Back to blog

Tutor Leonard shares top tips for reasoning

By Leonard | Jun 21, 2023, 8:26 AM


Introducing your child to verbal and non-verbal reasoning

Have you ever been trying to explain what appears to be the simplest thing to a child and they look at you with a blank stare? As if you had just been introducing quantum mechanics to a wheelbarrow?  You may be asking yourself, "why won't you listen to me?" or "Am I doing this wrong?" If the child is under eleven, then there's a good chance that neither you nor the child are doing anything wrong. The blank stare is an entirely appropriate developmental response.

Teach for understanding rather than recollection

In all teaching, we have a choice to make when we introduce a new topic or area. In maths, for example, we can have a child learn their times tables and rattle them off on cue as though they were a song. Or, we can teach them how multiplication works. Learning them by rote is not without its merits, but no child, no matter how brilliant, can remember ALL of the possible tables into infinity. So, better to teach them how multiplication works. Teaching for understanding rather than recollection.

Teaching for understanding is never more important than in the area of reasoning and for children aged from about 7 to 11, this can be one of the most challenging tasks. You see, some children have simply not yet developed the cognitive ability to function in the realm of abstract reasoning.

Why is it challenging for children to grasp reasoning?

Jean Piaget, a prominent educational psychologist developed the theory of the 4 developmental stages of cognitive development in children. Though an exploration of his work is beyond the scope of this article, being aware of a portion of it may deliver you from untold frustration when it comes to teaching reasoning to children. 

From about the age of seven, children enter Piaget's Concrete Operational stage. As the name suggests, they see and understand things in a concrete manner. "If I tip the glass over, the water will spill from it." or "A car is much harder than a football." I'm reminded of a puzzle that amazed my social circle at the age of 8 "which is heavier, a ton of lead or a ton of feathers?" 

This is a good example of the level at which we function in the concrete operational stage. So, to try to get such a primal brain to see beyond the "feathers are light, lead is heavy", we need to create bridges for our children. Bridges that close the gap and allow them to transition onto the next level: The Formal Operational stage.

The formal operational stage begins at around 11 years of age. This presents a challenge for many, as the 11+ exams tend to straddle this transition for many children. Thus, some children might excel at non-verbal reasoning because they are a few months ahead developmentally, or  simply born a few months earlier.

What can you do to help your child understand reasoning?

Here are a few things that you can try to help your child make that transition and they all begin with encouraging your child to move outside of the concrete. 

Engage their imagination

Asking them to describe something that doesn't exist in reality is always a fun way to engage the abstract. For example, ask your child to describe an animal that survives by eating cars. They will take their concrete knowledge of various animal’s characteristics and select those (or exaggerate) that can bite through or pick up a heavy, speeding car.

Ask them to define abstract words

This is a great game for adults too. Start with a simple question like "apple". Most children can explain what an apple is, but then try to explain the word "tasty". It's not as easy as you might think and really gets the brain going in an effort to associate one idea with a group of simpler, more concrete ideas.

Get creative with non-verbal reasoning techniques

In the case of non-verbal reasoning, it's not enough to simply practice questions. Have your child draw the shapes or nets, or create their own patterns.

Give your child time figure it out on their own

Through all of these types of exercises it is important that you don't intervene too much. Allow your child the time to process. This may lead to complete silence for several minutes while the child's brain is making the connections. This is part of the transition. If you jump in with a suggestion or comment at the wrong point, you run the risk of setting them back to the beginning of the problem.

How can you improve your child's reasoning skills?

In truth, reasoning or critical thinking is not a skill that can be taught in a single session. To see your child excel in this area requires taking the opportunity to talk, discuss, and explore the world around you on a daily basis. Multiplication can be learned in 10 minutes. Reasoning is more like training for a marathon. It takes daily input.

The next time you are sitting at the dinner table with your child, explore a ridiculous question with them. Something like: what would the world be like if all cars had only two wheels?

Leonard is a retired teacher with many years experience in the secondary, community, and University education sectors. He was a member of the teaching staff at the University of Limerick where he taught on the Education Technology honours degree and postgraduate teacher training programmes.

Find the perfect tutor with Atom Tuition

At Atom, we have a hassle-free service to help you find a tutor. Our team of dedicated client managers will talk to you about your child and their needs, matching you with the perfect tutor to help your child achieve their full potential and boost confidence for their education and beyond.

One-to-one private tuition with Atom is available for Key Stage 2 core subjects (English, maths and science) and preparation for selective secondary schools. You’ll get:

  • A uniquely personalised and data-driven tutoring service

  • A carefully-selected tutor who has undergone enhanced DBS checks and has a proven track record for success

  • Weekly reporting and termly assessments, with 24/7 access to your child’s progress data

  • Discounted access to our award-winning online platform Atom Nucleus for continuous learning between sessions

  • 100% satisfaction guaranteed; if you feel that your introductory lesson isn’t a positive experience, we’ll give you a free replacement with another tutor or a full refund

Find out more about Atom Tuition

Ready to book a trial lesson? Fill out this simple form and one of our tuition advisors will get back in touch soon.


Atom Learning Ltd. is registered and incorporated in England and Wales. Company Registration Number: 10867907 VAT number: 316903508 Copyright Atom Learning Ltd. All rights reserved.