Verbal Reasoning: When You Don’t Know The Words!

Elephants get cross when they forget crucial vocabulary.
Robert Lomax
Robert is a teacher and educational author. His books and online materials are popular in the UK and internationally. For a full biography, click here.

I was asked to give a presentation about 11 plus verbal reasoning for an event in aid of the Kijana Kwanza charity. As it may be useful for 11 plus students, here’s the text of my talk.

Good afternoon!

I’m Robert Lomax, and I publish a wide range of resources, all with detailed explanations, through my popular online service, 11 Plus Lifeline, and in my RSL books – which many of you will already be familiar with.

I’ve been asked to talk about 11 plus verbal reasoning, which most people call VR. It’s a huge topic, and I couldn’t possibly cover everything in fifteen minutes, so I asked myself which one question people ask most often.

The most common question that I’m asked about verbal reasoning isn’t obviously technical.

Above all else, people want to know about vocabulary, and how to make sure that their child will recognise all the words in a VR exam.

There are lots of good answers to this: reading, writing, learning vocabulary lists, using flashcards and phone apps … But for me, this is ultimately a question about exam technique.

However many words a 10 or 11 year old child may know, their 11 plus VR exams will almost certainly contain words that they don’t know, or don’t know well. This is deliberate. The exam is called verbal reasoning, and examiners want to see how well a child can reason their way through questions containing unfamiliar words.

I’m going to look at a few example questions, in order to show you how a child should handle questions containing words that they don’t know: giving themselves the best possible chance of getting the right answer.

The examples will all be taken from reasoning papers in 11 Plus Lifeline.

Let’s look at Question 3.

You might know the words “acute” and “obtuse” from maths, but perhaps you aren’t familiar with their other meanings.

However, you’re looking for “the word that does not belong”, as the question puts it: the odd one out.

When you’re looking for the odd one out among four options, this really means that you’re looking for three options that belong together: the other one will be the answer.

You can probably see that “intelligent” and “quick” have similar meanings when they refer to mental ability. This makes it likely that either “acute” or “obtuse” is the odd one out.

If you stop here, you’ve already reduced a 1 in 4 guess to 1 in 2: a 50% chance. This is a guess worth making!

However, you might get further if you think about your maths knowledge. An “acute” angle is narrow, forming a sharp point – and “sharp” is another word that can mean “intelligent”. This isn’t completely reliable logic, but it should be enough to suggest that “acute” belongs in a set with “intelligent” and “quick” – making “obtuse” the odd one out, and the right answer.

There are two important lessons to take from this:

– Firstly: If you think about the logic of a question, you can often find the answer, or come close to it, even if you don’t know all the words.

– Secondly: Even reducing your options to two and making a guess is much better than guessing between all the options. Learn to follow the logic of a question as far as you can, and your exam marks will improve.

 Perhaps the word “rashly” in Question 4 is unfamiliar. If you don’t know this adverb, or the adjective “rash”, the word itself doesn’t offer much help – unlike with “acute”, which we’ve just discussed.

In this situation, the best thing is to put the confusing word to one side and look at the other three.

We have “unwisely”, “hastily” and “cautiously”. You’re probably familiar with all of these words – especially if you recognise that “hastily” is the adverb form of the word “haste”, which means “rush” or “urgency”.

It should be clear that to act “hastily” is very different from acting “cautiously”. One of these two words is likely to be the odd one out.

“Unwisely” is more likely to belong with “hastily” than “cautiously” – because it is more often wise to be cautious than to be hasty.

If “unwisely” and “hastily” belong together, and “cautiously” is the odd one out, then the answer must be “cautiously” – whatever “rashly” means!

– The important lesson here is not to get hung up on a single word that you don’t know. Whatever the question type, the best response is usually to look at the rest of the question and do as much as you can – and only concern yourself with the difficult word once you’ve done what you can elsewhere, and there’s no avoiding it! Sometimes, as in this example, you won’t have to.

This is another common type of question. You have to choose the word that would belong with either set of options. Often, this will involve words that have different meanings depending on the context. For example, “bear” can be a noun referring to a large, furry animal, or a verb meaning “carry” or “endure”.

Also think about how a word can be pronounced in different ways. “Object” and “object” are different words, with very different meanings! 


Let’s say that you don’t know the word “impede” in Question 9.

As I’ve already explained, in this situation you need to focus on the words you do know.

“Lump” and “mass” might be verbs (an army might “mass” on a battlefield, and you can “lump” ideas together, for example), or nouns: a “lump” or “mass” of fat could block a drain!

– Always consider which parts of speech a word might be, and how this would change its meaning.

Out of the options on the right, only “block” and “object” are good matches for “lump” and “mass”. To put it one way, these are also things that might block a drain! “Cube” isn’t completely out of the question, but it’s a very specific kind of object, whereas the other words are more general: a lump, mass or object might be formed in many different ways, whereas a cube is, very specifically, a cube: a three-dimensional square.

You don’t know “impede”, but let’s consider “obstruct”.

Does “block” or “object” work with it better?

“Obstruct” is a verb.

If you “block” a river, you stop the water flowing.

If you “object” to an idea, you give an argument against it – but you don’t necessarily stop it happening!

Therefore, “block” is a much better match for “obstruct”, which also refers to preventing something, or making it more difficult – whereas you can “object” to an idea without changing what happens at all.

– Even if you didn’t know “obstruct” or “impede”, you would still have a two-way guess between “block” and “object”/”object”, which is much better than a four-way guess.


Similarly, you might not know “apex” or “vertex” in Question 10.

However, if you see that “indicate” and “gesture” could go with “sign” or “point”, you’ve already narrowed your options to a two-way guess.

If you recognise that either or both of “vertex” and “apex” are to do with mathematical shapes, even if you aren’t sure what they mean, this might help you to choose “point”: it’s easier to imagine a shape having a “point” – a very specific meaning – than a “sign”, which is quite vague.

Let’s say that you don’t know the words “opulence” or “abundance” in Question 8. This might make you think that you can’t answer the question. However, it’s amazing how much you can still do.

This explanation is a bit complex, so now’s the time to concentrate!

Look at “plenty”, “poverty” and “excess”.

You’ll be able to see that “plenty” and “poverty” are opposites.

You’ll also be able to see that “excess” – the state of having too much of something – is similar to “plenty”, which refers to having more than enough.

Because “plenty” and “excess” are similar in meaning, it’s fairly unlikely that either of them is the answer – the opposite of “opulence” – because there can’t be two answers to the question!

On the other hand, “poverty” has a very different meaning.

Most of the options in a set of answers will have links between them – either because they are close to being synonyms, or because they are opposites. Sometimes there is a completely different option, unconnected to the other three – but this is rarely the correct answer, because examiners are testing your ability to distinguish between related ideas.

The next bit needs real concentration!

Based on what I’ve said, “abundance” should fall into one of three categories:

– Option 1: It has a meaning unrelated to the other words.
– Option 2: It has a meaning similar to “poverty”.
– Option 3: It has a meaning similar to “plenty” and “excess”, putting it in a set with them.

If Option 1 is right, and “abundance” has a meaning unrelated to the other three words, then “abundance” is fairly unlikely to be the correct answer: as I’ve said, examiners usually want to test your ability to sort out related words.

If Option 2 is right, and “abundance” is similar in meaning to “poverty”, then we have a stalemate: two sets of two words, with each pair having a very similar meaning. This isn’t impossible, but it would make the question odd: from two sets of words with similar meanings, how would you choose the one word opposite in meaning to “opulence”? Therefore, Option 2 is unlikely: “abundance” probably doesn’t mean something similar to “poverty”.

This leaves us with Option 3.

If Option 3 is right, and “abundance”, “plenty” and “excess” all have similar meanings, then “poverty” is the odd one out, and the most likely word to be the opposite of “opulence”. Because Option 3 is the only one without clear problems, it’s likely to be the best choice.

By this path of reasoning, you can correctly guess that the opposites are “opulence” and “poverty” – even without knowing what two of the five words in the question, “opulence” and “abundance”, mean!


This has been a very short presentation, but I hope it will have given you an idea of how much you can achieve through logical thinking, even when you don’t know one or two words in a question.

The important thing is not to panic. However well prepared you are for a verbal reasoning exam, there will almost certainly be unfamiliar words in it. Yes, spend time learning vocabulary: that’s important. However, when a difficult question turns up, stay calm. Put to one side the words that you don’t know, focus on the ones that you do, and use reasoning – the name of the game! – to narrow down the options that are left.


I hope this talk has been useful. Thank you for inviting me to speak at this wonderful event. Do take a few minutes to look at the RSL Educational website – – for more ideas, and for lots of resources to practise skills such as the ones I’ve discussed here.

I’m going to post the text of this talk on my blog – go to the “Exam Advice and School Guides” section of the RSL Educational website – so if you’d like to go through any of my advice again, you can have another look there.

Thank you for your time, and thank you again to Shakir and Sonya for inviting me.

If you found these tips useful or if you have a question, please leave a comment below! I’d love to have your feedback. (Tick the “Receive email updates” box to receive an email when I reply.)

For the most comprehensive range of resources to help with preparation for the 11+ exam, you might like to try 11 Plus Lifeline (with a money-back guarantee in the first month). Every practice paper has full example solutions, with a detailed discussion and explanation for every question – like being taught by an excellent private tutor. There’s lots of material to help develop creative, high-scoring exam stories!

According to Tutorful, it’s “the gold standard for independent and grammar school 11-plus preparation”.

If you’d like further advice about DIY 11-plus preparation, my free video series gives some helpful pointers, and comes with an extensive set of free RSL practice papers, example answers and solutions:


  1. Anna Poku

    Very helpful

    • Robert

      Thanks Anna

      • Nitish

        Hello Sir,
        You explained very nicely.
        But, I had one doubt.
        In question 3, we have words as
        Here, Instead of comparing acute with sharp, we can tell acute as narrow and obtuse as broad that means acute means narrow minded and obtuse means broad minded person i.e. intelligent.
        Am I correct?

        • Robert

          I’m afraid you’ve got the meanings of “acute” and “broad” slightly wrong. “Acute” means intelligent – not “narrow-minded” – while “broad-minded” means “lacking in prejudice”, but not necessarily “intelligent”.
          Anyway, the challenge with VR is to find good answers when you aren’t quite sure what every word mean!

  2. susan

    very helpful, thanks

    • Robert

      I’m glad!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *