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Humanising Language Teaching
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Humanising Language Teaching

To see the original article please take a look at “Exercises that Help to Build up Confidence During Exam Time” Paul Davis and Mario Rinvolucri, UK

‘The Magic Pen’ based on ‘An Old Exercise’ in HLT Mag September 2006 ‘Speed Writing’ (originally from an idea by Katie Plumb)

Peter Clements, UK

The contributor has been teaching for a total of nine years, starting out as a vocational lecturer in a further education college then running a small design technology workshop in a school for pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties. Later, while teaching basic literacy and numeracy skills on a programme for teenagers, Peter took the opportunity to gain a TESOL certificate in order to help a small number of unaccompanied minors with their English. For just over the last two years he has been employed as an ESOL tutor in the Adult Education sector in Kent. He holds a Certificate in Education (post 16 sector), the Trinity Cert. TESOL and the Trinity Level 4 Certificate for Adult ESOL Subject Specialists. He is a member of the Institute for Learning. E-mail:


The writing stage
Samples of students’ writing


I am often inspired by ideas found in HLT Mag and I find that these are popular with students in both ESOL and EFL classes. One of those activities from a past issue of HLT Mag is outlined below and features quite a number of examples of un-edited students’ written work which I feel exemplify the benefits of this activity.


Whiteboard or flip chart with a table comprising four columns in which to record student word counts; a clock or watch or, even better, a timer with an audible beep


This activity, adapted with a view to helping to boost student confidence before written Trinity ESOL ‘Skills for Life’ and Cambridge CAE and CPE exams retains the essential physical and affective elements of using breathing and relaxation techniques.

The activity helps to overcome the dreaded ‘blank paper syndrome’ and enables most students to realise just how much writing can actually be achieved in a relatively short time when in a relaxed state of body and mind.


As outlined in the original article, the activity takes place in ten stages. First of all, students are asked to stand and stretch then to clench their fists and tension the forearm muscles whilst taking in deep breaths. Following the recognised relaxation technique, after holding the tension, the students release the air whilst releasing the tension from their fingers, hands and arms. This should be repeated several times. During the process, the teacher can talk softly to the students reassuring them that all the English they have learned is stored inside their heads and that the hands are the instruments by means of which all this lexis, grammar and creativity will be released and transmitted to the paper. The hands therefore need to be flexible and relaxed in order to cope with the task ahead and the last thing you want when writing is for these physical instruments to hinder the creative flow because of feeling uncomfortable or restricted.

At the same time, reassure the students that all the wonderful work they’ve done in recent months deserves to come out and a relaxed state of mind will be another way to achieve this.

The writing stage

  1. Give the students the theme for the first exercise – write imaginatively about the topic ‘The Magic Pen’ (write this title on the board) Tell students they will have exactly four minutes to develop this in any way they like. Explain that when time is up they must finish their sentence and stop. Signal the start and remember to note the start time/set and start the timer!
  2. Warn students when they are within 15 seconds before time is up and then ask them to quickly complete their sentences when the timer sounds.
  3. Ask students to count up total number of words written and call these out so that the totals can be recorded on the board. Commend them!
  4. Repeat relaxation exercises with learners standing and stretching as before. Give further quiet positive encouragement.
  5. Put the heading ‘Free Writing’ on the board and tell students they now have three and a half minutes to write about what is going through their minds now (but nothing so personal that they wouldn’t feel comfortable in sharing with someone else).
  6. Repeat step 3
  7. Repeat step 4 but this time whilst seated, explaining that it is not necessary to make it obvious that one is relaxing, the hands can be stretched on or under the desk, breathing can be carried out more discreetly and the students should be aware that short exercises can be carried out periodically during the exam or during lessons when feeling stressed or when the fingers ache from prolonged manipulation of pen and paper.
  8. Introduce the final topic with a theme such as ‘How will this help me?’ Write it on the board and explain that now the time will be reduced by another half a minute.
  9. After the three minutes are up, repeat the word count stage and now the table on the whiteboard will have been completed. Ask the students what conclusions they can draw from the results. The answers will be diverse and interesting and most will be surprised as to just how much they will have written especially those whose output has increased in proportion to the reduction in time.
  10. The final stage involves the students sharing their thoughts and reading their writing to each other. This can be fun and is not intended as a peer correction exercise, but just a chance to interact and exchange experiences.

Name Number of words
4 mins 3 1/2 mins 3 mins
Marcal ? 91 96
Barbara 77 80 98
Sylwia 105 81 94
Magdalena 60 44 53
Peter 50 62 66
Kanie 59 61 74
Marco 29 44 45
Alicia 91 98 97
Mohammed 64 78 77
Vincento 43 66 79

‘The Magic Pen’ 4 Mins
Anything you like: Free Writing 31 /2 Mins
(How)Will this help me? 3 Mins

The table above (based on a combination of samples from two different classes and levels) displays some noteworthy results. While the word count of some writers such as Alicia does not appear to change numerically, it should be borne in mind that in relation to the available time the output has increased, and as can be seen by the sample below, the quality of the text is consistent.

More noticeable increases can be seen with other writers such as Barbara, Vincento, Kanie and Peter all of whom were surprised and encouraged by the results.

Of course, some writers showed a decrease in output, noticeably Magdalena. Although there may be a variety of explanations about the exceptions to the general trend, my personal thought was that perhaps this writer was in a fairly relaxed state already and felt no great pressure to compete but took time to reflect and enjoy the experience.

Although producing less during the free writing phase Sylwia’s writing is well composed and descriptive yet factual and although displaying article omissions, it is surprisingly effective considering the time constraints. However, during the final phase the word count increases. Could this be because the writer is once again in the more familiar realm of self awareness? Again, that is only a personal view.

Samples of students’ writing

It is hoped that the reader will enjoy reading the samples of student work below which have been copied faithfully from the original texts. No alterations or corrections have been made except in one instance where a word has been added in [ ] to help with meaning .

Firstly, the opening topic has the potential to unlock the imagination and foster optimism:

My Magic Pen

When I first saw it, it seemed to be a normal pen. However, the soft texture and the brightness of its colours showed me that it as much more than a normal pen.

When I first wrote with it I was totally sure it wasn’t normal. It could actually write in different languages!! It can tell the most beautiful stories in perfect grammar! I will definitely bring it in for my exam on Thursday.

Barbara (4 mins = 77 words)

The Magic Pen

One lovely morning, it was very sunny and warm, I walked outside to have a zigarette. And I nearly slip over a pen. It was such a nice pen in rainbow colours. I picked it up and put it in my pocket. After the zigarette I wanted to draw something with the pen. While I had my breakfast I drew some things, you know, just headless. Then I’m noticed that the pictures were moving. I drew a rabbit and a dog and a cat and everything was moving! It’s magic?

Alicia (4 mins = 91 Words)

The Magic Pen

Dear my magic pen.
Would you like to write for me what I can do for my exam and what beautiful word I can write? Oh yes! I would like to write something about your beautiful sons and your handsome husband your family, it is excellent in your world Thank you very much what you did.

Kanie (4 mins = 59 words)

“The Magic Pen”

A few years ago I bought in a Chinese shop “Magic Pen”. Since that day everything in my life has changed. Any time I was writting any wish it happened in my real life, so I have changed my wife, my car, my house, my friends etc.

Piotr (4 mins = 50 words)

My Magic Pen

I have plenty of thoughts running through my head all day long. Some of them are boring comments of what is going on around me. Others are interesting ideas and conclusions worth considering and exploring. What can I do to stop my thoughts for a second and memorise them for later? I thought I can write these down, to enable me to come back later not wasting any good ideas. That’s why I always carry a notebook and a pen with me. The pen is magic because it is an evaluation of myself. It puts all the thoughts on the paper making them more real.

Sylwia (4 Mins = 105 words)

My Magic Pen

I must admit that I have been pursuing the subject almost all my life, I mean my school years and then university and then through my professional life. I love pens and I would love to own the perfect one. The result is I have quite a collection of different sorts of pens all over my home!

Magdalena (4 mins = 60 words)

Many writers commented positively on the perceived benefits of the relaxation techniques:

[How it will help]

I am completely sure that it will help, even if it only is a little bit. Everything we do in life, however useless we might think it is at first, will always have a positive side. Relaxation techniques always help students to perform better in their exams and they are a very important factor in the final outcome. Nervous students tend to underperform since they are not in the right mood to inspire themselves. It is more advantageous to relax and be positive since that helps people enjoy what they are doing with obvious positive consequences.

Marcal (3 mins = 96 words)

[How it will help]

It’s proved that mind and body are linked in some way. “Mens sana in corpore sano” said the Latin. And they were right. Relaxing using breathing exercises is a good thing for the mind. A free mind can act much better than a busy mind.

Marco (3 mins = 45 words)

How will this help me in the exam?

Well, I hope it helps me to calm down, because I’m always nervous before an exam. So I hope this technique is a solution for that! Maybe it helps me to relax and focus my thoughts on the topic of the exam! But maybe it helps that my hands won’t be aching after that huge amount of writing that will be going on! Free your mind and just do it, keep your conzentration and relax! The worst thing that can happen is that you won’t pass the exam, that’s not the end of the world! Good Luck

Alicia ( 3 Mins=97 Words)

How will this help me?

Loosing up exercise are very good to relax whole body, it means that we can reduce our tension, the blood pressure stabilize our mind becomes to be more effective so we can concentrate better. This exercise gives us opportunity to achive much better result on exam, so the score will be better then without those exercises.

Piotr (3 mins = 66 words)

Will this help in the exam?

Of course it will help. This is what I normally do. I religiously believe in Yoga relaxation. This is why every, literally every morning I go for nordic walking and do some Yoga stretching exercises. So I will do the same on Thursday. Thank you Peter for your dedication for our exam results!

Magdalena (3 mins = 53 words)

One writer however, had doubts about the effectiveness of short term exercises :

Will this…?

I don’t really know whether it will help me. This technique has been proved effective when practised regularly; I have not practised this relaxation. The other argument for it being ineffective might be the fact that I tend to get extremely stressed in exam situations such as job interview. I will definitely take my “Rescue Remedy” drops, as in the past the stress has had such a great negative effect on the results, that I am not going to risk it! I must admit that believing in the effectiveness would probably help.

Sylwia (3 mins = 94 words)

Finally, the central free-writing phase gave an interesting insight as to what can be going through the minds of our students – expressed in English of course!

For one writer it was matters related to gardening:


Dear Kris
How are you, we are all fine. I thing and you are OK. I’m writing to tell you something who you know, it’s about the manure you put between the aubergines and beans. I thing it’s not good to put there. Because it’s very bad for the plants which are around it has a lot of amonniak.

Kanie (3 1/2 mins 61 words)

For two writers, thoughts of plans in the near future:

[Free Writing]

Oh god, you know, I’m going on holiday next week! I really can’t wait, I didn’t see my friend and my boyfriend for a half a year now and I’m just so happy to see them again. We will meet in Berlin because it’s the hometown of my boyfriend. And I just were once in Berlin and I mean, it’s the capital of Germany, so it’s quite nice to visit it again. And I’m also looking forward to know the friends of him, it will be very interesting and exciting! And it will be party party party!

Alicia (3 1/2 mins 98 words)

[Free Writing]

I look forward for my holiday. At the beginning of July I will see my son in Poland and we are going to go to Crete together. I am sure I’t is gonna be a wonderful trip. When we come on an island I will hire a car and we will touring the island. Also I want to go on Santorini Island.

Piotr (3 1/2 mins = 62 words)

For another, reflections on their surroundings:

Anything you like - English Countryside

I love English countryside, especially the region I live in. It has been rightly recognised as an area of an outstanding beauty. My house is set in a valley being surrounded by hills. I would never believe that green would be of such an intense and deep tone; the whole area is [shaded] in various tones of green plants. The animals, especially birds complete the view by adding the natural sounds filling the spec [time limit cut writing short]

Sylwia (3 1/2 mins =81 words)

For another, the exciting prospect of a new venture:

Anything you like

I will write about my new idea of fitness – Rollerskiing! I have booked a one day course near Eton next Sunday. To be honest I am a little scared of my new activity, because it has not brakes at all!

Magdalena (3 1/2 mins =44 words)

And an expression of the frustrations of living in a country surrounded by native speakers :

[Free Writing]

I’m still thinking what I’m doing in England. Sometime I think I’ll never speak English like English people and it’s very disappointed to me because I really don’t like doing things best, I’m doing what I can, but sometimes I think it’s not enough.

Marco (3 1/2 mins = 44 words)

In conclusion, this adaptation of an ‘Old Exercise’ has proved to have been useful for students in a practical sense contributing to student confidence hopefully raising individual awareness of their competency of expressing in writing unplanned and un-edited thoughts in another language. It seems also to demonstrate the value of ‘limbering up’ for writing in a similar way to the way in which warmer exercises are used in a wider sense before and during other lessons. I have done the same exercise with a larger CAE class and other Intermediate students and with similar success, the amount of good quality spontaneous writing produced generally being a source of pleasant surprise and encouragement to the participants.


Please check the Creative Methodology for the Classroom course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Methodology and Language for Secondary Teachers course at Pilgrims website.

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