media Platforms


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