The Eleven Plus Vocabulary Challenge

December 9, 2019


Embarking upon the Eleven Plus with your child, one of the first things you are likely to hear about is how important it is to have an extensive vocabulary.  It is very true; weakness in vocabulary can affect not only vocabulary-based questions, but also comprehension sections of the test of which there are likely to be two, and even mathematical questions.


So, how is it best to improve vocabulary?  The best way appears to be simple – read more.  The greater the degree of reading a wide variety of genres, the higher the likelihood that your child will previously have come across words used in the eleven plus.  However, we do have to be careful here.  In our reading we all unwittingly misinterpret words from time to time, and quite often words are being read with their definition being somewhat foggy. 


An example of this is the word comprehension itself.  The children I work with have all been 'doing' comprehension and using the word for quite some time. Although they are fully aware that they need to answer questions about a passage, I have yet to meet the child that recognises the word comprehend means to understand.  Whilst it is acceptable to misunderstand words in our everyday lives, the Eleven Plus exam requires exact meanings to be known, and hence a great deal of effort and resources have been involved in finding ways to teach children a lot of new vocabulary in a relatively short time. The best way to learn this vocabulary will depend upon the learning styles of your child.  A few ways that can help are explored here.


Flash cards

This traditional way of learning vocabulary certainly has some success, but this can be quite short term.  If flashcards are the preferred way for your child to learn new vocabulary, ensure that words already 'learnt' are revisited.


Vocabulary Book

Perhaps a more helpful way of learning new words is by using a vocabulary book.  By that we mean, a simple exercise book in which new words and their definitions, suitable synonyms and antonyms are written.  Whenever possible the book can be used for writing sentences using these words – proving a genuine understanding of meaning


Using a Dictionary

In order to create a vocabulary book, your child will of course need to look up words.  Whilst for some time, I was quite happy for children to use on-line dictionaries to do this, I have come to realise that the effort of looking a word up in a dictionary 'book', somehow helps some children remember the information better.  Perhaps it is keeping the word in the mind whilst searching for meaning that does this, I'm not sure.


Root Words and More

What is certain is that it is too much to ask a child to learn every word that may arise in the CEM Eleven Plus Exam.  Namely because we do not know which words will turn up.  We can make a good estimate based upon the level of the vocabulary and words previously used in the test, but other words can be used too. This being the case two aspects of vocabulary learning  can be particularly helpful. - learning root woods, and discerning if words are positive or negative.


Root Words

If your child knows many root words, then they can make logical deductions regarding the meanings of many more words as so much of our language has origins in Latin and Greek.  We would suggest that before focusing on typical 11+ flash cards, these individual root words are learnt, and exercises attempted:


Learn these prefixes and their meanings.

Audio – to hear                           Bio – life

Chromo – colour                         Geo – earth

Gram – small weight                   Logo – word/reason

Metre – measure                         Phone – voice/sound

Photo – light                                Scope – target/see

Sphere – ball


Find the exact meaning of these prefixes.  They are from Greek or Latin.  Use a dictionary.


ante -                                                hype -

anti -                                                 hypo -

bi -                                                     inter –

com -                                                mal –

en/in -                                             mega –

epi -                                                   micro –

ex -                                                    mono –

penta -                                             super –

poly -                                                syn –

post -                                                tele –

pro -                                                  tetra –

re -                                                     tri –

sub -                                                  uni -


Now guess the meanings of the following words. 

Check your answers with a dictionary and correct any if necessary.  It is likely that you will need to make guesses of this kind in the test.











More Root Words

Make one or more common English word using these Greek or Latin root words.

Ab -      away from

Agr-      field

Aero – air/atmosphere

Cap – hold/take

Cent – one hundred

Cata – down

Deca – ten

Derm – skin

Graph – draw/write

Hol – whole

Hipp – horse

Labor – work

Later – side

Maj – greater

Mater/matr – mother

Mort – death

Multi – many

Nav – ship

Neg – no

Noct - night



Positive and Negative Words

This is is a strange but effective way of improving vocabulary scores without actually learning any new words.  I discovered it whilst helping my daughter with her Eleven Plus. 


Attempting multiple choice questions, she would quite often come across unknown words.   Rather than expecting her to work out specific meanings, or even type of word such as noun, adjective, adverb, which she had already done effectively for other questions, I asked her if the word she was looking at was a positive or negative word.  Once she began to look at questions in this way her scores improved considerably.



dismal:   a.  playful   b.  sparkle   c.  dreary   d.  delicate


Although the exact meaning of dismal may be unknown, it does suggest a rather negative word.  Amongst the answer choices, only one 'dreary' is negative, which suggests that it should be the answer.


The good news is that all this hard work is sure to provide long lasting dividends, well beyond elven plus success.  A strong vocabulary will put your child in a good position to face much of the new subject content that they will discover when starting secondary education.

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