Clue by Clue Mysteries: Critical Thinking Activities

What are Clue by Clues

Clue by Clues are fun mystery games I came up with to share my love of solving mysteries with my classes. They also are perfect critical thinking activities! Clue by Clues make great warm-up activities, fillers, or time killers for those last minutes of class and early finishers.

Students work in small groups to solve a puzzle or mystery The catch is that they are given each clue one at a time. This slows down the mystery solving process, meaning students spend more time discussing each clue and revising their theories. And that means more time using critical thinking skills. It also means more talk time as students discuss the importance of each clue and reevaluate their previous ideas. And of course, try to persuade others of their point of view.

Each Clue by Clue Activity is available to download and print. Inside you’ll find an introduction to the mystery for students to read, clue cards to distribute to students, hints to help them along, a full solution, and some follow-up discussion questions to extend the lesson. Each activity comes with complete teacher notes on how to use it.

Why Clue by Clues?

Research shows that a good critical thinking activity is one where students evaluate a range of facts and opinions (Moore and Parker, 1986), combine ideas in various ways (Smith, Ward and Finke, 1995), use complex thinking patterns (Feldman, 1997),  and express or defend their opinions with evidence (Lipman, 1988).

Solving a mystery helps students practice all those critical thinking skills by noticing clues, evaluating evidence, synthesizing information from different clues, applying logic, and then explaining their solution. And to do that they have to use their close reading skills, as well.

Furthermore, students are solving the mysteries they are also developing their spoken language skills, such as:

  • Modal verbs of speculation: She must have forgotten her keys, It could have been the butler
  • Opinion language: I think…., I’m positive…, I’m not sure…
  • Hedging: It’s possible, probably, maybe, it’s not impossible.
  • Conclusions: That means that…
  • Emphasis: There’s no way that…
  • Hypotheticals: What if he didn’t do it, If he was at the movies, he couldn’t have done it.

And of course, students love mysteries! Reading and solving them are a lot of fun!

So check out the collection. Each one is low-prep and ready to use in class today. Click on the pictures below for more information and a preview before you download and buy them.

My Clue by Clue Mystery Critical Thinking Activities

Critical Thinking Clue by Clue Mystery Murder of a Millionaire

Critical Thinking Clue by Clue Mystery Imprisoned

Critical Thinking Clue by Clue Mystery Perfect Murder

Critical Thinking Clue by Clue Mystery Elevator Routine

Critical Thinking Clue by Clue Mystery Unrelated Murder

Or save money! Get all 6 in one bundle for the price of 4!

Critical Thinking Clue by Clue Mystery Bundle

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Setting the Tone on Day One (and Keeping it Going)

Do-nows are one of my most important go-to teaching tools. They aren’t suitable for every lesson in every classroom in the world. But when they do work, they solve one of the biggest problems a teacher can face: How to get students to transition smoothly into class time.

The Problem

When I first started teaching, I did a lot of one-to-one tutoring. So my first time teaching a big class took some adjusting. I got to class ten minutes early, and students started shuffling in shortly thereafter. As they came in, they threw down their bags on their desks and started congregating in the back to chat. Some students sat down, but leaned sideways in their desks to talk across the aisle. A few students would come in to cries of, “Hey, Peter. What’s going on?” A handful of students would come in, settle into their seats, getting out books and pencils. But as class hadn’t quite started yet, the quickly got bored and started playing on their cellphones or doodling.

When it came time to start class, no one was looking up at me and there was quite a bit of background noise. After trying to talk over it several times with no result, I ended up turning out the lights. That quieted them down, but it was hardly a permanent solution.

The Solution: Do-Nows

Instead of letting students get distracted in all that dead time before class, give them a focus as soon as they walk into class. That’s what a do-now (or bell ringer) is: an activity students do as they walk in the door. It sets the tone for the class–this is a place where we work. There’s a nice story here that suggests that do-nows are particularly effective on the first day of school because they set the tone for the whole school year.

What Makes a Good Do-Now?

They Do it on Their Own

In order for students to be able to do a do-now as they walk in, it needs to be a clear task that students can do with no input from the teacher. That means the directions should be available and obvious, whether it be on the board or on a handout. They shouldn’t need to check their answers with you from part one in order to go on to part two, either. A do-now is something they can do on their own, while you are getting ready for class. (I gather these are sometimes called teacherless tasks (And Rachel Roberts has a rather nice post up on what makes a good teacherless task).

One great way to make sure students grasp the task without teacher input is to have a limited set of kinds of Do-Now activities. In my classroom, if students walk into class and see a proverb on the board, they know that their job is to interpret the meaning and decide if they agree or disagree. If they see a word cloud, they know they must guess the connection or the theme of the class.

BoredGirlFBBeing able to do it on their own also means that they shouldn’t need any additional materials. Everything they need should be readily available to them. A student can’t do something now, if they are waiting on something you give them, or even waiting for a partner to arrive. Ideally, they shouldn’t need anything more than a pen and perhaps a handout that you leave in a conspicious location. Since do-nows are a sort of warm-up activity, you don’t want students spending 10 minutes finding a book on the bookshelf or collecting objects around the room or looking up a lot of information on a website. You also don’t want to give students an excuse not to do the activity, so make sure they have everything they need.

Real Work, Just Faster

Doing it on their own also means that the activity is leveled to the students. It shouldn’t be too hard for the student to need assistance, but not too easy to be boring. And there should be a clear time limit. I like a good do-now that takes 10 minutes, with the possibility of an extension. My rule of thumb is 5 minutes before class time and 5 minutes into class.

A good do-now shouldn’t be busy work. It should relate to the theme of the class. Some teachers use class activities or test questions as do-nows. As an English teacher, I like using a do-now that is a bit more fun and engaging than a typical grammar activity, for example.  But my do-nows always have students working with the English language. It shouldn’t be meaningless fun. Students shouldn’t feel that they have wasted their time.

In fact, some teachers argue that a do-now should result in written output which is assessed by the teacher. Otherwise, students will not take it seriously. I don’t necessarily agree that every time you start class, you need an activity that requires an output and a grade. But there should definitely be some result that is a t the very least discussed openly in class.schoolgirlwithbook800x600

The Perfect Do-Now

My go-to do-now is a proverb or quotation on the board. As I mentioned, students can then figure out what it means and decide if they agree or not. Then we discuss it briefly. I then try to link the proverb to the theme of the class.

Other great follow-ups include:

  • Translate the proverb into your language
  • Think of a proverb from your culture that is similar.
  • Think of a story that proves or disproves the proverb
  • Since proverbs often contain an idiom or metaphor or some nonstandard grammar, we can talk about that language feature and try to use it elsewhere.

If you’re looking for a collection of quick and easy do-nows, check out my book, On the Board. It’s full of 200 proverbs, brain-teasers, riddles, puzzles, and jokes that make perfect fast, no-prep do-nows for your classroom!

And share your ideas for do-nows in the comments.

Cross-posted on the Alphabet Publishing blog

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Free ebook On the Board

New free ebook On the Board: 200 Fast, Fun & Easy Warmer, Filler and Fast-Finisher ActivitiesGet our new free ebook, this week only over at Smashwords before it goes live everywhere!

This is a collection of proverbs, quotes, riddles, and brainteasers and other fun stuff I’ve curated over the years. Put one up on the board and get students thinking and working. It’s the perfect no-prep warmup, do-now, bell-ringer, filler, or fast-finisher activity.

To learn more, check out the book page. Then head over to Smashwords and download it for free in any ebook format you can imagine!

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Make Your Own Icebreaker

The Make Your Own Icebreaker Chart outlines the four steps of most icebreakers and ways to go about implementing them to help you make original icebreakers. In this post, I walk through those four steps and how you can use the chart to make a new original icebreaker or adapt an old favorite.

icebreakerWhen I was working on 50 Activities for the First Day of School, I was reading so many icebreakers and getting to know you activities that I started to wonder if there was a common framework to icebreakers. Was there a standard set of steps teachers could improvise around?  How could you make make your own icebreaker, something original, but not unfamiliar to students?

I played with a lot of ideas before I came up with this Make Your Own Icebreaker Chart. The chart outlines the four major steps of an icebreaker activity, although you can usually skip or abbreviate one of those steps.

  1. Students usually acquire information from each other or the classroom or teacher. From the other side of the coin, they are sharing or giving information
  2. Then they usually have to record that information somewhere, and usually as they record it, they are manipulating it, doing something with it.
  3. Then they share or distribute the information.
  4. Finally, they use that information in someway. This step can be as simple as reporting back to the class or as complex as writing a biographical essay about a partner.

For each step, the chart has a number of examples of how that could be done. You can also think back on your favorite icebreaker and reverse engineer it to see how it accomplishes each of these steps.

You can find the Make Your Own Icebreaker Chart at Alphabet Publishing, along with other free downloadable worksheets for icebreakers and getting to know you activities. I probably shouldn’t be sharing this, as it might put me out of business! Who needs a book of activities when you can make your own? But I can’t resist sharing this, and maybe getting some feedback on it!

So how does the Make Your Own Icebreaker chart work?

Make Your Own Icebreaker Chart from Alphabet Publishing
I identified four steps that students go through in a typical icebreaker, or getting to know you activity. I’ll explain them below and illustrate them with a very simple interview-style icebreaker. I should not that not all icebreakers have these steps, or have them in this order. In fact, I’d say most icebreakers have three of the four steps here. And sometimes there’s a prep stage, where you make a worksheet or students think about what they are going to say.

I’d also note that the steps don’t always go in this order. In Find Someone Who, the teacher records information in a chart and then makes the students acquire it.  Or sometimes the steps happen simultaneously. When students are asking and answering questions, they are acquiring and recording information at the same time.

Step 1: Acquire Information

So usually the first step of an icebreaker is to get some information from a partner. It might come from asking questions or reading a name tag or a worksheet the teacher has handed out. In some cases, the teacher or student does some prep work before, in creating the information. You might have students fill in a profile.

In a simple interview-style icebreaker, students acquire information by asking their partner questions such as “What’s your favorite color?” or “What did you do over summer break?”

Step 2: Record and Manipulate

Now that students have asked their questions of their partner, or read their teacher’s profile, they have to do something with the information. Having students manipulate information helps them to remember it and evaluate it. You want students to remember what they have learned from their friends and classmates beyond the first day. You also want them to make connections–“Hey, he likes baseball. I wonder if he likes other sports, too.” Otherwise, there’s point in doing a getting to know you activity at all.

In an interview, students would be taking notes on their partner, or perhaps filling out a class profile worksheet the teacher gave them.

Step 3: Distribute

This may be the step that is most often skipped. Usually students jump from recording information to telling someone about it. In our interview example, students would now jump to step 4, reporting the information to the class or another partner.

But adding a step where students leave the information somewhere–on a bulletin board, mixed up at random, thrown in a snowball, adds an extra element to the icebreaker. It allows you to have students find a new partner by chance, as in Who Wrote That? Or students can hang a fact they have collected about their partner on the wall, and every one in the class can read about everyone else. This opens up the icebreaker so that the whole class is learning about the whole class.

Step 4: Use the Information

Finally, you want students to do something with what they learned, whether it be report back to the class, report to another pair, or go home and write a paragraph about their new friend. In Two Truths and a Lie, students evaluate the truth of what they were told. As a wrap-up to Who Wrote That, students may expand on a simple fact to tell a whole story about themselves or their partner. Students can act, sing, dance, or do interpretive dance (although that might be a bit intimidating on the first day of class).


So there you go. You have all the tools you need to make amazing icebreakers. Let me know what you come up with!

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How to Use Videos in Class

FIlmFBMediaAlthough, I freely admit that I’ve planned movie lessons upon occasion in order to get out of preparing a real less, students actually can get a lot out of videos and films. When students are watching a video, they’re listening and also absorbing body language. Videos are full of visual cues that students can pick up on. Finally, films are often fun and engaging, so students want to pay attention. But without a plan, a film-based lesson can turn into kids just watching a movie.

Now there are some great sites for using films in class, such as I’ll also  Film English . But what if you have a film you love, and you want to use it in class. But no one’s done a lesson about it yet?

How to Use Films in Class

Here’s a basic framework for how I like to use videos in class, along with some examples of how it can be used with a video that I love: Mr Bean. It does require breaking the video into shorter sections. I recommend watching the video before class to get an idea of how it logically breaks down into sections. Note the times when each section begins and ends.


You’ll also need to prepare a few sets of questions. First you need questions that students can answer while watching the film. These questions should have clear and concrete answers. They should guide the student to understand the important parts of the film such as “Why did the man go into the building?”, “Who did he see in there?” Avoid questions about small details, like “What color was the man’s suit.”

On the other hand, if the film maker is using color or clothing to depict a theme, it’s good to direct students’ attention to that while they are watching.

The second set of questions should be more abstract and focus on the themes of the film or larger artistic issues. Ideally, these should be questions that require an understanding of various parts of the film, and be open to debate: “What kind of person do you think the hero is?” or “Do you agree with the mother that people are always cruel to each other?”

If the film is not one that lends itself to heavy themes, or it’s a non-fiction film, you can ask questions such as, “Have you ever been in that situation?” or “What do you think would happen if something was a bit different?”

The Procedure

1. Put students in pairs or small groups.

2. Play the video bit by bit. Have students watch and try to answer questions related to that section.

For the Mr. Bean video, I’d divide it into the parts where he makes the sandwich, eats the sandwich, and perhaps making tea/the ending. So I’d give students a worksheet with three sets of questions to answer as they are watching.

As for what would be good questions: I’d ask lots of questions about what he pulls out of his coat and why. Very concrete questions about what he does. Incidentally, this would be a good video for practicing vocabulary or verb tenses as students describe Mr. Bean’s actions.

3. Have them check their answers with another pair.

At the end of each section, stop the video and give them a chance to check their answers with another pair or group. This lets them help each other recap what happened, too. If you hear confused students, hopefully you’ll also hear other students explaining what happened to them.

4. If the whole class is completely lost, replay that section.

If 75% of the class, can’t figure it out, give them another chance or two, before stepping in to help.

5. Discuss the questions and any other questions students have to make sure they are following the video.

Before going on to the next section, give students a chance to ask any burning questions or quickly underline any key points. You might say something as simple as, “So, we’ve seen Mr. Bean make a sandwich in a very odd way. And his neighbor, well, his neighbor is pretty surprised. He probably thinks this is pretty gross.”

6. Have students predict what will happen next.

You may also want to give them any information they might need to interpret the next section.

7. For the next section of the video, repeat steps 2-6.

8. When the video is over, review the video as a whole. Discuss questions about the general theme or objective of the video.

You might do a quick summarizing activity, such as having students write a short summary or each tell one thing that happened. I sometimes do paragraph frames with key words missing and have students fill in the missing words.

Then move on to thematic questions. For Mr. Bean, questions about intercultural understanding often work well, as well as the theme of clowning. Clowns show us why we do things the way we do them, by showing what happens if you do them the wrong way. At the same time, clowns are very consistent in their own universe. You might ask students what is the normal way to make a sandwich? Why do you think Mr. Bean does it his way? Does Mr. Bean think we are strange? Can you think of different ways to do the same thing?

You could discuss the performance. Why doesn’t Mr. Bean talk? How does the actor use his face to make us laugh? What is the role of the straight man?

9. Move on to talking about how the video relates to something personal. This is a good time to do a writing or task where students apply something from the video to their lives. Students could also create their own scenes, or talk about a time they saw a clown or comedy performance.

I hope that framework works for you. I’d love to hear how it goes for your film-based lessons. Let me know in the comments.

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Clue by Clue Mystery Bundle

The Clue by Clue Mystery Bundle contains 7 of my Clue by Clue Mystery Activities. What is a Clue by Clue Mystery? It’s a great warm-up, filler, or time killer for early finishers. Students are given a mystery to solve–whodunit or how did they do it or why. They have to figure it out by reading a series of clues, one at a time. As they receive each clue, they speculate on its significance and what it tells them about the situation.

Once they have received all the clues, they should have enough information to figure it out!

Clue by Clues make great warm-up activities, fillers, or time killers for those last minutes of class and early finishers. They can be critical reading activities that teach students to read closely for details, synthesize information from different sources, apply prior knowledge about the world, and to recognize the logic of a claim and evaluate its validity.

They are also a lot of fun!

While students are solving the mysteries they are also developing their spoken language skills, such as:
* Modal verbs of speculation: She must have forgotten her keys, It could have been the butler
* Opinion language: I think…., I’m positive…, I’m not sure…
* Hedging: It’s possible, probably, maybe, it’s not impossible.
* Conclusions: That means that…
* Emphasis: There’s no way that…
* Hypotheticals: What if he didn’t do it; If he was at the movies, he couldn’t have done it.

Teacher Notes are included with hints and the solution along with a students sheet that contains the clues for you to copy and cut-up.

The activities included (with previews for each one) are:
The Break-In

The Elevator Routine Riddle


An Unrelated Murder

Murder of a Millionaire

Empty Bank

The Perfect Crime

The Break In

And the Mystery Story Reading Graphic Organizer

Buy the full bundle here. And check out my ever-growing section of mystery activities and lesson plans for other classroom resources!

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On the Board: Class Openers, Fillers, and Closers

This is a collection of riddles, puzzles, puns and jokes I’ve collected over the years. These are the world’s easiest, no-prep, ready-made class openers or do-nows. Pick a brain teaser or a funny headline, write it on the board, and get the students to solve the riddle or find the joke. Done.

I even use them as class fillers or time-killers for that last 5 minutes of class. Or put one on the board during a quiz or test for early finishers. You could even copy a bunch onto a worksheet and make an early finisher “brainteaser test”.

Besides the riddles, you’ll also find 42 funny headlines that I use in the same way. Each headline has a double-entendre it in. Students have to find the double meanings. These often get big laughs and draw attention to homophones and words with two meanings.

Finally, I have 64 proverbs students can try to figure out the meaning of. In my ESL or EFL class, thinking about proverbs is a great way to teach idioms, as well as similes and metaphors.

The preview includes just a handful of each category of do-now so you can get a taste of what this includes.

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Bring the Holidays Into the Classroom

Teaching English just posted this question on Facebook:

With Christmas just around the corner, many of us are looking for ways to bring a festive spirit into our classrooms. Have you got any suggestions for class activities that can help us to animate the last days of term?
Thanks! Ann

Here are just a few quick and easy things you can do to bring the holidays into your classroom!

  1. Presents. Buy the students small gifts like a pencil for the final exam
  2. Bring in snacks like hot chocolate or Christmas cookies
  3. Decorate your classroom.
  4. Have students decorate your classroom. Bring in instructions and turn it into  process essay practice.
  5. Write Christmas cards to your students. Include one highlight and one thing they can do better.
  6. Have students write Christmas cards to each other.
  7. Have students write New Year’s resolutions.
  8. Have students choose a local charity and collect money from the school for it–that could involve writing advertising flyers, going to other classrooms and giving persuasive speeches, or selling crafts.
  9. Have students write a holiday memory. Turn it into a narrative essay.
  10. Read to students. Every day for a week read them A Christmas Carol or some other Christmas book.
  11. Watch A Charlie Brown Christmas.
  12. Word of the Day Advent calendar!
  13. Gift swaps.
  14. Merit points for doing good things. The winner gets a small present from you!

Other ideas for quick and easy ways to give your classroom a holiday spirit?

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Halloween Lessons on Teachers Pay Teachers

halloween ghost Check out my Halloween section of my Teachers Pay Teachers store. It’s small, but that’s because I’ve been combing through my lessons and activities, really looking for the best of the best and taking my time to edit and revise based on my experience.

Right now I have a genre-based creative writing lesson plan where students analyze a short scary story and then write one of their own.
I also have a handout that introduces Halloween to students by asking them to decide which statements about Halloween are true and which are false.

If you have any requests or queries, do let me know.

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Then and Now

This is one of my go-to activities for having students compare verb tenses. It’s really nice in that it allows for a lot of flexibility on which tenses you want to practice. You can limit it to the present and past simple or throw in the present perfect and continuous tenses. You could even work the future in.

The activity involves students sharing details of their lives from the present and another time period. This requires them to pay attention to meanings of various verb tenses as they relate to times of events, changes or lack of changes, and how verb tenses relate to each other.

Then and Now- The Differences Between Past and Present Lesson Plan

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