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Sarah Mulholland asks to what extent can use of artworks as visual stimulus be used to support creative writing skills at GCSE?

Sarah Mulholland, an English teacher at Tarporley High School, Cheshire, reveals how she helped to equip Year 9 students for narrative and descriptive writing inspired by an image, under exam conditions.

Under Windsor Bridge - S.Mulholland


The GCSE English Language new specification from AQA will always feature an image as its stimulus for creative writing in section B on paper 1. These questions are designed as an opportunity for students to showcase their narrative and descriptive writing ability.

In Mulholland’s class, her 33 high ability students found this kind of writing a challenge, and were unable to showcase their skills in a way that broke free of derivative, pedestrian responses to achieve compelling and vivid descriptions. Student confidence was an enormous barrier too, with many students struggling to put pen to paper at all, and wasting a great deal of time with false starts and anxieties. Prompted by her work with Manchester Art Gallery using art works to ‘unlock’ creative writing (including INSET training arranged for the department), Mulholland was alerted to the Max Reinhardt Literacy Awards and NAWE (National Association for Writers in Education) funding, and entered a bid for a grant which would enable her to work closely with Emma Carroll Education Coordinator at Manchester Art Gallery, and Mancunian writer Mike Garry. Mulholland, Carroll and Garry designed a workshop approach that would equip students with a ‘toolkit’ with which to approach this task in the exam.


In the exam in Year 11, students will need to be able to plan and write quickly in a way that satisfies the marking criteria, but that also sets them apart from other candidates as top writers. Mulholland felt that working with an outside agency in an environment other than the classroom (the art gallery), working through the writing process with a real writer and using a transferable ‘toolkit’ of approaches would improve student performance and confidence in exam-style creative writing. The increasing demands of the new GCSE course mean that students’ confidence and approach to questions is essential to their success, making this a pertinent area for research.

During benchmarking tasks it was clear just how lacking in confidence these high ability students were, and it was imperative to develop strategies that could be used in both the classroom or gallery space to support all learners at all abilities.

Word splurge - S.Mulholland


To start with, Mulholland benchmarked her students’ writing ability using an unseen task. Students had 30 minutes to write a description or a short story inspired by an image using a question that was structured in the same way as the exam. The students’ levels were noticeably lower than on other writing tasks.

Mulholland, Carroll and Garry began the intervention process with a workshop in the art gallery in which a series of approaches as part of the #imagetotext project which were trialled using the painting ‘Under Windsor Bridge’ by Adolphe Valette, that supported students in ‘unlocking’ the image and building a narrative. Before this, students took part in a ‘confidence line’ self-assessment which revealed how lacking in confidence they were when faced with the task of writing on an image.

The strategies used in the gallery included:

  • Slowing down when looking – using the formal elements of art such as line, colour and tone to allow students to “notice more”, and select vivid details which would embellish writing effectively
  • Using sensory exploration of the image – a quick carousel approach only allowed students to work with one of the five senses for a limited time, the quickfire nature of this allowing students to use spontaneous and unusual ideas
  • Using binary oppositions to explore character – when focusing on the figure in the image, students used forced choice responses to closed questions to form the character’s attributes (e.g. Happy or sad? Fast or slow? Cat or dog?) , embellishing when questioned to form a more rounded character
  • Using imagined questioning techniques written on luggage tags, which were then selected from, and answered by other students (e.g. students would write down questions such as “Why is he standing on the dock?”, “Where did he get that big old coat from?”, “What is he looking at in the distance?”). This supported the development of narrative voice and the character’s monologue

Upon returning to school, students took part in two workshops led by the writer. In the first of these, Garry led using the following strategies:

  • Pages from his writer’s note book about the painting – to show Garry’s writing process, and the messy, chaotic process of planning and getting ideas “onto the page”
  • Word splurge – Students create a collage of words in various fonts, directions, colours before selecting only the most effective
  • Kennings – students work these words into kennings to form short effective metaphors
  • Haikus – students are then constrained by Haiku form to force them to consider the best words in the best order.
  • Description is formed from these bare elements – students are encouraged to draft, re-draft, amend, change, manipulate chronology and voice to achieve best elements in the best order

The writer returned for a final workshop where students work was celebrated and shared. Students attempted one final exam-style task based on another unseen image which was levelled once again.

Character Questions - S. Mulholland

The results

82% of students made progress from the initial benchmark level to the final writing level in the unseen exam style assessment. Individually, the students’ performance rose by a minimum of two sub-levels in the 82% of cases where progress was made. In interviews and questionnaires, and via the ‘confidence line’, it was clear that students had made excellent progress in terms of their confidence, and could clearly articulate the range of approaches they could now apply to “unlock” the image.

Placemat Resource S.Mulholland

The impact

While the presence of the writer and gallery setting were undoubtedly positive factors in the overall success of the group, the accomplishment of the ‘toolkit’ approach to the writing process is clear. Mulholland was also able to trial these processes with another Yr 9 class as an additional test group within a one hour GCSE taster workshop. Students were noticeably more confident in unlocking an image, and were able to produce some outstanding examples of writing. Next year, Mulholland’s department intend to incorporate these writing workshops and exam-style writing practices inspired by visual stimulus throughout their KS3 courses. In her own class, Mulholland has continued to embed these approaches with short writing tasks intended to interleave these crucial exam skills. Eventually, she would like to compare the results of this interleaving with the new Yr 9 cohort against those from the Yr 9 class with whom she worked on the MRLA/NAWE project.

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