Susie Dent, resident of Countdown’s dictionary corner, estimates that the average adult English speaker has an active vocabulary of 20,000 words, and a passive vocabulary of 40,000 words. Parents may feel this is an underestimate, given how many Pokémon-type creatures their children expect them to be familiar with. Indeed, our vocabulary continues to develop throughout our lifetimes, and we learn around one new word per day – even if this word is ‘Pikachu’.

The bulk of our word catalogue is built rapidly during childhood. By age five, a child will recognise around 10,000 words; a year later, 14,000. A wide and varied vocabulary is useful for many reasons, but when children are preparing for the 11+ it is crucial. The exam demands children spell and define words that many adults would find tricky, including homophones, homonyms and vocabulary found in classical texts. They are expected to draw analogies between words, group related words and identify synonyms and antonyms. The more expansive a child’s vocabulary, the greater their chances of success.

Building vocabulary for the 11+ exam

Whilst learning words seems simple enough, it can be an unwieldy task that leaves you and your child feeling overwhelmed. Vocabulary grows through exposure, and it can take several encounters with a new word to memorise it. Frustration, fatigue and time pressure complicate this process. Thus despite being key to successful exam preparation, vocabulary development often takes a back seat to revision that feels more rewarding.

What is the solution?

The answer is to enhance the quality of vocabulary exposure. Encounters with new words should be meaningful and memorable. The strategies below are all helpful ways to expand word knowledge, and they work particularly well when used in combination.

  • Read and record: Choose a book that you feel will challenge your child and read it together. Each time your child asks you the meaning of a word, support them in working out the definition from the context. Create a glossary of these words for your child to refer to, and revisit them whenever possible. A fun way to do this is to play a game as a family – put up a list of words to be learned, and award points each time somebody uses them correctly in conversation.

  • Use visualisation: To help with embedding spellings, ask your child to close their eyes and picture the word written on a board. Can they read the word forwards? How about backwards? When learning definitions, have them draw a picture that represents the meaning of the word and take a ‘mental photograph’. Visualisation is especially helpful for learning words that can be used in more than one sense.

  • Indulge in word play: Since dopamine aids knowledge retention, it is true that if you are laughing, you are learning. Creating puns, poems and mnemonics (the sillier the better!) are all fun and effective ways to make words memorable. So too are word-based board games, like Scrabble, Apples to Apples and Wordsmithery.

Experiment with the above strategies, see what works best for your child and remember to revisit new vocabulary frequently to help retention. You might also like to keep these ideas in mind to help you when the next cartoon creature craze takes over your child’s school!

Need a little help? Flying Start Tuition is an award-winning tuition centre offering classes for children from year one through to GCSEs, including their popular Eleven Plus programmes.  Classes run throughout the year at their main centre in Chesham and at their five satellite centres in Amersham, Aylesbury, Berkhamsted, Jordans Village and Little Chalfont.

Flying Start are Ofsted registered and accept Childcare Vouchers and Tax-Free Childcare.  Bursaries are also available – please ask for details.

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