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The Literacy column;After hours

Jill Parkin finds a little animal magic.

It's literacy hour at Crampton primary school in south London, and Pete Curtis is drawing a huge elephant. He is surrounded by half-a-dozen children shouting out words such as "grey", "big ears" and "trunk". Everyone is having a good time.

"There," he says. "It's finished. What do you think?" "Where's the tail?" says a small boy.

"Ah," says Pete. "You never mentioned a tail."

Pete is a literacy hour regular at the 220-pupil school. He's a professional illustrator with a seven-year-old son, Timmy, a pupil at the school.

He became involved when language co-ordinator Marian Kennedy asked pupils' mothers to come in and talk about books they had enjoyed as children.

"Pete, a single father, was disappointed to be left out," says Ms Kennedy. "But we asked him to do an assembly and things developed from there.

"About half our pupils are from ethnic minorities, and at the time it was black history month. Beverley Naidoo came in to talk about her book Journey to Jo'burg. Pete drew pictures from what the children told him about the story.

"It brought an important part of black history to life," says Ms Kennedy. "It's like a comprehension exercise. It makes them think about what they read and how they express it."

Pete doesn't read the book or poem the children are working on. He takes a small group of seven to 11-year-olds, settles them around his flip-chart and asks them to write down words describing a character they have chosen. Then he draws a big and bold picture - unless he's decided to do a model or a mask.

Most of the books the children describe have only occasional line drawings. "They love it," he says. Sometimes I'll describe something and get them to draw it.

The project has contributed to a significant improvement in results. Since the school, which has a high percentage of children with special needs, introduced the literacy hour two years ago, key stage 2 national test scores in English have risen from 42 per cent to 70 per cent achieving level 4 or above.

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