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Review - Exhibition - Every picture tells a story

Out of Art into Literacy

National Gallery, London

Until 5 December, admission free

Anne Joseph

"I learnt much more than I taught," says children's author Frank Cottrell Boyce, referring to his involvement in the National Gallery's exhibition, Out of Art into Literacy. The exhibition celebrates the outcome of two educational projects, Into the Frame and Out of Art into Storytelling.

The first used the author's award-winning book, Framed, which weaves National Gallery paintings throughout the narrative. The second involved pupils using dialogue and role-play to tell their versions of the stories represented in the paintings.

Both these projects enabled primary teachers to explore the potential of using paintings in imaginative ways to inspire their pupils' discussion and writing skills. The result is an impressive collection of paintings, drawings, creative writing, sculpture and animation.

Ruth Grimwood, a Year 5 teacher from Crown Lane Primary in south London, took part in the initial training programme at the gallery. The school had been concerned about how it would know if the project had been a success, but Ms Grimwood says proof came as soon as teachers began video-recording the pupils speaking.

Having embraced the oral work, "their writing skills flowed from it", she says. Before embarking on the project, Ms Grimwood said the children had a low level of achievement, but their engagement "increased the quality of their storytelling - both verbal and written. They learnt complicated stories and how best to engage readers."

Her class was among the 1,200 children who took part in the project. Their inspiration was Luca Giordano's bloodthirsty late 17th-century painting, Perseus turning Phineas and his Followers to Stone (below). The pupils produced an animated version of the tale, although lack of space means that only the five colourful collages that form the storyboards for their film can go on display.

Ade Shokoya, a teacher from Bannockburn Primary in Greenwich, south-east London, was particularly impressed by the way her pupils threw themselves into drama as part of the project. So much so that they are now keen to do drama every week.

All 22 London schools that took part in the project were performing below the national Sats literacy average. According to John Camp, headteacher at Deansfield Primary, also in Greenwich, it has helped to raise pupils' attainment.

"The use of paintings enables children, especially reluctant writers, to engage more confidently with narrative," he says. Indeed, the exhibition's title picture is of Manod, the Welsh village that appears in Framed. Children had to interpret the village in a visual form using the description in the text.

The National Gallery collection is brimming with stories. Inspiration was clearly not difficult to find in the paintings although the schools have had to be selective about what goes on show.

Pictures were chosen for their sheer size and their ability to capture the imagination. Some were picked because the stories were well known, such as Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne, while others simply suggest a narrative - for example, Georges Seurat's Bathers at Asnieres.

Launching the exhibition, Mr Boyce described art as something to share. Ali Mawle, head of schools at the gallery, is keen for teachers, pupils and their families to do just that.

"We have 80,000 children here a year in facilitated visits and the gallery educators know to point potential school visitors in the direction of the exhibition," she says. "I hope that teachers will see it and feel excited about using National Gallery paintings to inspire language and literacy."

The exhibition is a testament to those teachers who ignited enthusiasm in their pupils. But more so to the pupils whose understanding, passion and artistic creativity is evident in this exhibition.

The verdict: 710.

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