Reading for Gumshoes: Using Mysteries to Teach Reading Skills
Teacher Audrey Kennan shares seven ways she uses mysteries to teach crucial reading skills.
- Grades: 3–5
Skill: Understanding Genre
Because mysteries’ specific elements—detectives, suspects, and clues—are so clear, they provide a good background for talking about what is meant by genre in general. Ask students, “What are we going to expect in a mystery?” Talk about genre-specific vocabulary—such as suspect, culprit, motive, and alibi. Illustrate these words on a chart—then do the same for Westerns, fantasy, etc.
Activity: Mystery Library Walk
Gather a stack of books in different genres from your library. Lead students in a classification discussion: Is this a mystery? How do you know? What makes you think that it isn’t a mystery? Have students list words that are often seen in mystery titles, such as case and bandit.
Skill: Understanding Story
Activity: Mystery Maps
Use what students already know about basic story structure to look closely at how mysteries are written. First, draw a plot map of a story students are familiar with, such as “Cinderella.” Then draw a mystery plot on large easel paper or using a software program like Kidspiration. How is a mystery setting different from other story settings? What is the problem in the mystery and how is it solved? How do conflicts in mysteries differ from those in other genres?
Activity: Make Your Own Readers’ Theater
Select a scene from a mystery chapter book and assign roles to students—characters, narrators, and “sound effects managers” (if a character knocks on a door, for example). Read the chapter aloud as if it were a play. To involve more students in the production, assign as many as three students to each single role, and invite them to read chorally.
Skill: Understanding Character
Activity: Detective Profiles
Have students talk with a partner about how they would describe the detective in the story you are reading. Bring the class together to share what they noticed. Talk about distinctive character traits—such as Cam Jansen’s photographic memory—and how these special traits help them to solve mysteries.
Activity: Suspect Line-up
About halfway through a mystery, talk about the cast of suspects. In small groups, have students discuss each suspect’s possible motive and whom they think is the culprit. Encourage students to use specific quotes from the book to support their detective guesses. For example, “I think Dave stole the sneakers because it said on page 36 that he loves to run, but I read in chapter two that his sneakers are old. So, I think he has a motive for stealing the sneakers.”
Activity: Crime Scene Art
Find the passage in the book (almost always at the end) where the detective describes how he or she solved the case and what really happened. Ask students to draw a picture showing how they think the crime was committed. Ask, “what did you read that gave you that picture in your head?”