Thursday, 20 October 2016

Aberfan - 50 years on

On Friday 21st October 1966, I was one week away from my 6th birthday and was at school at Dean Row Infant School, Cheshire. On that same day in Aberfan, South Wales, 116 children and 28 adults were to tragically lose their lives, when a huge landslide of coal slurry would engulf their school.

I was too young at the time to know anything about this tragedy, but would learn later as a young adult and teacher. I have always felt very affected by this awful event and believe it is important that it is not forgotten about.

This very powerful British Pathe video from the time, shows exactly what it was like:


'The tragedy happened at 0915, just as the pupils of Pantglas Juniour School were about to embark on their first lessons. Some children were filing into classrooms ready for register. 

In total, 144 people were killed - 116  of them children. The last body was recovered nearly a week after the disaster  happened.


The NCB (National Coal Board) said abnormal rainfall had caused the coal waste to move.
The inquiry of Tribunal later found that the NCB was wholly to blame and should pay compensation for loss and personal injuriies.
The NCB and Treasury refused to accept full financial responsibility for the tragedy, so the Aberfan Disaster Fund had to contribute £150,000 towards removing the remaining tip that overlooked the village.
This was fully repaid in 1997, by the then Secretary of State for Wales, Ron Davies.' BBC On This Day.


Here are some writing ideas for children to learn about Aberfan:

1) Imagine you are a newspaper reporter at the time of the tragedy. Write an article for your paper, explaining to your readers what has happened.

2) Imagine you have been asked to interview one of the mothers who's child had died on that day. What questions would you ask them? What answers would they give?

3) Imagine you are one of the children who was lucky enough to escape the disaster. Maybe you didn't go to school that day? Maybe you were late to school? Maybe you were lucky enough to have been rescued? Write a diary entry for that morning of 21st October 1966.

For more teaching resources about Aberfan follow the links below:

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Friday, 23 September 2016

Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children - Creative Writing Ideas


I heard about this book a couple of weeks ago and have been fascinated with it ever since. I particularly love the use of  spooky, old photographs in the book and as a teacher, the idea of a home or school for 'peculiar' children.

So what is the book about?
A teenage boy (Jacob) travels to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he finds the ruins of an old house; Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children. Who were these children? Why were they there? Why were they 'peculiar'?

This is the link for the offical trailer to the film and it will give you a little taste of what is to come! 

I then began to think about how the book and it's wonderful photographs could be used as starting points for creative writing. In particular, writing prompts for Key Stage 3 (11-14 year olds) students.

Here are some ideas:

1) Using photographs from the book as stimuli.:

These three photographs come from the book. I won't tell you who they are, I will leave that up to you to imagine. What are their names? Why are they at Miss Peregrine's home? Why are the two younger children dressed as clowns? Where have they come from? What happens to them all?

2) Using your own photographs as stimuli:

Here are three old photographs from my own collection. I can already see a story evolving. Who are the family on the left? What has happened to them? How old is the house? Where is the house? Is it empty? Who are three girls? What are their names? Have they been to school? Or are they going to school?

3) Using the set of the house as a starting point for descriptive writing.

Imagine you have arrived at the house for the first time. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? Who else is there? How do you feel?

4) Imagine you have been asked to interview Miss Peregrine. What questions would you ask her? How might she reply? Are you nervous? Is she scary?

5) Write a diary entry as if you are Jacob. Write about the first time you lay eyes on Miss Peregrine, or one of the 'peculiar' children. What time of day or night do you meet them?How do you feel? How do they react to you? Do you want to run away from them? Are they friendly?

6) Check out the offical website of the author Ransom Riggs, to find out more about him, his books and read the opening chapter from Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children.

All of these ideas can be done at home and will help your child with their English writing skills.

If you want to take it further, you can use one of the central themes to start a discussion or a prompt for a piece of non fiction writing.

The book has a lot of deeper messages within it, two of these being:
1) Tolerance/ tolerating people who are different.
2) Persecution / treatment of Jews during World War ( Jacob's Polish grandfather escapes the Jews during WWII).

I would love to see any of your work that comes from these ideas. It might be a piece of writing or a picture, but feel free to send it to us at:

For more information about any of our online English courses, please visit our website: or email me at:

Monday, 18 July 2016

Writing Books for Children - Susan Keefe


What’s so special about the Toby’s Tails series of children’s  books?

I am Susan Keefe, the author of the Toby’s Tails series of children’s books. I was born in Essex in the UK, had an idyllic childhood, lots of animals, and from an early age I had an affinity with animals and a passionate love of them. My parents and paternal grandparents encourage my love of everything living, and my fondest memories are of walking with my granddad round fields and lakes learning country lore from him.

So did I have a career in journalism before writing my books? No, just a passion for animals and a deep longing to share with others, the childhood I had been so lucky to have. I believe fervently that many children in this modern world miss out on the simple joys of nature because they are too plugged into their iPod from an early age, and parents, desperate to earn more money don’t have the time to spend with them. Gone are the days when we made do and gave our children time rather than possessions.

In 2006 my husband Michael and I moved to the Pays de la Loire region of France. Late 2008 lost Czar, one of my two Golden Retrievers. Then a few weeks later in January 2009 we had to take our lady goat to say hello to her boyfriend. As we stopped the car, there peering out from the gate were a family of Border Collies. Is there such a thing as love at first sight, yes there is! One look at those liquid hazel eyes and I knew I just had to have him. By the time the goats had said hello we had agreed to buy our Toby and pick him up in two weeks.

So, as Toby grew up our bond became inseparable, we spent 24/7 with each other. Then one day, whilst Michael took a nap I sat at the computer and quite out of the blue started my very first book, Toby’s Tails. Michael was right from the start very encouraging, and Toby is always wrapped around my chair, as near as possible to me. The words just flew and soon the book, which chronicles Toby’s first year, his training, the animals and wildlife he encounters and life experiences was compete. Of course every book takes lots of editing and there is a lot of work from the book being ‘finished’ until it is ready for publishing. All the photos in the books are taken by me and are in colour, something I feel is very important, and the animals are our own.

As I have become known as a writer locally my French friends asked me why the books are not available in French. I realised they had a point, and now there are eight books in the Toby’s Tails series, and many are available in French and a couple in Spanish as well.

The latest book is one of two of the books which have been especially produced to raise money for charities. Toby’s Tails – Toby Visits Chats du Quercy (Toby et Compagnie- Toby rend visite - Chats du Quercy).

All the books have morals very subtly added. They all teach children about not only understanding and caring for animals, but also about the wonders of the natural world which are around them, and can be seen and enjoyed every day. One book, Toby’s Tails – Saying Goodbye to Lucky tackles the sensitive subject of the loss of a pet, however, it too has an uplifting message.

The books are available from all Amazon sites in Paperback and Kindle format :

Many of the reviews for them mention that the reader now looks on animals in a different way – music to my ears, as my message has been understood.

Toby and I are happy to attend events and I can be contacted for personalised copies either via the Toby’s Tails Children’s Books Facebook page or the contact form at the Toby’s Tails website

                                                                          Susan Keefe

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

ONLINE IGCSE ENGLISH - Writing and Reading techniques.



The following reading and writing techniques that are commonly used in UK schools in preparation for GCSE & IGCSE exams. Using them will shape your writing and help towards gaining a higher grade.

Writing Devices

PAF (Purpose, Audience, Format)

This stands for:

Purpose- Why are you writing/ or the person who has written the text doing so? When you/ or they put pen to paper, what is the point? Is it to explain, describe, inform, persuade, argue or advise?

Audience- Who is the writing directed at?

Is it a formal audience? For example a Head teacher, a Prime minister, a Monarch, an Employer, a Newspaper editor etc. The tone needs to be polite and respectful.

Or is it an informal audience? The language can be friendly and appropriate to speaking to someone that you are familiar with. The letter may contain the odd slang term (but not swearing) if appropriate.

Format- How is the writing laid out on the page? 
If it is a speech, then it should have an opening address/ welcome and a closing statement. If it is a diary entry it should have a date and reflect it is a diary. If it is an advert it should have persuasive devices and message. If it is an explaining text then it should have imperatives and quite possibly be in a list.

 PALL (Purpose, Audience, Language, Lay-out)
This is the more advanced version of PAF. It is the same, apart from instead of format we say Lay-out. The extra L is for Language.

Language- What kind of descriptive language is used in the text? There could be: Alliteration, facts, onomatopoeia, repetition, rhetorical questions, exaggeration, statistics and themes (remember as AFORREST).

PEE ( Point, Evidence, Explain)

When writing an answer regarding a text you need to support your opinions with quotes from the text. You should do it like this:

Point- Make a point.

Evidence- Use a quote from the text to support the point.

Explain- Now you explain how the quote backs up the point you have made.

For example:

When answering a question about the extract ‘Touching the Void’ such as-

How does the writer’s choice of language show that he has been seriously hurt?

(Point) We know that Joe has been badly injured from his fall by the language he uses. (Evidence) ‘Then pain flooded down my thigh — a fierce burning fire coming down the inside of my thigh, seeming to ball in my groin, building and building until I cried …’. (Explanation) He has used an emotive word such as pain which lets the reader know he has been injured. He also uses a metaphor to describe the pain as ‘fire’. This image lets us know that he is in seriously injured.

 This is a device used to describe and analyse poetry.

T-What is its theme?

W- What words stand out? This is the poet’s choice of vocabulary.

I- What kind of Imagery (mental pictures) have been used and how? Similes, metaphors, alliteration, personification, onomatopoeia etc?

S- What is the poem’s Structure? This could be comments on how many stanzas (verses) have been used, stand alone sentences, rhyming couplets etc.

T- What is the Tone of the poem? Is it happy and optimistic? Is it sad? Does it feel angry or humourous?

Structuring an extended response

Essay responses are where the bulk of the marks on an exam paper are.

Students need to be confident in three areas:

1. Content- What the text is about? Plot? Characters? Themes?

2. Method- How to write an extended answer (see below)

3. Timing- Be aware of the time limit and don’t run out of time.

(All of these above points will be covered in the course and practised in the final ‘revision units’ leading up to the exam in the 2nd year).

Examiners are looking for students who can lay-out their work correctly as well as answer a question. The way to structure an essay response is such:


Create a focused opening which answers the question and may list key points that you will raise in your response.

Main body

Use PEE! You should aim to make between 3 and 5 points in your response.

For each point you should aim to include 2 pieces of evidence from the text (quotes). Typically a point, with two quotes and an explanation showing how this evidence backs up what you say, can be fitted into a paragraph.


This is where you finish the essay.

To create a strong conclusion you should summarise your key points and evaluate. This is where you basically comment on the writer and how they have met the point/s that the question has asked. What was their reason for doing this eg why did they show a character in a particular way or what message were they trying to get across?

Reading techniques:

When tackling a reading exercise think of the following:


Read the question. Highlight key words in it. For example:

In what ways does the writer Saki create a slightly chilling atmosphere in ‘The Open Window’?

You would highlight ‘ways’, ‘create’, ‘chilling’ & ‘atmosphere’.

This is there to direct you to what the task requires.


You now read the text focused on what the question wants. Remember the key words from the pre-scan. Let your eyes run quickly over several lines, left to right. Some people find having a ruler or piece of paper under the lines help to focus on the text, a sentence at a time.

When you find what you want.


Re-read the line again and make a note of what you have found eg descriptive word etc.

Continue to read.

Finish scanning.

Check your list.

Have you found all that you were looking for?

Now it’s time to tackle the question armed with what you have found.

This blog post was written by Andy Mackay, Head of IGCSE English at Blackhen Education.
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