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Mystery Lessons

Teacher Lesson




  • Language Arts
  • Literature



3-5, 6-8



Brief Description

Students assume the identity of private investigators as they read, solve, and write mysteries.






  • learn the basic elements of a mystery.
  • learn about some famous detectives, detective agencies, and mystery authors.
  • become familiar with mystery vocabulary.
  • work cooperatively to map the plot of a mystery.
  • write their own mysteries.



mystery, detective, investigate, mysteries, plot, setting, character


Materials Needed

Materials for Detective ID Badges
  • trench coat
  • sunglasses
  • detectives hat (a brimmed hat is good, or a Sherlock Holmes hat)
  • digital camera (or a regular camera and scanner)
  • color printer (optional)

Mystery Stories: Some Good Online Sources

  • Forensic Files
  • MysteryNets Kids Mysteries
  • MysteryNet: Learn With Mysteries
  • Nancy Drew for Kids
  • FBI Internet Safety Tips for Kids
  • Other Materials

    • nursery rhyme books
    • presentation software, such as AppleWorks, PowerPoint, or HyperStudio (optional)
    • sticky notes

    Lesson Plan

    Start the lesson by writing on the chalkboard the question "What Is a Mystery?" Write students answers to the question on a response chart.

    Work into the discussion the idea that good mystery stories:

    • have well developed characters, settings, and plots.
    • are usually realistic.
    • include a mystery to be solved. For example: Who did it? What is it? How did it happen?
    • include clues and distractions. Sometimes a clue might be mistaken for a distraction, or a distraction might be mistaken for a clue. A good mystery writer can help throw off readers with distractions, and surprise readers when they miss a deeply hidden clue.

    Story Mapping Activity
    Introduce a short mystery story to students. Use a story map form to map the story as a whole-class activity.

    Below are some helpful resources and templates about mapping stories.

  • ReadingQuest Strategies: Story Maps
  • Story Map Template 1 (Adobe Acrobat required)
  • Story Map Sample 3

    After doing a story map together, read aloud another mystery story. Have each student work independently to complete a story map. Then arrange students into groups of four. Give them time to share their story maps with one another and then ask them to create a single story map that combines their best ideas. Provide time for students to share the results of their small group sessions.

    If you have access to a computer, introduce some of the online resources listed in the Materials Needed section. If not, provide short mysteries for students to read. Challenge each student to work independently to create a story map for one of the short mystery stories.

    As students work on the story mapping activity, work with small groups of students to create badges that identify them as mystery detectives! (Alternative: The badge-making lesson might be done as a whole-group activity.)

    Creating Detective Top Secret ID Badges

    • Use a drawing software program to create a rounded rectangle 8 inches wide x 4 inches high. Paste another shape of the same size immediately below the first one. Those two rectangles will serve as the front and back of each students Top Secret ID badge.
    • Divide the two rectangles in half by drawing a vertical line down their centers.
    • Cut and paste a star-shaped graphic in the right half of the top rectangle. Create a text box above the star and type "Agent Identity" in a suitable font.
    • Take a digital picture of each student wearing the trench coat and detective hat (see Materials Needed). Show each student how to insert or paste the picture into the left side of the bottom rectangle. Type a text box under the picture and enter each student's Agent name along with any aliases he or she might use for undercover work.
    • On the right side of the bottom rectangle, have students create text boxes giving such personal details as their age (as a secret agent), height, hair color, and the languages they are fluent in. They can also record any specialties or areas of expertise.
    • Print the two rectangles in color on cardstock. Glue them back-to-back and fold so the Agent Identity star is the cover; inside will be the Agent photo (left) and agent profile (right). Laminate the IDs.

    A Detective Portfolio
    Provide a portfolio case that students can turn into a mystery portfolio or detective briefcase. (Students might create their portfolios by folding a large sheet of drawing paper in half.) For each mystery site visited, students should copy and paste a graphic from the site into a drawing or text document, and then copy and paste the URL beneath the graphic. Have them add each graphic and URL to the same drawing/text document. Eventually, students will have created a document page full of colorful graphics from the sites they have visited. Print the document and have students cut the graphics apart and paste them onto their detective briefcases to serve as a record of sites they have visited.

    Nursery Rhyme Mystery
    Another activity possibility involves students turning a nursery rhyme into a mystery. Share with students some of the possibilities:

    • Was Jack pushed or tripped as he went up the hill?
    • Did Humpty Dumpty really fall off the wall? Or did he have food poisoning and fall from sickness? Was he pushed?
    • Why were all the animals out the night the cow jumped over the moon? How did she learn to jump so high -- did she take lessons? Where did the dish and spoon go?
    • How did the birds get baked in the pie? Was it a mistake, a gag, a bad joke?
    • Was Mother Hubbard robbed?

    Let students stretch their creativity and pose some of the possibilities! Challenge them to create a storyboard the spells out the steps (the twists and turns, the clues) and the characters in their stories.

    Before setting students off on their own, work with them to create a story map for one of the nursery rhymes. Help students see that they will need to flesh out the nursery rhyme, giving more detail to existing characters and settings. Perhaps they also will need to introduce characters who were not in the original nursery rhyme.

    Remind students to stay away from violence in their stories; most mysteries are simple.

    Introduce to students the idea of using sticky notes to organize their stories. Talk about events that might take place in the story and write each event on a different sticky note. Add details about characters and setting. As you model the process aloud for students, move the sticky notes around in order to make the best sense of the mystery. Where will you place the clues? The distractions?

    After modeling some of the processes students might use to create their stories, explain that, once they have written their stories, they will create an electronic version of their mystery using AppleWorks, or a slideshow using HyperStudio, Digital Chisel, KidWorks, PowerPoint, or a similar program. Using the sticky notes, show students how the notes might be arranged or organized in such a presentation. Sticky notes that relate to similar concepts might be gathered and placed on a single slide, for example. Model this part of the activity for students before they start it. Remind them that preparing this information ahead of time will mean they can use their lab time most efficiently.

    More Mystery Activities
    Below is a list of additional activities you might use to round out your mystery unit. As students do each activity, they should add the final products to their portfolios/briefcases. Add your own favorite mystery activities to the mix.

    • Research a list of famous detectives and their respective agencies.
    • Visit the FBI Web site for kids (see Materials Needed) to learn about fingerprinting, disguises, and more. Write a brief paragraph that tells about your favorite section of the site and describes something you learned that you did not know before
    • Create a glossary of 15 mystery-related terms; write the definition of each term.
    • Create a list of mystery authors and highlight the ones who write for children.

    More Ideas
    Provide students with a long list of activities. Assign each activity a point value that reflects the difficulty and amount of time the activity might take. Tell students they will need 50 points to earn their detective badge (to get a special gold sticker to put on it); it will be their responsibility to choose activities that add up to 50 points and to perform them to your satisfaction.

    If you are looking for additional ideas, see the Education World article Get a Clue! A Month of Mysteries for the Classroom. This article, written in 1999, includes many excellent mystery activity ideas. (Since the story was written in 1999, it will include a handful of dead links too.)




    Teachers will observe students contributions to the class discussions and activities, their cooperation during group activities, and their attentiveness and ability to follow technical instructions during computer lab time. The teacher will assess students nursery rhyme stories; did they include the elements of a good mystery that were discussed at the start of the unit? The teacher will also assess students final products/portfolios.


    Submitted By


    VaReane Heese, Springfield (Nebraska) Elementary School


    Originally published 10/10/2002
    Last updated 02/24/2009


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