Sleuthing and Snooping:  Real and Imagined Mystery Read-alouds

For older/upper elementary students

It’s likely that at least some of your students read and enjoy fictional mysteries on a regular basis. Reading a complex mystery to the class (such as Ellen Raskin's book below) allows for practice with the basic elements of literature (setting, plot, characterization) as well as more advanced vocabulary specific to mysteries such as red herring, alibi, and motive.  If you choose to read conventional mysteries and teach a genre study of mysteries in Reader's Workshop there are many fine additional resources from here.

The theme of “mysteries” also lends itself to a broader array of topics appropriate for older students—forensics, codes and ciphers, unsolved puzzles from science and history, and strange phenomena . With that in mind, the read-aloud suggestions and websites below move beyond the mystery fiction genre and provide connections to other curricular areas. For additional recommended fiction titles:

1.Browse the Mystery category or the Suspense/Thriller category at A book and a hug
2.Check out this list at Carol Otis Hurst's site. has indexed mysteries and reviews here. (See the full TeachersFirst review for more about KidsReads.)

For a list of favorite mysteries generated by kids around the world as part of an e-pal project, click on the Global Mysteries tab here.


Before reading

Decorate a bulletin board with magnifying glasses and question marks, and perhaps a detective or scientist to create interest.  Wear a trench coat on the first day of your mystery study, and perhaps play an audio clip of appropriate music such as the Pink Panther theme.

Create a display of books for students that relate to the theme of mysteries—works of fiction, but also books about strange phenomena like Big Foot, Atlantis, the Bermuda Triangle, Roanoke, UFOs, Stonehenge, Easter Island, etc. (The Jr. Graphic Mysteries  series is a great resource, especially for readers who struggle.) Ask students what the books have in common.  Define “mysteries” in broad terms.

Tell students you'll be sharing several mysteries during read-aloud time over the next few weeks.  Reading a combination of fiction and non-fiction will help all students to stay engaged. 


After reading

Students can complete a checklist from Scholastic to record elements or ingredients found in independent (fictional) reading books.  They should be prepared to elaborate on the boxes they checked during small group discussions.

Use reading response journals for students to write their reactions to, impressions of, and theories for the non-fiction mysteries on this month's featured list.

Challenge students to create some mysteries of their own during Writer's Workshop. This printable from Scholastic or this graphic organizer from will assist in planning their narrative stories.  Scholastic also features Mystery Writing with popular author Joan Lowery Nixon.  The site provides step-by-step directions and tips for writing, a teacher's guide, an assessment rubric, and samples of student writing.

Allow small groups of students to complete further investigations of topics of interest such as Stonehenge or the Bermuda Triangle.  Brainstorm ways to share out what they learned with the rest of the class.

Have students visit some of the websites below as a free choice activity, or explore some as a whole-class activity.  The links provided include the full review from Teachers First and suggestions for using the site in the classroom.


Everyday Mysteries   from the Library of Congress

5 Minute Mysteries

Crimes Seen and Investigated (forensics)

Math Maven's Mysteries

Mysterious Places: Ancient Civilations, Modern Mysteries

Mystery Net's Kid Mystery

Milennium Mystery Madness

Decipher a Coded Message   from PBS's  Nova


Recommended Books

Arnosky, Jim. Monster Hunt: Exploring Mysterious Creatures with Jim Arnosky. ISBN: 978-142313028-4. (No lexile available; grade level equivalent: 6.4.
With the scientific discovery of new species and so many recorded eyewitness accounts, Arnosky explores the possibility of mythical beasts of the past and giant prehistoric animal species living today. He introduces cryptozoology, andinvites readers along as he wonders about giant creatures such as charcharodon, squids, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, the Lake Champlain Monster. How could they have survived? Where would they live, and what would they eat in today's world?

Raskin, Ellen. The Westing Game. ISBN: 978-0-525-47137-0 Lexile: 750
This is an excellent read-aloud for grades 5 and up. Winner of the prestigious Newbery Medal, it is a mystery, a puzzle, and an interactive game all wrapped up in one neat package. Sixteen residents of the same apartment building are all named as heirs in Sam Westing's will, although one of them is his murderer. The will itself becomes a contest to discover the murderer's identity. The prize? A cool two hundred million dollars. Discussion guide and extension activities are available at Scholastic.

Shannon, George. Stories to Solve: Folktales from Around the World. ISBN: 978-0-329-55043-1. Lexile: 790
Shannon uses brief folktales from various cultures as a vehicle for engaging readers to solve a mystery or puzzle. Solutions are provided. (He has written a number of books similar to this one if you are unable to obtain it, including More Stories to Solve, True Lies: 18 Tales for you to Judge, and More True Lies.) Those familiar with the Encyclopedia Brown stories and format will enjoy these.

Simon, Seymour. Strange Mysteries from Around the World. ISBN: 978-0688146368. Lexile: 920.
Acclaimed science writer Seymour Simon has compiled ten unsolved mysteries in this volume—questions that science can't seem to answer. With chapter titles such as The Crystal Skull, Walking on Fire, and The Mysterious Treasure of Oak Island you'll have your students on the edge of their seats waiting for details. Read in its entirety (each chapter is just a few pages long—perfect for a day's read-aloud), or select just a few of the mysteries as companion read-alouds for a mystery fiction unit.

Sobol, Donald. Two Minute Mysteries. ISBN: 978-0-590-44787-4. Lexile: 820.
Seventy-nine challenging, sometimes spine-tingling, puzzles are available in this book. Students will love trying to beat the clock and work out the details in under two minutes. Use as a filler when making transitions in the classroom, as a Morning Meeting activity, or a daily challenge at the start of Reader's Workshop during your mystery unit.

Van Allsburg, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. ISBN: 0-395-35393-9 Lexile: 760
First published in 1984, the black-and-white illustrations in the book (accompanied by just a caption), beg the reader to create “the whole story.”  Follow up with the book below. Have students write their comments and reactions to the work of the published authors as they compare it to their own work.

Van Allsburg, The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. ISBN: 978-0-547-54810-4 (No lexile available; grade level equivalent: 5.4)
Inspired by the illustrations in the original, this new volume is a collection of stories by some of today's most notable and popular children's and young adult authors including Sherman Alexie, M.T. Anderson, Kate DiCamillo, Lois Lowry, Louis Sachar, Walter Dean Myers, and Jon Scieszka. Use as a follow-up to student pieces created after reading the first book. Compare student texts with those written by the authors in the book.

Walker, Sally. Secrets of a Civil War Submarine: Solving the Mysteries of the H.L. Hunley. ISBN: 978-1-57505-830-6 Lexile: 1060.
This book tells the tale of the Civil War's biggest unsolved mystery—the disappearance of the first submarine to sink a ship during battle. The Confederate sub sank the Union's U.S.S. Housatonic, but it disappeared after, along with its crew. Walker's book gives background about the building of the Hunley, some of its missions, and its ultimate recovery and restoration, one hundred thirty years after its disappearance. Keep this available as a choice in your classroom library for students with a fascination for history, or use parts of it as a companion read-aloud during a study of the fiction mystery genre.

Yolen, Jane. The Wolf Girls: an Unsolved Mystery from History. ISBN: 0-689-81080-6. (No lexile available; grade level equivalent: 5.1)
This series was co-authored with Jane Yolen's daughter, who was a private detective for a time. Using a young girl who wants to be a detective as a narrator, the facts of each story from history are revealed slowly. This first book addresses the true story of two young girls at an orphanage in India in the 1920’s, who were supposedly raised by wolves before their time at the orphanage.  Questions surround the credibility of the account of the girls’ arrival from the clergyman who ran the financially struggling institution.

Yolen, Jane. The Mary Celeste: an Unsolved Mystery from History. ISBN: 0-613-46226-2. Lexile: 630
The second book in the series relates the facts of probably the most famous of maritime mysteries.  In 1872, the Mary Celeste, an American merchant ship, was found adrift in fine weather, with no one aboard, plenty of supplies, and a lifeboat missing.  Not a single passenger or crew member was ever seen or heard from again. 

Small “notebook pages” from the narrator highlighting clues from the facts, and “sticky note” replicas citing important vocabulary specific to the case add interest to the book. Both books end with the question: “So what really happened?” Popular and prevailing scenarios are then given as possible explanations, but the reader is reminded that no one knows for sure.


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