Bad handwriting in exams – How to improve students’ stamina

Teenage girl sat at desk with pen in hand, representing bad handwriting in exams

Students might have all the knowledge they need for an exam – but, asks Adam Riches, will they be up to the task of writing it all down?

Adam Riches
by Adam Riches

Of all the demands made by the GCSE language and literature exam, one of the most essential is being able to hand write legibly, at length and under tight constraints.

Your students might know their texts and their quotes. But are their hand muscles fully prepared for the task that awaits them?

Being able to sustain consistent and legible handwriting for extended periods is hugely important if students are to succeed in written exams. And yet, many students can struggle with the physical action involved in writing for extended periods.

They lack adequate handwriting stamina, leading to bad handwriting in exams, illegible answers, discomfort and inefficiency.

Quite often, the fact that students’ handwriting may need to be worked on and improved is missed. This is in favour of an unstinting focus on the content of students’ answers and ability to memorise important quotes, dates and other details.

Important though those are, we mustn’t forget that students still need to get all that knowledge down on the page within the time they have, and in a way that someone else can easily comprehend.

Back to basics

We can, however, help learners with their writing ahead of exams, and should make this practice explicit. With the aid of targeted techniques and strategies, it’s possible for us to enhance students’ handwriting stamina, while improving both the quality and legibility of the writing itself.

It’s important to bear in mind that handwriting stamina isn’t solely about improving a student’s handwriting speed. It also encompasses factors like endurance, control and consistency.

Incredibly, the majority of our students aren’t likely to have had any explicit handwriting training since their days of attending primary school.

There’s hardly time for it, given the volume of KS3/4 curriculum content. As such, it’s typically assumed that these taught skills have been embedded to a satisfactory level among the vast majority of students.

Yet when it comes to bad handwriting in exams, it’s often necessary to go back to basics. We need to revisit students’ ability to maintain a suitable writing posture, grip and pressure, while producing clear and consistent letters over an extended period.

Just like any other type of physical activity, poor handwriting stamina tends to come from a combination of:

  • physical fatigue
  • lack of proper technique
  • insufficient practice

It’s a process that can be painful for students and teachers alike. But taking the time to foreground writing techniques in lessons can have a hugely positive impact. This is not just on students’ English scores, but across their other subjects too.

Like anything, it’s not about ruling with an iron rod and getting students to do something ‘just because you say so’. It’s about explaining to learners the importance of good posture, clear letter formation, and clear and accurate punctuation.

So, how can we actually help learners improve their ability to write clearly for extended periods?

How to fix bad handwriting in exams

Adopt the right posture

Sitting correctly is crucial to being able to write well. Encouraging teenagers to sit with their backs straight, shoulders relaxed and feet flat on the ground isn’t exactly the easiest task in the world. However, those simple pointers will be key to them succeeding.

Giving learners a chance to practice their writing while sat at exam desks is a good exercise in training them to find a comfortable posture.

There’s nothing worse than realising your school’s classroom desks are set at a completely different height to the exam desk you’ll be using, just as a two-hour exam is about to kick off. Indeed, it’s enough to seriously throw some kids off.

Getting the ergonomics right – sitting in the chair sensibly but comfortably, positioning the writing paper just so – can contribute hugely to reducing the strain some students might feel and improving their endurance levels. Best of all, that’s something everyone can do.

Get a grip

Getting students calm before exams can be difficult, especially when the pressure’s on. A lot of the fatigue students feel when using pens can come from how tense they are – and in turn, the degree to which that tension strains the muscles within their hands.

To counter this, encourage learners to avoid gripping their pens too tightly, since doing so can lead to premature fatigue.

Get them to focus instead on maintaining a relaxed, yet controlled grip that will facilitate fluid writing motions. It can be helpful to have students experiment with different pens and grip combinations until they find one that feels comfortable and works well.

That said, sometimes simply reminding them about the impact of muscle fatigue before they even pick their pens up and start writing can prove to be a big help later on.

Warm-ups and stretching

Just as with any other form of intense physical activity, your muscles can benefit from being warmed up before commencing a bout of extended writing.

Show students how engaging in hand and wrist exercises can help to warm up their muscles and increase their flexibility. Simple stretches – such as wrist circles and finger extensions – will alleviate tension and prepare hands for prolonged writing tasks.

One exercise I get my students to perform is to screw up a piece of scrap paper and then unwrap it. Repeat this process ten times over. (You may also need robust instructions to not throw said pieces of scrap paper at the end of the exercise).

It’s also important that learners are encouraged to take short breaks during prolonged writing sessions, and use these to perform some short stretches so that they can prevent stiffness and develop their handwriting endurance. We need to counter the assumption many students hold, where they think they have to be writing non-stop, when in fact they should be engaging in ‘active rest’ – giving their hands a short stretch break while they read the exam paper’s questions and extracts.

Incremental practice

As the final exams draw closer, you can expect all subjects to dramatically up the volume of writing they expect students to produce.

Particularly in English, it’s important that the duration and intensity of writing practice sessions is gradually built up over time, so that students’ endurance can be progressively developed. What we mustn’t do is overload learners with too much writing too quickly.

Adopt the same approach PE teachers have towards improving students’ fitness. By starting with shorter writing tasks, and then gradually extending the duration as students’ stamina improves, we’re much more likely to see sustainable results.

At the same time, it’s important that teachers focus on maintaining quality, rather than speed when it comes to written responses. The time constraints of English exams might be tight, but it’s far better to pen your points legibly than it is to scribble more words illegibly, It’s a fine balance that takes time to master, but ultimately, consistent practice is what will unlock students’ ability to develop and sustain handwriting stamina over time.

Effective efficiency

Building handwriting stamina will involve addressing the physical, technical and psychological aspects of writing. This can be something that students really don’t want to be doing before a series of content-heavy exams, but don’t overlook it.

By receiving some simple guidance on how to actually write well, while also incorporating appropriate posture, grip and pacing techniques, students can improve their endurance and maintain legible handwriting over extended periods.

This is an important consideration for not just English teachers, but for subject specialists across the board. It could well be the legibility of a student’s handwriting that makes the difference between them securing or missing a grade – so take the time to get your learners writing effectively and efficiently, and you’ll likely find that their endurance improves significantly.

Adam Riches is a teacher, education consultant and writer. Download our AQA English Language Paper 1 ultimate revision booklet.

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