Let’s face it – preparation for entrance exams at 11+ is stressful, both for children and parents. Between the two, it is the child’s stress that needs to be avoided as much as possible if the preparation is to be effective. Yes, a bit of stress is a good motivating factor for grown-ups, but I’m not sure to what extent the same rule applies to children. I am not a psychologist, but from mere observation of my own children, stress tends to overwhelm and de-motivate them, so I’m trying to keep things as relaxed s possible. What is the point in having a 10-year-old stressed out to the point of burning-out? And yet, this is what happens to some children who are pushed to the limit.
How much preparation is needed for 11+?
I have recently come across a website of a tutor (thetutoress.com) who advises that children should start preparing for the exams two years beforehand in order to ‘optimise their chances’ of passing the exam. She states that the children who are hoping to gain a place at a selective school, should be one or two years above their age group in terms of their academic ability. This implies that a 9-year-old should be reading books aimed at 10-11 years old and study maths at a level of a first year of secondary school. This is a pretty tall order, if you ask me, but may be doable if a child is exceptionally bright. However, the same tutor goes on to say that children don’t have to be exceptionally smart to get into a top selective school and that it is all down to preparation and hard work.
She writes in one of her downloadable books that children in year 4 and above (i.e. from 8-9 years old) should spend at least an hour a day to prepare for their 11+ exams. I’m not sure whether this is to include weekends or not, but it is a lot anyway. To put this in context, my son had two pieces of homework from school in year 4, one maths and one English, and that usually took about half an hour each to complete, plus a degree of whingeing about it. Can you imagine asking an 8-year-old to put up with an additional one hour of work every single day? I can’t.
Trying not to overdo it…
It is true that the 11+ exams are extremely competitive, and based on the examples of past test papers available on-line, the types of questions included both in English and maths – and maths especially – are very different from what children do in an average primary school. Some maths questions are challenging even for parents who still remember their maths.
Last week, I looked at a maths paper which had a few quite ridiculous questions in it – they took me about 10 minutes each to figure out and I am quite good at maths. How is a 10-year-old to answer 50 questions in 50 minutes? Most of the children probably won’t.
There certainly is a need for a fair bit of additional work to get through the selective entrance exams, but I would never spend two years doing it, it just seems way too much. It would most likely drive me insane and put my son off from studying for years to come.
What is my approach? you might ask. First of all, we started from September of year 5, quite gently, no more than half and hour once or twice a week, to get used to additional work. We now try to do some work on most days, but not every day. My son has basketball practice twice a week (which he wouldn’t miss for the world) and by the time we get home, he is too tired to do any studying. He has his school homework to do and he needs time to play or simply chill out and do nothing.
… and keeping it flexible
A lot of people suggest having a fixed time-table for 11+ work at home, but I don’t like the idea, I prefer to take each day as it comes and gauge from my son’s behaviour how much he can cope with on any given day. For example, if he seems tired, there is no point in asking him to do any maths work, but we may read a book together for a bit and talk about it, which helps comprehension skills.
On a good day, I would ask him to do 4-6 pages from his maths or English workbooks for 9-11 year olds, check his answers and explain the things he got wrong. I try not to show disappointment when he makes silly mistakes, but offer loads of praise for everything he gets right.
If he doesn’t feel like writing long answers, we go through questions verbally and sometimes even cover more material that way. Closer to the summer, I am planning to start giving my son 11+ test papers to do in order to practice exam technique.
Sometimes we have unplanned days off, like last Thursday when my son’s friend invited him for a play date after school, and I let him do that instead of 11+ revision. However important exam preparations are, 9 and 10-year-olds are still young children and there is only so much they can cope with without feeling overwhelmed and getting upset. Upset children don’t make good learners, so striking the right balance is crucial.
What are your tips for a stress-free and effective selective school exam preparation? Please share your thoughts in the comments box, I am always on a lookout for new ideas!