By Reading Mysteries, You’ll Unlock Their Critical Thinking Skills

Reading mysteries really boosts comprehension. Why? Kids must read closely and make inferences. Critical thinking soars! Try this scaffolded approach. Get ready with simple inference activities. Next, get set with short stories. Finally, go! Ask kids to read longer novels. Support reading with plenty of discussion. You’ll love using this genre in your ELA block.

Scaffold instruction with inference activities, short stories, and novels.

Ms. Sneed Teaches Mysteries

Our favorite fourth grade teacher, Ms. Sneed, called her class to attention. “Okay, everyone, today we’ll begin our mystery genre study.”

The students looked at her with expectation. “What novel will we read?” asked a girl in the front row.

“Not so fast,” said Ms. Sneed. “We’re going to ease into reading mysteries. Let’s begin with elements of the genre.” For about fifteen minutes, the teacher presented vocabulary related to characters, plot, and setting. Kids learned new terms like alibi and red herring. Yes, they were going to like this.

Reading Mysteries Starts with Inferences

Next, he teacher grabbed a set of worksheets and began to distribute them. “First, you need to work on your inference skills. These quick activities should do the trick. Each presents a simple situation. You study the pieces. Then put them together. Voila! An inference!

“Let’s try one together:

Ms. Sheriff listened to the directions through her headset. Watching the signal lights below her, she pulled back on the throttle and felt the wheels touch the pavement.

“What occupation does Ms. Sheriff have?”

Some students squirmed. Others looked puzzled. Finally, one small voice said, “A taxi driver?”

A few kids giggled. “That’s close,” said Ms. Sneed. “What clues would make you think she was a taxi driver?”

“Well, taxi drivers use headsets and signal lights. Their wheels drive on the pavement.”

Several kids raised their hands. “I know! I know!” they cried.

“Yes?” Ms. Sneed nodded to a boy in the back.

“A pilot!” he blurted out.

“Hmm. Why would you think that?”

“Pilots also use headsets. The signal lights are guiding her. When she pulls back on the throttle, the plane goes down. Furthermore, it says that she felt the wheels touch the pavement.”

Ms. Sneed smiled. “Good job. Now I’d like all of you to try the remaining passages. If you have any problems, talk to your neighbor – or me.”

Before reading mysteries, have your third, fourth, or fifth grade students work on inference skills. These simple statements force kids to draw conclusions.

Soon the students had finished the short inference worksheet. “Since our reading assignments are short this week, we’ll also be doing some mystery activities,” she said.

Everyone cheered as Ms. Sneed distributed some secret clues to decode.

Understanding Plot Is Easy When You Use Mystery Maps

After a few days, Ms. Sneed was ready to ramp it up. “Today, we’ll actually be reading mysteries for kids and solving them,” she told her class. Her students perked up immediately. Cracking detective cases sounded fun!

As she handed out a two-page story, she gave directions. “As you read, ask these questions:

  • What is the problem, or mystery?
  • Where are the clues?
  • Are there any red herrings?
  • Can I solve the mystery?”

“Wait,” said a boy with glasses. “What’s a red herring? I can’t remember.”

“I’m glad you asked! It’s a false clue. Mystery writers try to throw you off track. Therefore, they add red herrings. Don’t let them get you!”

When reading mysteries, ask kids to map the plot. This helps third, fourth, and fifth grade students identify the mystery, clues, red herrings, and solution.

Once everyone had read the story, Ms. Sneed distributed a graphic organizer. “Now we will list the elements of this story together,” she said. Before too long, they all agreed on the mystery, clues, red herring, and solution.

“Now draw arrows from the problem to each clue in the correct sequence,” the teacher said. “When you get to the red herring, draw an arrow back to the previous clue. Then you can draw another arrow to the real clue. At the end, you should arrive at the solution.”

“I get it,” said a boy in the third row. “These steps show how the detective solved the case.”

“Right,” said Ms. Sneed. “But it also shows how the author wrote the story. Later, you will write your own mystery stories using this same template.”

Scaffold Reading Mysteries with Picture Books

After a few short mystery passages, Ms. Sneed could see that her students were getting the hang of mapping mysteries. “Time to scaffold,” she told herself.

That afternoon, she walked to the front of the classroom holding a picture book.

“Hey! Are you going to read to us?” asked a girl near the drinking fountain.

“Sure am!” replied the teacher. She held up the book and explained. “The Web Files is a hilarious barnyard parody of Dragnet. Although you may not know about the old television show, you’ll love this detective story. Listen for the story elements we’ve been discussing.”

Then she began reading.

6:32 A.M.

This is the farm.

My partner, Bill, and I were working the barnyard shift. It was peaceful. Quiet. Then we got the call.

Ms. Sneed’s students grinned as she read with different voices. Then they laughed at the crazy story.

Before reading a mystery novel, try some short picture books.

When she finished reading, Ms. Sneed walked to the white board and picked up a pink marker. “Okay, name the problem,” she began. Before too long, the class had mapped this mystery too. The flow chart on the board showed the plot.

Culminate Reading Mysteries with Novel Studies

After a week or so of inference activities, short mystery passages, and picture books, Ms. Sneed knew her students were ready for full-length novels.

When her class arrived that day, stacks of books sat on the side table. “Oooo, look. We’re starting mystery novels,” said a girl with long braids. “The Maze of Bones and The Westing Game. I wonder which one I’ll get to read.”

Once they got settled, Ms. Sneed gave directions. “You’ve seen the books,” she said. “Now let’s get started. The Westing Game, a puzzle-piece mystery story that’s won many awards, involves intrigue around Sam Westing’s will. The Maze of Bones, written by an author many of you know – Rick Riordan – begins The 39 Clues series. If you’re up for a challenge, choose the first book. If you’d like to begin reading an entire series, choose the second.”

When teaching mystery genre studies in your upper elementary classroom, add a novel! The Westing Game works well for advanced readers. Try The Maze of Bones with everyone else.

Once all of her students had selected a book and begun reading, Ms. Sneed sighed quietly. With scaffolding, she felt confident that they would understand these mystery novels. 

Enjoy Teaching

Just then, that famous little teacher smile appeared on her face. Ms. Sneed’s 5-week mystery unit was a big hit every year. First, her kids learned about the genre through a variety of passages. At the same time, they worked on mystery activities to develop their detective skills: fingerprinting, invisible ink, secret codes, observation, and logic puzzles. Then they read mystery novels, wrote their own mysteries, and participated in a simulation. Try it! You’ll love this genre studies – and others too!

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