11+ Exams|Insights

Anna Masterson is Chief Learning Officer at Atom Learning, a company on a mission to provide fun and accessible online learning for children aged 7–11. Here are Anna’s top tips for preparing to take the 11 plus in 2023.


If your child is in Year 5, you will no doubt already be thinking ahead to their secondary education. If your school choices include grammar schools or selective independent schools, your child will most likely need to take an entrance exam in autumn 2023 (or early spring 2024 for some independent schools) to be eligible for a place.

The grammar school 11 plus and independent school entrance exams are designed to be challenging. They are used to identify pupils whose academic ability places them within the top 25% of their cohort (or the top 10% for some of the highest performing schools). Starting exam preparation at least a year in advance is a great way to ensure that your child feels confident when autumn 2023 rolls around, and will give them the best chance of success to secure a place at their target school.

So how can you and your child use the year ahead to plan and prepare effectively?

1. Build subject mastery

The majority of 11 plus entrance exams for independent and grammar schools assess children’s understanding of the Key Stage 2 core curriculum (English and maths). It’s important that your child is comfortable with all the topics they have studied in these subjects up to the end of Year 5, so use the year ahead to help them master the topics they find more challenging.

Many exam boards and individual schools also include tests which measure candidates’ logical skills and reasoning ability, such as:

  • Verbal reasoning
  • Non-verbal reasoning
  • Numerical reasoning
  • Spatial reasoning

Caption: An example of a non-verbal reasoning question that appears on 11 plus exams

As these subjects are not taught in primary school, home learning is key to ensuring that your child becomes familiar with the types of questions and how to answer them successfully. Use a scaffolded approach when introducing your child to new content: starting with easier questions and gradually building up the difficulty. This way, your child will naturally develop their problem-solving and independent learning skills, while maintaining focus and motivation.

We have built our online exam preparation platform, Atom Nucleus, on a scaffolded approach. Students are shown questions that match their current performance level, with the content becoming more challenging as they answer questions correctly. This means that unlike paper workbooks, your child will learn how to answer exam-style questions at a pace and level that is tailored to their unique learning style.

2. Read widely

In Key Stage 2 English, children are tested on the extent of their vocabulary and the accuracy of their spelling, punctuation and grammar (commonly abbreviated as SPaG). These skills are therefore essential for success in 11 plus exams; they will almost certainly be tested in English comprehension, creative writing, and verbal reasoning tests.

Beyond school English lessons, the best way for your child to develop literacy skills is by reading regularly and reading widely. Reading a variety of different genres and resources (e.g. fiction and non-fiction books, magazines, news articles and more) has a huge range of benefits for your child’s exam preparation, including:

  • expanding English language vocabulary
  • improving spelling, grammar and punctuation
  • building critical analysis and reading comprehension skills
  • developing imagination
  • improving concentration
  • increasing reading speed

Top tip: Encourage your child to keep a vocabulary log throughout the next year. For each new word they encounter, they should write it in the log alongside its definition. Each month, test your child on their spelling and accuracy of their vocabulary based on the words they have collected in their log.

3. Practice exam techniques

For many children, the 11 plus will be the first time they have taken a timed test under exam conditions. If your child is taking the 11 plus in 2023, use the next 12 months wisely to help them develop the exam techniques needed to succeed on the big day.

Practice papers are the best way for pupils to learn and improve their exam techniques. Once your child has mastered the curriculum, they can put their knowledge to the test by taking timed practice papers under exam conditions (or as closely as you can replicate at home!).
Ideally, set your child one or two practice tests each month throughout Year 5, then building up to one or two per week in the six weeks before their exam. Your child will gradually develop essential time-management skills and they will naturally encounter a range of challenging exam questions, helping them build the confidence to tackle unseen questions on the test day.

Through Atom Nucleus, we provide unlimited online mock tests that replicate 11 plus exams for both independent and grammar schools. Each test is instantly and automatically marked, so you can help your child identify strengths and areas that may need further revision.

4. Consider tuition

While tuition is not necessarily a requirement for success in the 11 plus, some children may benefit from the one-to-one support private tutors can offer. If your child is preparing for a particularly competitive school, a professional tutor may be able to support with preparation for less common tests (such as critical analysis) and independent school interviews.

Alternatively, if your child is struggling to understand particular concepts that you know they will be tested on, or if they are finding it difficult to work through exam questions at the right pace, they may benefit from the support of a private tutor. Whereas school classes are taught at the pace of the average pupil, one-to-one private tutoring lessons are focused purely on your child’s unique learning ability to help accelerate their learning pace and deepen their academic understanding.

Every year, The Golden Circle prepares students for 11+ exams at top independent and grammar schools. To optimise results, we run initial assessments to identify a child’s strengths and areas for development. We send parents weekly feedback on their child’s progress, as they work towards their exam goals.

Top tip: Encourage your child to keep a vocabulary log throughout the next year. For each new word they encounter, they should write it in the log alongside its definition. Each month, test your child on their spelling and accuracy of their vocabulary based on the words they have collected in their log.

5. Praise progress, not just results

11 plus exam preparation is a marathon, not a sprint – and motivation is key to maintaining momentum over the coming year. Help your child stay motivated for the 11 plus exam by celebrating their ongoing progress, not just their results from practice questions and tests.

Receiving praise for their progress demonstrates to children that they have the potential to keep on improving their abilities by continuing to apply effort, helping them develop a growth mindset. Receiving praise only for good results may boost your child’s self-esteem in the short term, but it conveys a fixed mindset (the belief that intelligence is fixed and cannot be learnt).

Caption: Rewarding steady progress in bitesize chunks helps to keep motivation high

By regularly praising your child’s progress, your child will naturally apply more effort to their learning, develop the resilience needed to embrace new challenges, and ultimately find joy in learning for the long term.


Atom Nucleus is an online education platform designed to help children aged 7–11 prepare for the 11 plus and independent school exams, and build knowledge and confidence in core subjects. Atom combines engaging, teacher-designed learning resources, practice questions and mock tests with smart technology that keeps your child on their ideal learning pathway.

You can start a five day free trial of Atom Nucleus here, and get 10% off your first payment with our code GOLDEN10.