Back to school – books to help

I’m thinking this week of all those coming up to 11+ entrance exams and their families: may it all go well for you. Amidst all the talk of dumbing down and grade inflation, it seems to me that, if anything, 11+ entrance is as hard as it has ever been: having seen the sample question about the watch that gains three minutes an hour and the watch that loses five minutes in two hours (and resisting the temptation to say: for goodness’ sake go and buy yourselves a decent watch), I do think our 10-year-olds are now being asked to jump through hoops that would cause most of their parents serious embarrassment, and will probably acquit themselves rather better than we would. Good luck to you all.


Staring down the 11+ barrel or otherwise, most of us struggle to think of maths as beautiful or playful: beyond school, it’s mostly tied up with anxious situations like splitting restaurant bills and doing tax returns and calculating VAT. Waxing lyrical about the delights of maths is normally for geeks and lunatics, or so received wisdom has it. German author Hans Magnus Enzenberger would have us think otherwise, and produced a surprise bestseller to prove it, the quirky and wildly imaginative Number Devil. Robert is quite your average maths-averse boy, until the Number Devil turns up in his dreams and introduces him to the wonders of “prima donnas” (prime numbers) and “rutabagas” (square roots) and the like. Gradually, blind panic is replaced by curiosity and appreciation as Robert and the reader discover some of the more intriguing patterns and concepts in maths, relayed with a nice dry humour. On Amazon, you’ll find it glowingly reviewed by parents of children as young as six (oh, the show-offs), but given the maths concepts covered, I’d suggest 10+.


Easier on the maths is the Maths Quest series from QED, four cleverly-designed puzzle books of the “If you choose (a), go to page 32” variety: the sort of puzzle that had all the resident under-11s racing from clue to clue without a thought that they were “doing maths”. There are some nice maths jokes, too: the museum cat is called Pythagorpuss. Science Quest and History Quest are also out there, but the home verdict was that the maths ones were the best.


For the dread moment when your child wails, “I don’t understand!”, and you find you don’t either, may I recommend (fairly impartially) a handful of Usborne titles? The Junior Illustrated Maths Dictionary is a particular gem, with KS2 maths concepts clearly explained, easy to follow and easy to navigate. “Much better than the ones we use at school,” says the resident ten-year-old (sorry, school, you can’t say I haven’t tried). For KS1 there’s the equally well-conceived First Illustrated Maths Dictionary, and there’s an equivalent science dictionary at each level and an imminent English one.


If the idea of sitting your child down with a maths book of any sort is completely out of the question, you might be interested in maths games online. There are of course huge numbers of these, of very variable quality, but it’s hard to find many that combine solid maths with really compelling game play. Mathletics is a big name but personally I’m not a big fan: the incentive system is very effective, but the maths games are beginning to seem a little clunky and the challenges aren’t especially stretching. Pearson’s Mathschamps,, is much pacier, and is excellent for developing speed and automaticity in basic calculations and times tables, for instance. It’s not flawless – I think the speed of challenge increases too quickly at the higher levels, and it’s disheartening that the scores that appear after each game are an unchanging all-time top ten – but a very useful means of practice.


Mangahigh,, remains my favourite collection of maths games, beautifully designed and genuinely effective. Most of the games are aimed at lower KS3, but a number of “Lite” versions are suitable for upper KS2. You can play five-minute demos of all games on the site, or sign up – although geared towards schools, it is possible for individuals to sign up too, and it’s free. House favourites are Ice Ice Maybe (estimating), Pyramid Panic and Tangled Web (geometry) and Flower Power (fractions and decimals).


Maths, at least, is consistently taught and tested in schools. How to prepare for the supposedly pure test of intelligence that is the verbal or non-verbal reasoning test? 11+ parents don’t need me to tell them that there is a wall of practice papers for the purpose at your local WHSmith, and very dull they are, too. My creative recommendation, instead, is Usborne’s Brain Puzzles and even more fiendish Logic Puzzles cards, which contain a colourful selection of visual, verbal and mathematical challenges. Like the Maths Quest books, they are technical practice cunningly disguised as addictive, challenging fun. (For those who haven’t had enough maths, there are also Maths Puzzles and Number Puzzles in the same series, not to mention Barin Games, Memory Puzzles and Word Puzzles.)


Now: I don’t mean to put all the focus on maths and neglect English, and I certainly don’t mean to imply that English needs less preparation. If anything, it’s the inverse: maths can be crammed intensely prepared for, but you really can’t preload a child with connectives (urk) and wow words (double urk) and expect them to respond with genuine, sparkling, fluent composition prose. That depends largely on three things – natural instinct or talent, exposure to LOTS of good writing (not necessarily through reading: if your child isn’t a keen reader, audiobooks can also play their part) and practice. Keep a diary. Write good letters (written all your thank-you letters yet? Why not surprise Grandma with a written letter instead of an email or a thank-you over the phone?). Start stories you won’t ever finish – and if you don’t know what to write about, try the Usborne Write Your Own Story Book for pages and pages of plot suggestions, story starters, hints and tips and themed collections of juicy words to inspire you.


Grammar: now that can be taught, and increasingly will be, and it can’t be lost on any parent or broadsheet reader that Old-Fashioned Grammar is creeping back, and it’s becoming necessary all over again to know your noun from your adverb. Brian P. Cleary’s Words are CATegorical series is a lovely, lively introduction to parts of speech and what they do in clever, memorable rhyme: nouns (A Cat, a Bat, your Grandma’s Hat), verbs (To Root, To Toot, To Parachute), adjectives (Hairy, Scary, Ordinary), the lot. Now frustratingly out of print, they are still widely available in libraries, even in Hammersmith.


And with Grammar comes that other ugly sister, Spelling. Knowing as I do that most KS2s are bringing home twenty-odd spelling words a week, to be written out three times and then used in sentences, I don’t mean to add to the burden – only to suggest that, again, Usborne has a neat set of cards that will genuinely provide strategies for the trickiest words, in wipe-clean format with a pen for practice. There’s a companion set for Grammar and punctuation as well, and a useful English spelling dictionary that highlights word patterns, common pitfalls and problem words.


If you’ve read this far, you deserve a smile. Seen it before? Send me a better one!

Happy 2014 everyone.


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