Mystery Novels Improve Comprehension and Critical Thinking

Mystery novels involve many characters and complex plots. Therefore, kids must pay attention to detail, make connections, and infer. These intricate books boost students’ critical thinking and close reading skills. What are you waiting for? Grab a great mystery and get started.

Ms. Sneed Chooses Mystery Novels for Her Class

Our favorite fourth grade teacher, Ms. Sneed, sat down with her co-teacher to choose a novel.

“Our kids have worked on inference and read short passages. They’ve done a bunch of mystery activities. I hope they’re ready for a full-blown mystery,” said Mr. Frank.

“Since we have a limited budget for our genre study,” Ms. Sneed responded, “we must choose wisely.”

Mr. Frank nodded and slid a piece of paper toward Ms. Sneed. “I found this article on selecting mystery novels,” he said.

Ms. Sneed read it aloud:

What constitutes a great mystery novel?
Clues logically lead to the solution.

True whodunits establish a clear path from the mystery to its resolution. That path may be obscured by red herrings. However, at the end of the book, the reader should see the connections.

Suspects have motive and opportunity.

Novels like Chasing Vermeer engage the audience, but motive, opportunity, and/or evidence don’t lead to the culprit. Steer away from books that aren’t true mysteries.

Red herrings throw sleuths (and readers) off track.

To build critical thinking, mysteries need ambiguity. Enter the red herring. For a great mystery novel, pick something that misleads your readers and makes them think.

Book provides just enough challenge for reader.

When choosing a mystery novel, remember that Lexile and grade level designations can be misleading. In my experience, it’s better to select something at a little lower level. Mysteries, by nature, are complex. That adds to a book’s difficulty.


The teacher looked at her partner with wide eyes. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ve done some research.” He pulled out more notes and a few books.

The Westing Game

“For my advanced fourth graders, I’ve chosen The Westing Game.” He slid the book toward Ms. Sneed. “Don’t be fooled by its Lexile level (750L). Not only is it complicated, it challenges kids’ reading and thinking skills. Most of my students would not understand it without guidance. Consequently, it’s the perfect book for teaching. It pushes my readers to the next level.

“The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, received the prestigious Newbery Medal in 1979. I recommend it for advanced fourth and fifth grade readers, as well as average to high middle school students.

“The story opens as Barney Northrup invites six specially chosen tenants to move to Sunset Towers, an exclusive apartment building on the lakeshore. Soon, these tenants learn that they are heirs to Sam Westing, the elusive owner of Westing Paper Products Corporation. Each pair of heirs receives $10,000 and a set of clues.  They have now become pawns in the Westing game.

“The author, Ellen Raskin, crafted an elaborate scheme. Fortunately, copies of her notes have been published online. For one activity, I’ll ask my students to use them.”

Do you want to challenge your students? Read The Westing Game, a puzzle piece mystery by Ellen Raskin.

Are you feeling “pinspired”? Feel free to pin images from this post.

“Wow,” Ms. Sneed said. You’ve sure done your homework! I’m convinced.”

The Maze of Bones (The 39 Clues)

“The Westing Game is too hard for average readers in my class,” said Mr. Frank. “Therefore, I selected a similar (but easier) mystery for them. The Maze of Bones, written by Rick Riordan, works well. At 610L, it’s accessible to students reading at or above fourth grade level. As a bonus, it’s the first book in a series, which encourages students to continue reading after our mystery study is done.

“In this story, two children (Amy and Dan Cahill) are given a choice: one million dollars or a clue, which will lead to the secret power of the Cahill family. The clue leads them to Poor Richard’s Almanac, written by Ben Franklin. They travel to Philadelphia and then Paris, following Franklin’s path. Along the way they experience danger from their competing relatives and others.”

This fast-paced mystery novel by Rick Riordan starts kids on The 39 Clues series.

Ms. Sneed paged through the book. “Yes, my average readers would gobble this book up,” she said. “And if I read aloud with my lowest students, they would understand too. I love the idea of differentiating with two books.”

Supporting Comprehension of Mystery Novels

Mr. Frank was obviously prepared for this discussion. He continued, “By nature, mystery novels have many characters and complex plots. This requires concentration and close attention to detail. Students in my classroom love mysteries but sometimes struggle to keep track of those details. As a result, comprehension is jeopardized. I’ve found parallel novel studies for The Westing Game and The Maze of Bones. Both include detective’s journals for guided notes, discussion questions, and character cards.”

Detective’s Journals

Ms. Sneed looked at a picture of a detective’s journal. “Taking notes helps sort it all out. I see that kids answer questions, draw diagrams, make observations, and take notes. The detective’s journal makes students read closely and look back at details in the text.”

To help your students comprehend mystery novels, use detective's journals. Guided pages support readers in fourth and fifth grades.
Character Cards

She took a look at the trading cards. “These mystery novels have large casts of characters, which would confuse many readers in my class. These little trading cards ask kids to draw and write about each person in the story. This way, they keep them straight – and have some fun!”

Character cards are not only fun to make. They also help kids keep characters straight. Try them for your mystery novel unit.

Mr. Frank grinned. He had already put the books in his cart. “Are you ready to make a purchase?” he asked.

“You bet!”

Enjoy Teaching

Over the course of her career, Ms. Sneed realized that there were 6 steps to enjoy teaching. In order to survive, she had to organize, plan, and simplify. Then, to thrive, Ms. Sneed needed to learn, engage, and finally – dive in! Follow the Fabulous Teaching Adventures of Ms. Sneed and learn how you can enjoy teaching too.

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