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10 Ways to build up your vocabulary

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

It is no secret that the 11+ requires a high level of word knowledge. This can not be achieved overnight. Here are my TOP TIPS to help you get into a good routine and, dare I say it, even enjoy the process. If you are a parent reading this, please bear in mind that 'you' refers to 'your child'.



Buy a vocabulary work book and set aside a time to work on it every single day. Once you get into a routine, it won't feel like a chore. There are so many books to choose from, so do take the time to browse. As a starting point, I can recommend:

> 11 Plus Vocabulary (Rose McGowan) - 100 exercises for 100 days

> Synonyms & Antonyms (Christine R Draper) - a further 100 exercises

> The Big 11+ Vocabulary Play Book - packed with engaging activities that make learning vocab feel like fun.

>SATS Skills: Spelling & Vocabulary Workbook (Bond) - crosswords, handy word lists, ages 8-11+


Straight after doing each exercise, you should check the answers, then research & take notes on any new words. In this way, you are adding to your knowledge rather than just testing yourself on words that you already know. I also recommend highlighting new words (in yellow for example) then use another colour (orange?) if you get stuck on the same word again - this prioritises the word so that you won't have to use a third colour when you come across the word again! Highlighting is also useful for revision - from time to time you can flick through previous tasks. Hopefully, many of the highlighted words will now be familiar to you, in which case you can tick them off (or whatever system you prefer to indicate that you now know the word).

Test papers are also a rich source of vocabulary. After doing the test and checking your answers, it is very important to go through the paper and learn as much as you can from it. Even if you got the question right, some of the other options (if multiple choice) may include words that you don't know the meaning of. Or a reading comprehension text may have unknown words, even if there wasn't a question about it. Use the context as well as knowledge of related words (e.g. 'wizened' is related, though not identical in meaning, to the word 'wise') to figure out as much as you can, then look up the actual meaning to see how close you were. Don't forget to take notes (on the actual test paper if possible, or in a separate vocab book), and highlight the word to make it visually memorable and for future revision purposes.



Reading of course is vital to provide a natural context for your ever expanding vocabulary. If you're stuck for reading materials, click here. Do take the time to find an author that you enjoy, and that is suitably challenging for your level. There should be some unknown words, but not so many that the story becomes confusing. And I don't advise looking up every single new word that you come across - this will kill the pleasure of reading. Furthermore, you need to develop the skill of working out the probable meaning from the context (you won't have a dictionary in an exam). Often, we don't need to know the precise meaning of a word - it is enough to know that it is a type of food, for example, or a negative word to describe someone's mood. Occasionally you can look up a word if it keeps coming up or if it is vital to understanding the story.




Get the app! These are handy little time-killers if you're on a boring shopping trip with your mum or stuck at a bus stop. 11+ Vocabulary Builder is pretty good - it tests synonyms, antonyms, compound words and more. Quizlet is another option - it looks great on the mobile phone (see point 5). I'm also a big fan of Wordscapes - a fun way to work on spelling, plus it gives you definitions if you click on the word.




Quizlet is a great way to review vocabulary. It's a programme for creating electronic flash cards and can be used in a number of modes (e.g. match word with definition or play 'Gravity'). I make my own sets based on words that my students have covered - click here for an example. Or you can search the massive library of sets that other people have contributed. A word of caution - anybody can create a set so there could be errors. But the plus side is that you can create your own sets! This is an excellent way to revise. Type in a word and select the definition that you prefer (or write your own definition). You can select an image too. Then get parents or a tutor to test it out.



You may prefer real physical flash cards. I recommend Letts Vocabulary Flashcards. The definitions are clear and child-friendly. They also give an example sentence and synonyms. Flash cards are great for testing yourself - you can place them in 3 piles of 'know', 'kind-of-know' and 'never-seen-this-word-before'. Over time, the 'know' pile will (hopefully) become bigger. As you learn more words, you can create your own flashcards to add to the pile. You can also play games such as Pictionary or Charades. Click here for more ideas to help you make the most of your flashcards.



A picture speaks a thousand words! Google Images is an excellent tool. It works especially well with concrete nouns. It can also give interesting results for abstract nouns and adjectives too, or any type of word (although you should already know the meaning to judge whether it is an accurate depiction of the word).

Task: make sure you know the meaning of 'meticulous' then check it out on Google Images.


Caution: if the word is associated with a film or brand, the results may not be very useful e.g. try doing an image search for the word 'pioneer' - it's obviously a famous brand of some kind of musical equipment! Now type in the words 'pioneer meaning' and you will get the true meaning of the word.



Definitions are useful, but they do not necessarily teach us HOW to use a word. For example, 'occupied' can mean 'busy' as in 'not available'. Example: 'I can not meet you at the weekend as I am currently occupied in more important matters.' But in this sentence, you couldn't just substitute the word 'occupied' for 'busy' or 'not available' - it doesn't sound right (you'd have to make a few grammatical adjustments). In another context, 'occupied' can mean 'full' - as in 'the building is occupied' (with people), but I wouldn't say 'the glass is occupied' if it was full of milk. 'Occupied' can also mean 'invaded', and has a number of other context specific meanings. In short, knowing a word is often more complicated than just learning synonyms or a definition. Therefore, no explanation is complete without example sentence(s). When reading, the context is provided. But with 11+ tasks, words are often presented without any context. To fully understand how to use the word, you can visit sentencedict.com. Read a few sentences to get a full understanding of the variety of possible contexts, then copy one that makes the meaning clear AND that makes sense to you.


For the word 'wary', your notes might look something like this:

Wary [ADJ] = cautious (related to the words 'beware' and 'aware')

E.g. Her mother taught her to be wary of strangers.


The following sentences are not so good:

He was very wary - although this is a correct sentence, it doesn't demonstrate the meaning of the word (if you didn't know this word, it could mean almost anything!)

The company was wary of their socialist leanings - again, this is a correct sentence, but do you really understand it?


Finally, you should experiment using new words in your writing - but make sure you get FEEDBACK from someone with more knowledge than yourself, such as a parent or tutor.



Make posters to adorn your bedroom walls! You can use Google Images, coloured pens and paper or images from a magazine to demonstrate the meaning of words. Here is one that I made earlier with my year 4/5 students...











Instead of (or as well as) a vocabulary notebook, you may wish to make a digital version. In addition to definitions/synonyms and example sentences, you can copy and paste images, or include links to videos and websites. The more time you invest in getting to know a word, the more firmly it will become anchored in your brain.


All the while, you should be reading (20-30 minutes a day, at least) and watching films, documentaries and generally taking an interest in the world around you. On that note, I will leave you with the following image and quote:





Have a wonderful week!





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