Research corner

25th September 2015 at 01:00
Every fortnight, we highlight education research conducted by teachers. This week, Sarah Mulholland, an English teacher at Tarporley High School in Cheshire, reveals how a chance to work with a local writer boosted her Year 9s’ confidence in creative writing


Many GCSE English language papers feature an image as a stimulus for creative writing. Sarah Mulholland’s students found writing these creative responses very hard. Confidence was a barrier and many struggled to put pen to paper. Mulholland applied for, and won, a grant from Manchester Art Gallery that would allow her class to work with local writer Mike Garry. This gave her the chance to develop two workshops to help students “unlock” an image and build a narrative around it.


In the Year 11 exam, students need to be able to plan and write quickly in a way that satisfies the marking criteria. Mulholland felt that working with an outside agency in an environment other than the classroom (the art gallery), going through the writing process with a real writer and using a “toolkit” of approaches, would improve her students’ performance and confidence.


Mulholland benchmarked her students’ writing ability using an unseen task structured in the same way as an exam question, in which pupils had 30 minutes to write a description or a short story inspired by an image. The class then visited Manchester Art Gallery to take part in a workshop.

They were told to analyse a painting called Under Windsor Bridge on the Irwell by Adolphe Valette (pictured above). Garry asked students to slow down and really focus on the painting’s features. He then trialled various writing techniques, such as using binary oppositions to explore character (is the character happy or sad, fast or slow?) and asking students to write questions about the picture.

Back at school, the students took part in a final workshop that went into more detail, analysing pages from Garry’s notebook to show his writing processes. Pupils also used a word splurge, which visualised words as a collage, and practiced kennings (compound expressions with metaphorical meanings) and haikus. They then attempted one final exam-style task based on another unseen image.

The results

More than 80 per cent of the students made progress from the initial benchmark level to the final writing level in the unseen exam-style assessment. In interviews and questionnaires, it was clear that students had made excellent progress in building confidence and could clearly articulate the range of approaches they now applied to unlock the image.

The impact

Students produced some outstanding writing. Next year, Mulholland’s department intends to use this approach throughout its key stage 3 courses.

To find out more about the project, email Sarah Mulholland at

To share your research findings, email

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