Dorothy Walker hears teachers' views on the challenge to students of hand-written exams
The word processor makes writing much simpler in class. But what happens on exam day when there is no assistance from the spellchecker, no speedy cut-and-paste, no instant rubbing out or re-arrangement? Exams still demand considerable handwriting skills from young students - at speed, under pressure -so how do teachers help them face up to their big moment with pen and paper? Here, six professionals share their strategies for success.
Curriculum project manager for ICT, East Riding of Yorkshire. English teacher who has worked for AQA and Edexcel:
" This is an emerging problem, and I believe the exam system will change before it has had a chance to become acute. That said, the problem has two strands: physical handwriting and the organisation of an answer. Students shouldn't be preoccupied with neat handwriting - there are no marks for that. You will write more quickly if you use a big, round open hand. If you make a mistake, simply put a line through it and keep writing. In an English literature exam or reading test, everything you do with a word processor you can introduce into your handwriting: bullet points, white space and diagrams. In the writing component of English language, the good news is that the best answer is not the longest one - it is about quality rather than quantity. You do have a spellchecker: it is the exam paper, which contains most of the critical lexicon you need. When given the chance, introduce a subject you know well (eg a hobby), so that you can employ a familiar lexicon."
English teacher and literacy co-ordinator, Stratford High School, Stratford-upon-Avon:
"Top issues for my Year 11s: spelling and the draft-and-edit process are a lot harder without the computer, and their handwriting is much slower than their typing. We do a lot of practice questions. If we have 45 minutes, we spend 10 minutes making a plan - you write more quickly if you know where you are going -and we devote the final five minutes to proof reading. I am also considering trying a numeracy-based lesson which a former colleague used to give to help students calculate and increase their writing speed.
When I mark essays I make a list of the most commonly misspelt words, and together we find ways to learn them."
History and English teacher and ICT co-ordinator, Neale-Wade Community College, March, Cambridgeshire:
"Students have frequent access to computers, but homework and lesson tasks also include handwritten work. For two to three months they practise history exam papers. The big issues are knowing how long to spend on each answer and how much they can write in the time. If they do run out of time, my advice is to finish with a list of bullet points. They should also make an initial plan. Diagrams are accepted as part of an answer if they serve a useful purpose. But you are still expected to write extensively, that's why some students opt not to study history."
Advanced skills teacher in English, Ninestiles School, Birmingham:
"We are a hi-tech school, but the students use computers for their writing only 50 per cent of the time and we scale that down as they approach GCSE.
They use the word processor to learn how to structure their writing, and apply the techniques to their handwritten work. They organise their ideas with the help of the Outline View facility in Microsoft Word, and aim to duplicate that process in the exam by making a plan on a piece of paper. I talk them through the marking scheme, explaining where spelling and punctuation are crucial and where other skills are more important."
Head of humanities, St Peter's High School, Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex:
"In geography we work through past exam papers step by step, as a class. It is very important to describe processes logically, and students make a plan by writing down the keywords they will use in an answer, then numbering them into sequence. They handwrite a lot in class, but their handwriting can be terrible, so I advise them either to slow down or to underline keywords as they write, to convey their significance.
We also focus on spelling the keywords correctly. If they get the key geographical terms wrong, the examiner will think they don't know what they are talking about."
History teacher and examiner for AQA, Perryfields High School, Oldbury:
"Students word-process coursework, but we don't do word processing in class; it is easier to get them used to handwriting extended answers right from the start. In the run-up to GCSE we practise writing at speed to a strict timetable so they learn how much they can expect to write in the time. We use writing frames extensively, beginning in Year 7 when students are supplied with the introduction to each paragraph. By Year 9, most are able to write an essay on their own. We pinpoint mistakes in grammar and spelling, but the history department does not over-labour this - content is more important than language."