Ingredients of a Mystery
Students explore the vocabulary, characters, and plot structure they are likely to encounter when reading a mystery.
- Grades: 3–5
- Unit Plan:
In this lesson, students will be introduced to the mystery genre and will explore the vocabulary, characters, and plot structure they are likely to encounter when reading a mystery. They will also learn to keep suspect lists and complete a mystery story map.
- Identify the main "ingredients" in a typical mystery, including common characters and plot structure
- Define vocabulary that appears regularly in mysteries
- Use a mystery story map to organize the elements of a mystery
- Mystery picture books (See Recommended Book List)
- Computer with Internet access (if you choose to use mini-mysteries from the suggested websites on Day 2)
- Detective's Dictionary Handout
- Mystery Memory Game (optional)
- Ingredients for a Mystery Checklist
- Suspect List
- Detective Case Report
- Chart paper (optional)
Set Up and Prepare
- Select and pre-read a few picture book mysteries.
- Preview and print an online "Solve-It" mini-mystery referenced in Day 2 of the lesson.
- Make copies of the Ingredients for a Mystery Checklist, the Detective Case Report, the Suspect List, and The Detective's Dictionary Handout .
- Copy the Mystery Memory Game on card stock and make enough copies for every two students in your class (See Step 4 on Day 1.)
- Create a mystery-themed bulletin board in your classroom to display the definitions of important mystery words and copies of important handouts.
Day 1: What Is a Mystery?
Step 1: Ask students, "What is a mystery?" List their responses on chart paper, a chalkboard, or a dry erase board.
Step 2: Underline words in their responses that are found on the Detective's Dictionary Handout. Explain to students that all mysteries contain important vocabulary words that students must learn before they begin studying the mystery genre.
Step 3: Using the Detective's Dictionary Handout, go through each vocabulary word one at a time asking students to give their own definition of the word. After one or two students give their own definition, reveal the correct definition. I make small posters that state the definition of each word. As I reveal the definition to my class, I hang the poster on a mystery-themed bulletin board in my classroom, as shown in the photo at left, that will remain intact throughout the Mystery Genre Study.
Optional: Have students play the Mystery Memory Game with a partner. Print multiple copies of the game cards on card stock. (I also laminate the cards for future use.) Make enough copies for your students to play the game with a partner. The rules are just like the standard memory game in which students take turns turning over cards and matching the detective words to the correct definition.
Day 2: Recipe for a Mystery
Step 1: Explain to students that most mysteries are made up of the same "ingredients," or story elements.
Step 2: Pass out the Ingredients for a Mystery Checklist. Go over the checklist to make sure that students understand all of the story elements on the checklist.
Step 3: Tell students that you will be reading a mystery aloud to the class. Explain to the students that they will be revisiting the checklist after you read the mystery to determine if the mystery included the items on the checklist.
Step 4: Read a short mystery aloud to the class, and invite the class to solve the mystery. (I have found these "Solve-It Mysteries" to be perfect for this activity. You can also choose a picture book from my Recommended Book List.)
Step 5: After solving the mystery, return to the Ingredients for a Mystery Checklist. As a class, go through the checklist, checking off the parts that were in the mystery you read to the class. Emphasize the ideas that these ingredients can be found in every mystery they read.
Step 6: Add this checklist to your mystery-themed bulletin board so that you can refer to it as you continue to read mysteries in the class.
Day 3: Keeping a Suspect List
Step 1: Explain to students that reading a mystery is like being a detective. When solving a case, detectives often consider many suspects before they can finally determine who committed the crime. To keep track of the suspects, it is important that they collect information about each suspect.
Step 2: Display a copy of the Suspect List worksheet. Go over the worksheet with your students and explain to them that they will use this worksheet to keep track of the suspects in the mystery you will be reading to the class.
Step 3: Read aloud another short mystery to your class.
Step 4: After reading the mystery, use the Suspect List to record the suspects that your students think could have committed the crime in the story. Make sure that students can give you a reason why a character is a suspect. (This is what is to be recorded in the second column on the worksheet.)
Step 5: You may want to do this activity with multiple short mysteries over the next few days so that students will be comfortable maintaining a Suspect List on their own in Lesson 2: Reading Detectives.
Step 6: Add the completed Suspect List to your mystery-themed bulletin board for students to use as a reference when completing their own reports in the future.
Day 4: Mystery Story Map
Step 1: Explain to students that detectives must complete a case report after a mystery has been solved to show how the information they collected helped them crack the case.
Step 2: Display the Detective Case Report worksheet. (Point out that this may be similar to other story maps that they have used, but this one is specific to the mystery genre.) Go over each story element on the worksheet.
Step 3: Using a mystery that you have previously read aloud to the class, complete the Detective Case Report with the help of your students.
Step 4: You may want to do this activity with another short mystery over the next couple days so that students will be comfortable completing a Detective Case Report independently when reading a chapter book mystery in Lesson 2: Reading Detectives.
Step 5: Add the completed Detective Case Report to your mystery-themed bulletin board for students to use as a reference when completing their own case reports in the future.
Supporting All Learners
Since all activities in this lesson are completed as a class, it is easy to support all learners. Be sure not to rush through the activities you are modeling so that all students thoroughly understand each activity and will be able to do the worksheets on their own at a later date. Don't hesitate to repeat an activity if you feel that your class needs more practice.
Invite a local police officer to talk to students about solving real cases in the community. Oftentimes, police officers can teach students about fingerprints, DNA, and other clues they collect to solve crimes. You can also visit the FBI for Kids website.
In my weekly newsletter, I always let parents know exactly what we are studying each week. During the Mystery Genre study, I encourage parents to read mysteries with their children at home, and I send home a copy of the mystery vocabulary for students to study. If you have parents who are police officers or who are involved in investigating crimes, you can even invite them to talk to your class.
- Are students beginning to use and understand the mystery vocabulary?
- Do I need to re-teach any of the lessons from Days 1-4 to help students better understand how to complete the worksheets?
- Were students able to gather clues and solve the mysteries I read aloud?
- Are students excited about the mystery genre?
Since most activities in this lesson are completed as a class, your assessment will be informal. You will assess the class collectively to determine how well students understand the concepts and if they are using the clues from the stories to solve the mysteries. You could also create a vocabulary quiz to test the students' knowledge of the vocabulary on the Detective Dictionary handout.