RSL Educational | The Essex CSSE 11-Plus Exam: Preparation Advice
13/05/18

The Essex (CSSE) 11+ is one of the more traditional entrance tests used by grammar schools. In many ways it is similar to the exams often set in the independent sector. The questions are varied and sometimes challenging. This means that they give children the opportunity to show their skills and to be creative.

If a child prepares well for the Essex 11-plus, they will have consolidated their most important skills and knowledge, and be in a strong position to make a success of their first year at secondary school.

In this post I’ll take you through the most important areas which your child will need to cover for effective CSSE preparation. These are relevant to all 11-plus exams, but with a special Essex focus!

I’ll begin with English, then discuss reasoning and maths.

1. Develop a clear understanding of basic grammar

This probably isn’t the most important item in this list, but it’s one of the easiest to deal with. The Essex English exam often asks candidates to find adjectives or verbs in a text, for example. Make sure that your child is able to identify nouns (and proper nouns), verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions and pronouns. They should also practise the correct use of punctuation: especially full stops, commas, apostrophes, question marks and quotation marks.

2. Learn to deal with unfamiliar vocabulary (and learn some new words)

A distinctive feature of the CSSE English test is that it often includes a difficult text (also see point 3 below), which may include advanced grammatical structures and old-fashioned vocabulary. Authors in recent years have included Saki and Laurie Lee.

This does not mean that your child needs to know every word in English!

Instead, they need to become comfortable when reading words they haven’t seen before, or whose meaning they can’t exactly pin down. The best way to help them practise this skill is by reading with them and asking them about difficult words as they arise. Without using a dictionary, can they reach a sensible best guess by covering the word and working out what idea best fits in the gap; by breaking the word into parts and looking for clues; by thinking of similar words which they know; and so on?

It’s also a good idea to develop vocabulary actively. I’m quite sceptical of vocabulary-training books. In my view, the best approach is for your child to write down new words they come across when reading, then practise using them in their own writing. This way they will really get to know a word and develop a sense of how it might be useful – as well as learning to recognise it.

3. Become a nuanced reader

The CSSE examiners like to see how children deal with texts including humour, irony, and things which are not quite as they seem. For example, can your child cope with situations where a character says one thing but means another?

Rather like in point 2, the best way to help your child with this is to talk to them. Can they identify and explain these moments in their own reading? When somebody in real life uses irony or sarcasm, can your child explain what the person really meant and why they spoke in that way? Finally, they should experiment with these ideas in their own creative and story writing, in order to understand them from a writer’s point of view.

4. Work on comprehension skills and become familiar with different question types

Learning to work out exactly what is intended by a question is more of a science than an art: it involves a range of techniques which are not obvious, but which most children can learn. They need to become familiar with breaking a question down into its parts, isolating the relevant information in the passage, interpreting the number of marks available, and writing in a clear, well-evidenced way.

For advice about how best to develop these skills, see point 11 below.

5. Learn to write in an interesting and thoughtful way

The CSSE includes a kind of very concise creative writing question which is quite unusual at 11-plus. Children have six or seven sentences to describe or explain a topic in detail, showing originality and descriptive skill.

There are too many skills involved in effective descriptive writing for me to discuss the topic thoroughly in this post. However, a few skills, such as the use of strong, specific verbs (“ambled” instead of “walked”, for example), and imaginative use of the five senses, can make an enormous difference.

This is another area covered in a lot of detail by 11 Plus Lifeline (discussed in point 11). It’s also a focus of the free videos mentioned in point 10.

6. Practise verbal reasoning

Verbal reasoning (or ‘applied reasoning’, as the Essex exam calls it) shouldn’t be scary: it’s no more than a formal term for ‘word puzzles’. The best approach is simply to practise: not in bulk, but by doing a few questions from a relevant book a couple of times each week.

The important thing is to think about strategies. The advice in point 2 for dealing with unfamiliar words is important here. Also, children should be careful not to waste time on a difficult verbal reasoning question. It’s best to put it to one side and come back to it later.

7. Develop a solid understanding of the Key Stage 2 maths syllabus

The CSSE exam doesn’t push the limits of primary school knowledge, as some independent school 11+ tests do. It focuses on the core content of the syllabus. Make sure that your child is familiar with all the core concepts they have been taught: in particular, they should be confident using (and converting numbers between) fractions, decimals and percentages, and they should be able to interpret a range of graphical formats such as bar charts, pie charts and Venn diagrams.

8. Get used to turning wordy maths questions into clear working

A lot of children find ‘word problems’ confusing. They need to get used to noticing that “of” means “times” and “out of” means divide; that “8 children in a class of ten” means “eight tenths”; and so on.

Above all else, they need to develop the habit of starting to write working by jotting down what they do know, even when parts of the question are not yet clear to them. As explained in RSL Educational’s Free 11 Plus Videos (see point 10), there are some simple things which you can do to help them out.

9. Work on exam skills (including timing)

Timing is best practised close to the exam, when everything else is secure. It’s very hard to learn maths or English and learn to work quickly at the same time.

As with other exam skills, such as learning which questions to leave for later, how to deal with questions which look unfamiliar, and so on, this is best developed by using past papers from a range of schools, or with specifically developed practice papers (see point 11).

10. Find motivating strategies

The biggest obstacle to success is often not any of the points 1-9 above: it’s a lack of confidence. Parents tell their child that their 11-plus exam is REALLY IMPORTANT, and because of this the child feels overwhelmed: the task simply looks too great, and the risks of failure too terrifying.

What every parent wants is for their child to enjoy studying: to view it as something challenging but achievable, without worrying about it.

Much of my best advice for how to achieve this is included in the (completely free) RSL Educational 11-Plus Video Series, which you can sign up for here:


11. 11 Plus Lifeline

11 Plus Lifeline is the UK’s leading 11+ preparation service (please read this independent review from Tutorful), and is designed with the CSSE strongly in mind. It teaches children exactly how to deal with all the English and maths question types discussed above, with realistic exam practice and step-by-step advice for every question, of the kind usually only available from the most experienced private tutors.

The service has a one month money-back guarantee, so you can try it with no risk.

You can learn more by clicking here:



I hope this article has been useful. If you have any questions or comments, please send me a message or use the chat box at the bottom of this page. I’m always particularly interested in hearing from representatives of the schools discussed in my admissions guides.