Top Ten Tips for ISEB Pretest English

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This article provides an overview of the English section of the ISEB Common Pretest. It will explain what types of questions come up in the test and provide you with actionable tips to help your child prepare efficiently and effectively.


The English module of the ISEB Pretest contains three different types of questions, all in multiple-choice format. Firstly are comprehension questions based on a passage where the student needs to choose one of five answer options. This is followed by questions that test Sentence Completion and Spelling & Punctuation.


Whilst most students find this English module preferable to traditional papers that involve written comprehension extended writing, there are a number of pitfalls to be avoided when approaching the ISEB Pretest English module.


Overall, the format of the exams favours candidates who approach new tasks enthusiastically and carefully, so preparing for this module by working through sample tests and questions is prudent to help ensure children are familiar with the format of what is expected as well as experienced in negotiating their way through the various answer options.


Here are our ten top tips to help your child excel in the ISEB Pretest English module:


Read as widely as possible


Children who have read widely for pleasure throughout their childhood find comprehension far easier than reluctant readers; they are already familiar with reading more deeply into a text and find questions about authorial intent intuitively easier than children who rarely pick up a book.


We encourage students who are reluctant readers to read for a minimum of half an hour per day, choosing books across a variety of authors and genres. Popular authors such as Michael Morpurgo are great for reinforcing reading as a fun activity, but I suggest that they also listen to audiobooks as a narrator reading with expression and verve can make less popular options such as mid-twentieth century classics more appealing.


Read together


As children approach the end of primary school, there is often less time available in the week for reading together. But spending time reading aloud together provides an excellent opportunity to discuss rhetorical techniques, vocabulary choices, characters’ feelings and authorial intent. Selecting particularly interesting phrases and picking them apart helps children to approach a text analytically.


The ISEB Common Pretest has used both fiction and non-fiction texts in the Comprehension section in the past few years and it is therefore advisable for children to regularly read age-appropriate news such as The Week Junior or Newsround. Discussing topics as a family and debating bias is helpful as questions about non-fiction texts often include inference questions based on the writer’s overall opinion.




A strong vocabulary will help students in their approach to all of the question types in the English module.


It is hard to approach the vocabulary questions by rote learning reams of definitions by heart. Students rarely retain vocabulary acquired in this way as the words seem detached from their actual meanings in context.


Instead, learning a few words each week (making them appealing using colour, illustrations and by using them in different contexts) is much more effective.


The ISEB Pretest English Comprehension section includes questions asking children to pick suitable synonyms and antonyms for words used in the text, so the ability to use context to identify probable meanings for unfamiliar words is very important.


To develop your child’s understanding of Synonym and Antonyms, the following packs will prove useful:


11+ Synonyms + Antonyms Pack 1

11+ Synonyms + Antonyms Pack 2


Approach the comprehension as if it isn’t multiple choice


Although multiple choice comprehensions are invariably more popular amongst students than papers that require a lot of writing and developed technique for longer answers, it can lead to silly mistakes or leave candidates vulnerable to picking an answer which is nearly correct but not quite. The five answer options frequently include one answer which is very nearly perfect, but is inappropriate to pick due to a subtle error.


The best method to approach these papers is to read the question carefully and then look at the answer options. Students should look back in the text – scrupulously, every time – and then pick the most appropriate answer. This should be their final step before moving on. Not looking back carefully in the paper for every answer is the most frequent mistake we see students make in the ISEB Pretest English module and it can be costly.


On the whole, students find the timing reasonably generous and tend to find they finish slightly early, so there is plenty of time to look back in the text for every question.


The questions generally lead you through the text


Comprehension questions frequently lead students through the text, starting at the beginning, moving towards more general questions at the end of the paper. Using the previous question as a reference point to help point them towards the correct section of the text means that children can work efficiently, without having to jump back and forth through the passage.


The comprehension test can also include tests on word classes


The comprehension test starts with questions about the content of the passage but broadens to include questions about particular words in the passage and asks children to identify if they are nouns, verbs, adverbs and so on. It is vital that children look back in the text to check how the word is used in the content of the text, as word classes frequently depend on how a word works within that particular sentence. For example, when working under timed pressure, it is easy to presume that ‘dance’ must be a verb and move on quickly through the question, but this is not always the case.


Don’t presume anything


Students are often enthusiastic about completing a comprehension on a book they already know. For example, extracts from The Wind in the Willows appear frequently. However, this can be a distraction and leave them vulnerable to answering questions based on their knowledge of the overall story, rather than using inference based only on the passage. It is important that all answers are based only on what is provided, not on moments from other points in the story. Comprehension questions in the ISEB Pretest English module will be based solely on the passage itself.


Spelling questions


Some questions in the ISEB Pretest require children to identify which section of a short sentence contains a spelling mistake. There is no need to correct the misspelled word, so again, these questions are made easier if children read as part of their everyday routine so they can spot a word that just ‘looks wrong’ even if they are not sure of the accurate spelling.


We recommend rushing up on homophones such as ‘to’ and ‘too’, ‘their’ and ‘there’ as well as the frequently confused quartet of ‘were’, ‘wear’, ‘where’ and ‘we’re’ as these are all popular spelling mistakes that appear in these questions.


Punctuation questions


Students answering questions which require the identification of punctuation errors are often slowed down by indecision or uncertainty about whether something is incorrect. These questions require children to select the part of a sentence that has a mistake in the punctuation or use of capital letters. Often this is in the form of capital letters appearing after semicolons or colons but also often includes missing capital letters at the beginning of a sentence or a comma in place of a full stop.


There is no need to correct the sentence, simply to identify a mistake.


We recommend brushing up on Punctuation rules and categories.


Sentence Completion


Sentence Completion questions give a short sentence with a word or short phrase missing, which should be selected from five answer options.


The answer options are typically extremely similar to one another and differ only in small details (often, tense or class of words) and attention to detail is crucial to differentiate between the options. Students with a strong understanding of grammar tend to find these questions much easier as often questions do not test the children’s ability to understand the sentence but rather test grammar and accuracy in written English.


‘Different from’ and ‘should have’ are overwhelmingly popular answers for Sentence Completion questions (they might appear in sentences such as The animals were [different / diverse / differing / different from / same] one another or I forgot my homework but I [should of / ought / must / should have / should ] put it in my bag last night).


ISEB Pretest Resources


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We’ve also produced online video courses that cover everything your child needs to know for each section of the ISEB Pretest assessment. They consist of a series of lessons that go through each question type in great detail, providing step-by-step explanations and techniques to help your child recognise the underlying patterns to look out for. The courses cover every possible question type that could come up in the ISEB Pretest.

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Please note that Pretest Plus is an independent publisher of practice tests and not affiliated with or endorsed by the publishers of the ISEB Common Pre-test or any other Pre-test publisher.

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