Just the Word – Vocabulary and 11+

As a literacy specialist and tutor I have always been interested in how language and literacy is developed in childhood. Often there are signifiers that are mightily important. For example, are there books at home? Does the child witness their parents reading? Does the family have dinner around the table and are the children encouraged to ask questions? There are so many small factors that make an impact on literacy and this development is now doubly interesting for me because I have a toddler myself. 

At the moment we are at the stage of words used as labels. So, ‘car’, ‘bird’, ‘cat’ etc. There has been a recent explosion of words borne out of a hunger for labels; she toddles about the house naming everyday items. You sometimes need to tell her once “that is a bin” and the word is in there for life. She stands next to the overflowing receptacle pointing “Bin! Bin!”

Fast forward a decade, and words are vitally important as part of the exam at 11. Not only are you expected to have a wide-ranging vocabulary for the creative writing element of the test, but traditionally there is always a question in the comprehension that tests word meaning. This is generally worded ‘give the meaning of the following words as they are used in the passage.’ Words like ‘counterpart’ and ‘monotonously’ can then be defined by looking at their context within the passage – there are always clues even if you have never heard of the word before!

Of course the most effective and enjoyable way to expand your vocabulary is read, read and then read again. This goes for adults as well as children. When we read we learn words without even knowing we’re doing it.

Let’s say you are engrossed in a book and you come across a word. For the sake of argument ‘deficit’. You’re enjoying the book and loathed to put it down and look up the word so you carry on reading. This is perfectly fine. Not knowing the exact word meaning hasn’t effected your understanding and so you plod on. Perhaps later in the book the word deficit comes up again. The context is different but you are starting to build up a clearer picture. Later in the year the word comes up again in another book. You’re starting to get it now. Then one day you’re overhear your parents talking about politics. There’s that word again, but you surprise yourself that somehow you know what they’re talking about. You have incorporated the word into your vocabulary without ever consciously knowing it. The next stage is to start using it yourself!

So, how can you practice for the vocabulary question in the exam? Well, are you able to explain your word meaning efficiently? We all know what a table or a pen is, but how many of us are able to briefly define the word?

Try this exercise with your son or daughter. Can you define a simple word? Explain what it means to someone who doesn’t know. For example, a doorbell – a device placed next to a door which, when pressed, alerts the occupant of a visitor. 

Here is a list of words:

Ladder                      Present (noun)

Weapon                    T-Shirt

Painting (verb)         Tomato

Shouting                   Zoo


Read out each word. What you’re aiming for is a definition that is effective. For example, describing a toaster as something you toast bread in is not an effective answer. So, ask a follow up question: What does to toast something mean? They may say that it is another word for cook – well now we’re getting closer to a definition.

A fun way of completing the worksheet is for the questioner to say that they are from the planet Venus. That way every concept, no matter how simple, has to be explained. Your son or daughter will think that some terms speak for themselves. Not so if you’re from Venus.

There’s an old board game called Articulate in which you have to define 6 words against an egg timer and your partner has to guess. If you want, how about 12 words in 1 minute? If they’re having trouble, ask them to speak in sentences. Then work your way down: define the word in 5 words. Then define it in 3 words.

You’ll discover there are shortcuts. So, a toaster is an express bread cooking device, with the word ‘device’ being pretty handy for other definitions.

Buy a big adult dictionary – a heavy one they can only lift with two hands! – kid’s dictionaries become annoying the first time you are unable to find a certain word in them, and by 10 that will start to happen. An online dictionary is fine, but there is something about the manual task of looking a word up in a big book that helps you to remember it. 

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Additional resources:

How Parents Can Support Their Childrens’ Learning
Harrow Common Entrance Exam
Great Exam Results, But What Else Do You Want for Your 11-year-old?

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