Working on a child's "core skills" will benefit them in all areas of their academic career. Having a strong foundation in arithmetic, reasoning, vocabulary and general knowledge will give them confidence, as well as a greater ability to tackle work which may be unfamiliar to them. Of course, these things are also incredibly useful for tests such as the 11+, SATs or Common Entrance but, in my view, these skills should be seen as essential for every child rather than something to focus on purely for the purpose of passing an exam.
This list was originally compiled in order to help people who were thinking of preparing their children for 11+ or Common Entrance exams, but the content is relevant and useful for any parent.
Below are some ideas of things you can do with Key Stage 2 children which will start strengthening the core skills, and may also highlight areas which may need more attention as time goes on. Everyone has natural strengths and weaknesses, and it can be incredibly useful to understand in advance where your child excels and where they may need more support. Don’t panic though! These are all meant to be fun, family activities, and it’s vital that you don’t present them as work or any kind of exam preparation. These activities will all help to build the mental muscles they’ll need for good core skills, but the kids don’t need to know that!
Spatial and Non-Verbal Reasoning - Exposure and practice makes a huge difference
Part of the reason these topics are daunting when children first see them in the 11+ is that there is little ‘real life’ experience which will prepare them for the way the questions are presented. In order to start building these skills, you may find it easier to turn to games such as the ones below.
IQ Puzzler Pro (also included in our special edition Puzzles box, which is sent in the summer holidays)
General Knowledge and Vocabulary
These skills are vital for many areas of the curriculum, but are especially important for Verbal Reasoning, reading and comprehension. These subjects are vast - neverending in fact! - and so should really be thought of as part of your daily routine. Try to fill your child with as much general knowledge and vocabulary as you possibly can - they can never have too much!
Take the time to teach your children the names of fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, animals (male, female, baby, group name, habitat etc), countries, cities, flowers, sports… ANYTHING you can think of! Schools don’t have time to teach this stuff any more and you’d be AMAZED at the gaps I’ve seen in children’s knowledge.
Don’t be afraid to use the internet, dictionaries and reference books in front of your child. They don’t expect you to know everything, and showing them how to find information is just as important as imparting it to them. By helping them to find the answers to questions, you are empowering them and encouraging their natural curiosity.
One book which we always had to hand during 11+ tuition sessions was the First Aid in English. Recently re-released, and much prettier for it, it’s packed full of vocabulary and general knowledge exercises which will really get your child thinking. Some of the exercises are quite tricky, so you’ll need to work through it with your child to ensure they’re not out of their depth.
You can also get the answer book to make your life easier!
If you want something more interactive, the games below are great for building general knowledge and vocabulary…
Scattergories: Great for general knowledge, but also for working under pressure!
BrainBox games: Again, great for general knowledge and also for observational skills and working under pressure. Choose the subjects carefully though - we like Animal Families, Animals, Nature, The World, Cities of the World, Science, Maths and English.
Chuckra Cards: Designed by 11+ tutors, there are some good vocabulary words on these cards. The games are a little dry but the skills they promote are perfect for the 11+ exam.
This MindSnacks app is great for building vocabulary and will appeal to children who will do anything for some extra screen time! With nine different game types, this app explores vocabulary from all different angles - including spelling, using words in context and categorisation.
Working Under Pressure
Many exams and tests require children to work at high speed, and with incredible accuracy. Often, students will know the answers but will be unable to complete a paper in the time given without lots of practice. Others will make silly mistakes because of the time pressure so, although they may finish easily, they are unlikely to get a score which reflects their true ability. Anything you can do to help your child keep cool under pressure will help them succeed in all areas of life, and this can start at quite an early age.
Any game or app which involves a countdown timer will help your child to practise this skill, so you can find anything which takes their fancy. We particularly like this Time shock game which is included in our Midwinter box. The ticking on this little blighter is enough to send anyone into a panic! And it’s also great for spatial reasoning:
Dobble is also a great game for working at speed and under pressure. Players have to race to spot the matching symbol on two cards. Suitable for a wide range of ages, portable, quick to play and great fun - definitely worth a look!
Unfortunately, there aren’t many ‘magic tricks’ which make mental maths fun. Practice is the key, as you’ll have no doubt heard plenty of times from your own childhood! This is one area where apps and games can be really helpful.
For a bit of a storyline, and practice in the four basic operations, it’s worth taking a look at the Mystery Math Town app. Unfortunately, this is only available on iOS, but if you have access to an iPhone or iPad it’s a good one to start with. The difficulty level is customisable, it looks beautiful and engaging and the ‘equation’ style questions are great for 11+ or Common Entrance practice.
The other apps which were always a hit with my students were from the Squeebles bundle. The brand made their name with a times tables app, but have now extended the range to a whole host of maths and literacy games. Kids are spurred on to complete challenges using the back story of rescuing cute little Squeebles from the Maths Monster. I found that, although the games themselves were relatively bland, the rescue mission and ‘completionist’ element was enough to get most kids playing regularly. The games are available on iOS, Android and Kindle Fire so hopefully available to a wide audience.
Sometimes your child will need to use the facts in front of them to slowly work their way to an answer. Brainteasers and mathematical word problems are a great way to get them thinking in this way. Games like Sudoku and Hangman are also very helpful. As are Criss-Cross (or Word Fit) puzzles, where you have to fit given words into a crossword-style grid using the length of words and available letters rather than clues; or Code Cracker puzzles where you have to use your understanding of spelling and letter frequency to work out which letters are represented by the numbers given.
Most puzzle books will have some of these, and there are a few websites which have free versions for you to have a go at, or which will allow you to make your own. We also have some in our Sleuth booklets.
Mastermind game: An oldie, but a goodie. This game promotes calm, logical thinking as well as working on memory skills and attention to detail.
Depending on your child’s level, you may find that they’re not quite ready for formal comprehension practice. If that’s the case, take a look at the post for activities for younger children and read through the comprehension advice there. All of that is relevant to older children too - it just depends on the individual.
If you think they’re ready for some more formal practice, take a look at the books below to get you started. There’s also some advice on the excellent Eleven Plus Exams website.
The Bond 11+ Range has a huge number of books in various styles and ability levels so they're definitely worth a look. I always recommended starting at the age level below your child's, in order to build confidence and momentum.
There’s a wide range of English Comprehension practice books available on the Eleven Plus Exams site too - useful for everyone, not just for those sitting the 11+.
These are just some suggestions - the possibilities are endless but, hopefully, these ideas will give a good foundation if you want to start doing some informal bits which you know will be useful later on. It is REALLY important that this all stays FUN though! Children learn much more effectively if they’re enjoying themselves and these games should just be seen as another way to spend time with them. The aim is not to prepare them for an exam, but rather to harness their natural curiosity and have fun. If you also manage to teach them a few skills which will be valuable throughout their life, that’s a really wonderful bonus.
Oh, and of course, all of our boxes and mini-packs are designed to work on core skills so do take a look at them before you go :0)