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What is the 11 Plus Non-Verbal Reasoning Exam?

Non-verbal reasoning tests the ability to solve visual problems by showing patterns and sequences which use shapes rather than numbers or letters and is a good measure of intelligence

IQ There are four parts to the eleven plus exam. Two of these are regular school subjects: English and maths. The other two are not taught in schools and require some explanation. Verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning are designed to test a child’s innate intelligence rather than their academic knowledge. We explain verbal reasoning in another article. In this one we focus on the even more dreaded non-verbal reasoning.

So what exactly is non-verbal reasoning? Put simply, it is a test of candidates’ ability to solve problems visually, without any verbal clues. This is done by showing them patterns and sequences which use shapes rather than numbers or letters, and asking them questions about them.

Why Is Non-Verbal Reasoning Included In The 11+ Exam?

The 11-plus exam takes slightly different forms across the country, and even from school-to-school within the same county. Not all of them will include all four sections of the test, but verbal and non-verbal reasoning are almost always featured. That is because both of these are intended to test natural intelligence rather than the accumulation of knowledge.

The non-verbal reasoning test is very similar to some of the IQ tests you may have come across either online or the official MENSA ones. It requires pupils to gather information from patterns and use their logical thinking to work out solutions to the problems posed. A good sense of spatial awareness is paramount and this is one of the measures of IQ.

Selective schools, of which grammar schools are a type, want only the very brightest children. Ones who they know will be able to deal with the high demands expected of their pupils. For that reason intelligence and the ability to learn are much more important to them than knowledge already gleaned.

What Kinds Of Questions Are In The 11+ Non-Verbal Reasoning Test?

As already stated, the questions in the non-verbal reasoning section of the eleven plus are in the form of pictures and shapes, but that does not mean they are all the same. To tackle them children will need to understand ideas such as symmetry and rotation, recognise patterns and sequences and, perhaps most importantly, be able to apply logic and reason.

Most of the questions will show between three and five shapes, which will consist of several elements. They will then be asked to choose a new shape to complete the series, or to decipher a code relating to the shapes. Another format asks them to spot which shape does not belong in the series by looking for similarities.

This is just a general idea. As you would expect, there is much more to it than that! To see every style of question that might be posed in the exam check out our Non-Verbal Reasoning quizzes. We have over fifty of them spotlighting each kind of question.

The test is not one of maths, but there is no doubt that a good knowledge of maths will be a great help to any candidate. Children who are naturally good at maths tend to be naturally skilled at non-verbal reasoning style questions. If your child is not, then revising maths will help.

Are There Any Techniques To Help In The Non-Verbal Reasoning Exam?

The aim of the eleven plus exam, as I mentioned earlier, is to find the most gifted and the brightest children. The non-verbal reasoning and verbal reasoning parts of the test are probably the most important aspect of this. Candidates with high intelligence will tend to have a natural ability with these kinds of question. But, for those who do not, there are ways to boost their chances in the exam.

Firstly, spatial awareness is a key aspect of the test. But how can you practise for that? Well, by playing, believe it or not. Certain games and puzzles exercise the parts of our brains responsible for spatial awareness. The best examples would be chess, jigsaws and even drawing pictures. So get out your old puzzles, dig out your chess set and gather your pencils and papers!

These activities will help your child, especially if done regularly. But the best way by far to get to grips with non-verbal reasoning is to tackle some questions.

Example Non-Verbal Reasoning Questions

Just like verbal reasoning, non-verbal reasoning is not taught in schools. This means that anybody unfamiliar with the questions may have a shock when they see them for the first time. Again, I recommend taking your child through the quizzes in our Non-Verbal Reasoning section. This will familiarise them with each style of question and also show them some valuable techniques which will help to work out the answers.

The main thing to bear in mind is the use of deduction. Having a systematic approach to the questions and going through each possible answer in turn and ruling incorrect ones out is a reliable method.

The easiest way to explain non-verbal reasoning is by showing you, so here are a couple of example questions, and hints on how to work out the answers…

Fill In The Blank

These types of question show a series of shapes with one in the series missing. Candidates have to choose from a set of possible answers, which one correctly fills the blank. Candidates are shown a series of shapes (usually a series of four or five), one of which is missing. They are also shown a few other shapes (again, four or five), one of which will fit into the blank space to complete the series in a logical manner. Here is an example:

Example Question One

Pick one of the five boxes on the right to fit in the blank box and complete the series on the left.


So, how to work out the answer? The position of the circle is the only thing that changes in the diagram. It appears in the top right of the first box, then the bottom right in the second box and so on. If you try to visualise each box over the top of the others it will make the movement of the circle even clearer.

The white circle moves around the corners of the box in a clockwise direction and must end up in the top right-hand corner in the blank box. Now we know what we must have in the answer, we need to remove some of the possibilities.

Our answer cannot be (a) because the circle is in the wrong position.

The answer cannot be (e) because there is a black circle in the corner, not a white one.

Now we scan for other things and hopefully you’ll have discounted (b) as the centre shape is wrong, while (d) contains two white circles and we only need one.

The answer must be (c).

Odd One Out

In odd one out style questions children are again shown a group of shapes, only this time the group is complete. They have to find which one of the shapes does not belong with the others.

Candidates are shown a selection of shapes or symbols (usually four or five). All but one of these share the same characteristics. They are then asked to find the “Odd One Out” – the one that does not have the same features. Here is an example:

Example Question Two

The four shapes below all have something in common, except one. You must find the odd one out. Choose the shape which you think does not belong with the other three.


This is a very simple illustration, just to give you the general idea. It’s rare that the difference between the shapes will be so obvious, but it is a good one to teach you the methods used to solve these questions.

To find the answer the first thing to do is to look at what the shapes all have in common:

All the shapes are polygons: an equilateral triangle, a square, a regular hexagon and a parallelogram.

All the shapes have horizontal shading.

Now we have the similarities, we need to look for what three of the shapes share but one does not. If you haven’t already spotted it, option ‘d’ is the odd one out. That’s because it has no reflection symmetry. If you draw a line from top to bottom through its middle, the two halves would not be reflections of one another.

Occasionally the odd one out leaps out at you. That is a good thing, but be careful you do not leap to the wrong conclusions. If you think you spot the odd one out, you need to be able to say why and not just go on gut feelings.

The examples above are just two of the question forms found in non-verbal reasoning. As you can imagine, there are many others. I heartily recommend getting your child to practise as many non-verbal reasoning questions as possible. Not only will this help them to tackle each problem they are posed in the test, but it will also save them from being taken by surprise when they see them for the first time in the 11+ exam.

So that is non-verbal reasoning. A daunting subject but one you can get to grips with by investing time and effort. There are other mysteries in the world of education. What is BODMAS, or the English Baccalaureate? What does a Progress 8 score mean for schools, and how are multiple choice questions an aid to education? You’ll find the answers to these and many more questions in the Education Quizzes Knowledge Bank. It’s truly a mine of information of education and child raising.

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