Writing for Toffee?

Richard Evans is concerned about the decline in writing skills.

Last September a number of daily papers (e.g. The Independent 6/09/08) ran reports on a study by exam boards and assessors/markers on the ability of candidates sitting GCSE and ‘A’ levels examinations to write their answers in longhand. According to the report, the number of requests from candidates for ‘scribes’ in examinations had increased from 28,324 in 2005 to 40,215 in 2007. The figures relate to the total number of requests for ‘scribes’ and clearly a particular candidate might require help for more than one subject. However it was unlikely that a candidate would require assistance for more than three subjects. The growing concern was quickly picked up by the Campaign for Real Education and Nick Seaton wrote: ‘Youngsters should be spending less time on computers and more on improving their writing’. He continued:

‘Examinations are supposed to be a test of basics; they shouldn’t be getting someone else to do them for them. Emails and text messaging have their place but not at the expense of basic skills’.

Scottish penmanship.

A similar situation exists in Scotland and examiners there have voiced concern about handwriting. Scottish examiners have called for handwriting classes to be reintroduced as an increasing number of pupils and students experience difficulty in writing longhand.

Again the Scottish examiners reiterate ‘that teenagers spend hours each week sending emails and text messages and as a result have lost the ability to use a pen and paper.

Obviously the subjects most affected are those that require more detailed writing such as English, history, drama and citizenship. In addition to the requests for scribes there has been a 50% increase over the last year of candidates requesting the use of a word processor or computer in examinations. Obviously many of these students possess special needs or have recently sustained an injury that makes writing difficult. Other candidates who have requested a ‘scribe’ will have to have been assessed by a specialist teacher or psychologist and are eligible for a scribe if they cannot write more than 10 words a minute. More worryingly the report indicated an increasing trend in a small minority of candidates having difficulties and problems in the manual skill of writing. A number of teachers marking this year’s Edexcel papers in English, drama and citizenship for GCSE examinations said ‘Some handwriting is a pleasure to read but an increasing minority is bordering on the illegible’ The regulator for examinations OfQual has said it will monitor the increasing number of scribes and ensure issues associated with fairness are addressed.


A number of interesting issues arise from this report and from the later press coverage of statements made by an Emeritus Professor who argued that the rules of grammar, spelling and the proper use of the apostrophe should be dropped from teaching as these aspects of learning ‘ hold students back’. A number of fundamental issues surely need addressing:

  • How can the current curricula recognise (and perhaps utilise? Editor.) the influence and impact of the increasing use of shorthand language in texting and emails?
  • If one accepts that the new electronic communication techniques are inevitable and have an impact on handwriting capability how can a sensible balance be struck between the two practices/cultures, not only in the classroom but in the examinations setting?
  • Is the suggestion by the Scottish examiners a realistic one and how could handwriting lessons for those who require it link with the teaching of other subjects particularly basic skills?
  • How can the difficult issues associated with fairness be monitored?
  • If this trend continues does it highlight fundamental flaws in the way pupils and students are taught the basic skills of communication especially the very fundamental one of writing?

I feel there should be a wide ranging debate on this important issue.

Final thoughts.

A somewhat surreal thought came to me: if this trend continues what would an examinations hall look like in the future? The candidates would be assisted by two helpers one to read the question and the other to write the answer! The size of the hall would have to be vastly increased!

Maybe in the future the answers will be given in text and/or email language? – over 2 U (sorry) ?

Note from the Editor

In mathematics exams the idea of using a computer would just not work given that it is very difficult to write fractions, indices, degree notation, Greek letters and a variety of other mathematical forms. However, the idea of asking someone to write down accurately your mathematical thoughts would be an extremely high level of skill probably exceeding the level of the exam you were taking. Maybe this would be an innovation in mathematical teaching and development – being able to articulate your answers to another so that they are able to write them down intelligibly.

Dr Richard Evans is a regular contributor to Numeracy Briefing.

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