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The ultimate 11 plus guide

May 31, 2024, 2:50 PM

Female teacher watching children in a classroom doing an exam

Are you considering a grammar school for your child? Whether you’ve got a particular school in mind or you're starting to research options, we're here to help you confidently navigate the 11 plus.

Atom Learning has helped 75,000 children prepare for entrance exams. Keep reading to learn:

  • what the 11 plus involves

  • about different 11 plus exam boards and the subjects tested

  • types of 11 plus questions

  • how 11 plus exams are scored

  • key steps for 11 plus preparation

What is the purpose of the 11 plus?

The 11 plus (11+) is an entrance exam used by grammar schools. These are state-funded secondary schools in England which admit pupils based on academic ability. Children take the 11 plus in autumn in Year 6 to apply for a place at a grammar school in Year 7.

The 11 plus aims to test your child's attainment in core subjects and identify their academic potential. Schools use the results to decide which children are likely to thrive in their environment.

Private senior school entrance exams are sometimes also referred to as the 11 plus. Although similar subjects are tested, the application process and the level of difficulty varies. This article focuses on grammar school exams.

Watch the video below for a brief overview of the 11 plus from Chloe at Atom Learning.

11 plus overview

What subjects are on the 11 plus?

Standard 11 plus exams typically assess any of the following four subjects:

Not all schools or regions choose to use all four subjects. Schools can combine any of the papers with their own test content.

11 plus English and maths tests cover Key Stage 2 national curriculum objectives. This sometimes includes Year 6 level content that children have not yet encountered at school.

Verbal and non-verbal reasoning are not taught on the national curriculum. This means that children attending state primary schools will not usually learn these subjects at school. Rather than testing learned knowledge, reasoning tests cognitive ability. It assesses children's ability to think critically or abstractly to understand patterns, spot connections and solve problems.

What is the format of the 11 plus?

The 11 plus is usually taken on paper. Most 11 plus exams are multiple-choice. In these types of exam, children have a separate question booklet and pre-printed answer sheets. Children shade in the answer option they think is correct on their answer sheet. This is then marked on a computer using Optical Mark Recognition (OMR).

What are the main 11 plus exam boards?

Most grammar schools in England use 11 plus exams provided by these exam boards:

  • GL Assessment: the most common 11 plus provider. GL Assessment exams are entirely multiple-choice and test any combination of English, maths, verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning.

  • FSCE: a smaller 11 plus provider used by a handful of grammar schools. FSCE 11 plus exams consist of an English comprehension, maths, and creative writing paper. They do not test reasoning.

Some schools or regions have their own bespoke exams. For example, 10 grammar schools in Essex use an exam set by the Consortium of Selective Schools in Essex (CSSE), which creates its own 11 plus papers.

How many questions are on the 11 plus?

The number of questions and the timings are decided by the local authority, consortium, or school itself. Some schools also combine multiple subjects into a single paper.

The most common arrangement in GL Assessment 11 plus papers is:

  • English: 25 reading comprehension questions and 8–10 spelling, punctuation and grammar questions

  • Maths: 50 questions

  • Verbal reasoning: 80 questions

  • Non-verbal reasoning: 80 questions

Free 11+ course

Help your child prepare for the 11 plus with Atom's free 11 plus course!

Learn how to tackle questions in English, maths, verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning and get four free 11 plus papers sent straight to your inbox.

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Verbal reasoning paper

11 plus exam subjects in detail


11 plus English exams test your child’s language skills in a variety of ways. They usually include a reading comprehension section and questions which assess spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

Reading comprehension

In the reading comprehension section, your child will see a text. This could be fiction, non-fiction or poetry, and can be traditional or contemporary. Your child will need to read the text carefully and answer questions to assess skills such as:

  • their literal understanding of the text

  • their ability to infer implied meaning

  • how well they can deduce information

  • their ability to understand vocabulary in context

Reading widely for fun, across many genres and eras, is a helpful way to prepare for this section. This will help your child to build familiarity with a broad vocabulary.

A reading comprehension question on a GL Assessment 11 plus mock test on Atom Home

(All example questions shown in this article are from 11 plus mock tests on Atom Home)

Spelling, punctuation and grammar

Next up are questions which assess your child's knowledge of spelling, punctuation, grammar, vocabulary and word meaning. There are generally two types of question formats:

  • Complete the sentence

  • Spot the mistake

For example, your child might need to spot which part of a sentence contains a spelling, punctuation, or grammatical error.

An English question on a GL Assessment 11 plus mock test on Atom Home

Creative writing

Most 11 plus exams don't test creative writing. However, some schools add their own creative writing paper. This might be used in 'borderline cases' (such as when deciding between two candidates who achieved the same score in the main exam papers).

11 plus creative writing tests usually last around 30–45 minutes. Your child might have an imaginary scenario which they need to write about. Examiners are looking for correct grammar and punctuation, a clear structure with paragraphs, and descriptive and figurative language.

Explore the free resources below to learn more about how to help your child build skills and knowledge to excel in 11 plus English.


11 plus maths assesses your child's knowledge of Key Stage 2 national curriculum content. They need to show their ability to reason and apply this knowledge accurately.

Overall, the two skills that parents should treat as the highest priority for 11 plus maths preparation are number fluency and numerical reasoning.

  • Number fluency: practice mental calculations, order of operations, and understanding fractions, decimals and percentages

  • Numerical reasoning: practice understanding what is being asked in a question: translating worded problems into maths sums, and interpreting data and graphs

Strong number fluency means:

  • Knowing multiplication tables and division facts

  • Being able to confidently perform mental calculations with the four operations (+ - x ÷ )

  • Understanding place value when working with larger numbers up to a million and with decimals

As well as having number fluency, your child will need to understand the key concepts in all other areas of Key Stage 2 maths:

  • Data

  • Geometry

  • Measurement

  • Ratio and proportion

  • Algebra

Number fluency questions come up most often. There tends to be about five number questions for every question on the other topics.

11 plus maths questions are usually in a multiple-choice format. They occasionally have a small standard format box for a written answer, but this is uncommon as most are marked by computer.

A multiplication question on a GL Assessment 11 plus maths mock test on Atom Home

Some worded problems are included, for example:

A reasoning question on a GL Assessment 11 plus maths mock test on Atom Home

Verbal reasoning

11 plus verbal reasoning tests your child’s ability to connect, spot patterns with, and manipulate written information. Verbal reasoning relies on a broad vocabulary base and understanding of word meanings. It can identify pupils whose strengths lie in English, history, languages and the arts.

11 plus verbal reasoning tests skills such as:

  • logical thinking

  • problem-solving

  • spotting patterns and rules

  • understanding word meaning

  • spelling

  • working systemically

Having a wide vocabulary is helpful for this exam. Many questions rely on knowledge of synonyms (such as the example shown below) and antonyms.

A synonyms question on a GL Assessment 11 plus verbal reasoning mock test on Atom Home

A sequences question on a GL Assessment verbal reasoning mock test on Atom Home

Some people claim that reasoning exams can't be prepared for, but this is not true. Children who are familiar with reasoning questions are at an advantage in the exam. Children are unlikely to have seen reasoning questions at primary school. Coming across them for the first time in the exam room can mean losing valuable time trying to understand what the questions are asking them, rather than answering them to the best of their ability.

Introduction to verbal reasoning from Anna, Chief Learning Officer at Atom

We recommend your child practises with all types of verbal reasoning questions so they have the best chance of answering quickly and accurately on exam day. Regular practice can also help train the brain to identify patterns and solve problems quickly. Here are the question types that often appear on the 11 plus. These are all available to practise on Atom Home!

Finding words

  • Jumbled words

  • Anagrams

  • Hidden words


  • Synonyms

  • Antonyms

  • Odd ones out

  • Spot the connection

  • Homonyms

Building words

  • Join the words

  • Transfer a letter

  • Morph the word

  • Missing letters


  • Statement logic

  • Deductions

Codes and sequences

  • Letter, number and symbol codes

  • Letter and number sequences

Non-verbal reasoning

11 plus non-verbal reasoning assesses your child's ability to problem-solve using visual information. The test looks at spatial skills, aptitude, and the ability to think logically and recognise patterns. It can identify pupils with strengths in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths).

Non-verbal reasoning questions are similar to what you might come across in an IQ test. These include shapes and patterns that need to be continued or grouped, and rule-finding exercises.

A non-verbal reasoning question on a GL Assessment 11 plus mock test on Atom Home

A non-verbal reasoning question on a GL Assessment 11 plus mock test on Atom Home

The most important thing when trying to crack the code or pattern in a non-verbal reasoning test is to pay attention to every image and shape provided. Placement of dots, angles, lines, shading, rotation: everything is significant!

11 plus non-verbal reasoning papers often contain 80 questions, split into four sections of 20 questions each. These sections are separately timed, meaning children must stop when told, before moving to the next section at the same time as everyone else.

Anna introduces non-verbal reasoning

As with verbal reasoning, the key to success is practice, so your child isn't surprised and confused when they see them on exam day. Here are the question styles that are likely to appear. Your child can practise all of these on Atom Home.

Interpreting shapes

  • Odd one out

  • Matching groups

  • Matrices

  • Find a code

Manipulating shapes

  • Parts within a shape

  • Rotations and reflections

  • Nets and cubes

  • Combining 3D shapes

  • 3D shapes from above

Don’t be disheartened if your child struggles to understand or decipher non-verbal reasoning questions when they first try them. These are new and unfamiliar skills!

It's best to start practising little and often – ideally at least a year before the 11 plus. This will help your child steadily build skills and confidence to solve problems quickly and correctly.

11 plus FAQs

How is the 11 plus scored?

First, the 11 plus answer sheets are marked, usually by computer. Your child's marks for each paper are added together to create a raw score.

Next, your child's raw scores are converted into standardised age scores. This is a statistical process that takes into account your child's age in years and months at the time they took the test. Standardisation ensures that children born later in the school year (such as July and August) aren't disadvantaged by their age. Find out more about how age standardisation works.

Finally, your child's standardised scores for each paper are added together to create their total standardised score. This is the final score used by grammar schools to decide which children to offer places to.

Children whose standardised score places them within the top 25% of those taking the test are usually well-placed for grammar school.

What is the pass mark for the 11 plus?

There is no single pass mark for the 11 plus. Every school or consortium has its own admissions criteria and decides on the cut-off mark. This is sometimes not set until after the exam has taken place, as it can depend on how many children took the exam in particular year.

We can provide estimates for your target schools – please email us at [email protected] stating the schools you're interested in.

If your child is regularly achieving an 80% pass mark in practice tests, they stand a good chance of being considered for the grammar school of their choice. When your child takes Atom mock tests, you'll see lots of useful data on their performance, including their standardised age score, average time per question, and ability in each subtopic.

A child's GL Assessment 11 plus maths mock test breakdown on Atom Home

Is the 11 plus hard?

In short, yes. The 11 plus is designed to test children’s potential to thrive in an academically-demanding environment. The test is meant to challenge children working at the top of their year group. Some questions might cover content your child hasn't learned at school.

Having the right tools and support and starting preparation early can help the 11 plus feel less daunting.

How many children fail the 11 plus?

Grammar schools only have a specific number of places in Year 7. The 11 plus is used to identify the children with the highest academic performance and potential. Unfortunately, this means that most children – usually at least 75% of those taking the test – are not offered a place.

Should my child take the 11 plus?

It's entirely up to you and your child. The most important thing is that your child goes to a school where they are happy and can thrive. This is not the same for all children. Before deciding whether to apply to a grammar school, it might be helpful to consider these points:

  • Do your child's school reports say that they're 'exceeding expectations'?

  • Are your child's results in English and maths above average?

  • Will your child need a large amount of tutoring to pass the exam? If so, will they be able to keep up with the expectations of their target school?

Your child's class teacher will be able to help with answers to these questions. They will also be able to give you an idea of whether they think passing the 11 plus is achievable for your child, and where their strengths and challenges are.

When should my child start 11 plus preparation?

Starting preparation as early as realistically possible is always best for the 11 plus. There's lots of content to learn, and if your child's exam tests verbal and/or non-verbal reasoning, you'll want to give them time to get familiar with these types of questions.

We recommend starting preparation by the end of Year 4. Practising in bitesize chunks – such as 20 minutes a day – can help minimise stress and pressure.

Free resource

Your 11 plus learning plan

Not sure where to start with 11 plus preparation? Let us be your guide with this free learning plan. This personalised plan gives you an idea of what to focus on in every term leading up to your child's exam!

Download now!

The grammar school application process

If you would like your child to go to a grammar school, you'll need to start the application process earlier than non-selective schools.

Autumn/winter in Year 5

By the Christmas holidays in Year 5, you should have an idea of the schools you would like to shortlist. Explore our guide to grammar schools in your local area. Visiting lots of schools – selective and non-selective – is important to help you get an idea of what sort of school is best for your child.

Most local councils let you list 3–6 schools on your child's secondary school application form. You should have at least one back-up alternative in case your child does not get a place at their first-choice school.

Spring/summer in Year 5

Grammar schools open 11 plus registration in the spring and summer terms of Year 5. Your child must be registered for the exam, so make sure not to miss the deadline. Find out more about 11 plus dates in your area.

September/October in Year 6

11 plus exams take place in the autumn term (usually September) in Year 6. The exam might be held at your child's primary school during a school day, or at a test centre (such as a grammar school) on a Saturday.

October in Year 6

In mid-October, you will receive your child's results. You might not get a full breakdown of your child's scores, but more an indication of whether their results make them eligible or not eligible for a place at your target school.

You will receive the results before the application deadline for applying to secondary schools. The deadline for submitting your secondary school common application form is usually 31st October in Year 6.

March in Year 6

National Offers Day is at the start of March (usually the first Monday of the month). This is when all children applying to state secondary schools find out which school they have been allocated a place at.

Your child will be allocated a place at your highest-ranked school for which they meet the entrance criteria, and for which there are places available. If none of your preferred schools can offer your child a place, they will be offered a place at the nearest school to your home with space available.

Top tips for 11 plus preparation

11 plus preparation is a marathon, not a sprint! Here are our top tips to help you manage your child's preparation so they feel confident on exam day.

Build knowledge

It can be tempting to jump straight into practice papers to prepare for 11+ exams. However, this is not an effective way to learn and can cause children to feel demotivated.

Your child should have a good understanding of Year 6 content before testing their knowledge with practice papers. Using a ‘little and often’ approach when recapping content is key, as our brains encode new information more effectively when dealing with smaller ‘chunks’ of information. Experts recommend study sessions should last no longer than 30 minutes for children aged 10–11.

When you enter your target schools on Atom Home, you'll get a complete tailored learning plan for your child to work through. Each week, they'll get activities tailored to the topics they need to know for the exam. These activities are adaptive, so your child will see questions at just the right level of difficulty to keep them motivated.

Sarah's exam prep plan on Atom Home

Read widely

In 11 plus English and verbal reasoning, your child will need to analyse and interpret written information. Regular reading at home is a great way to help your child build these skills.

Encourage your child to read books from different genres and by a diverse range of authors. Increasing the variety of your child’s reading will help them understand different styles, tones and purposes. Meanwhile, reading a little every day will help widen their vocabulary, sharpen their analytical thinking, and enhance their imagination.

Looking for reading inspiration? Check out our Key Stage 2 reading list.

Refine exam technique

When your child feels confident with the topics they’ve learnt in Year 5, they’ll be ready to put their knowledge to the test.

Practice tests can help your child develop problem-solving skills and build confidence working under test conditions. They’re also a great way to consolidate learning and highlight knowledge gaps for further improvement.

With Atom Home, you'll unlock online mock tests and printable practice papers. Enjoy automatic marking and progress tracking with the online tests, and help your child get familiar with the real exam experience with printable practice papers.

Sarah's mock tests page on Atom Home

Celebrate progress

Setting regular, achievable goals and celebrating your child’s progress – no matter how big or small – will help keep their motivation high.

Make sure to encourage a growth mindset. This means celebrating effort, as well as achievement! When your child makes mistakes or struggles to understand a particular topic, help them understand that they have the ability to improve through practice. Regular praise will help your child improve their resilience when tackling new and challenging topics.

Tailored preparation for the 11 plus

Wish you could give your child a roadmap to success in the 11 plus? You can. Atom Home has everything you need to get prepared, in one package.

You don't need a tutor to get into your top-choice school. You just need Atom. We’ll create a tailored plan for your child and support them along their fun revision journey.

Plus, we've helped over 91% of Atom kids get into their top-choice school.

  • Weekly learning plans for your target school

  • Online and printable practice papers

  • 90,000+ adaptive questions

  • 500+ hours of on-demand video lessons

  • Automatic marking and instant progress data

Navigate the 11 plus with confidence.

Start your free trial today. We'll get to work on your child’s plan. Relax, 11 plus prep is sorted.

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Georgie's weekly exam prep plan on Atom Home

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