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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The Gift of the Magi Lesson Plan

watch-iconThis The Gift of the Magi lesson plan packet has taken me years to compile!

“The Gift of the Magi” is without a doubt one of my favorite short stories, especially for the Christmas season. I’ve been teaching it to my students for years, and now I’ve compiled 15 different “The Gift of the Magi” lesson plans, activities, and resources for you. It’s 108 pages of activities, handouts and worksheets that cover vocabulary, irony, the moral of the story, character analysis, close reading, critical reading skills, and a lot more. The packet even includes some assessment materials. Each resource comes with comprehensive teacher notes and answer keys.

Isn’t “The Gift of the Magi” Too Difficult for ESL Students?

The story itself is actually very simple:

hair-comb1A husband and wife are very much in love with each other. The wife has very beautiful hair that she loves very much. The husband has a pocket watch that he loves very much. They want to buy very nice Christmas presents for each other, but they don’t have much money. So, the wife sells her hair to get money. and buys a chain for the watch. Unfortunately, the husband sells his watch to buy the woman beautiful combs for her hair. Each one gives up the thing they love for the other one. While tragic, the story proves that the couple love each more than anything.

It’s a beautiful and touching story, a perfect example of how situational irony can work. But we don’t often do it in class, because it’s a difficult story. But it’s difficult for only two reasons, both of which I’ve addressed in my packet.:

  1. The references: There are references to things that may be unfamiliar to a modern-day student, especially one from another country. There are also allusions to the Bible and other sources in the story that students may not be familiar with. That’s why I’ve provided a lightly graded text with footnotes to explain the more obscure references and early 20th century items. This lesson pack also includes warm-up activities to get at the main theme and explain the references to the magi.
  2. The vocabulary: Let’s face it. O. Henry was a wordsmith and this story has a lot of words that are off the 200 most frequently used lists and the AWL. That’s why I’ve included:
  • A master list of those hard words for your reference.
  • More importantly, a fun quick vocab match to teach hair comb, pocket watch, watch chain, and gift.
  • There’s also an extensive vocabulary learning lesson plan which focuses on 24 words that students may not know, but which are fairly easy to explain, such as butcher and howl and platinum. Students use social learning methods to learn the meanings and then do a series of flashcard games to review them.
  • There’s also a lesson plan on predicting the meaning of difficult words in context, including figuring out how much you need to know about a word to follow the story. Keep students from looking up every single word they don’t know!
  • Finally a critical reading skills lesson models reading for the gist, focusing on words you do know and grasping the main idea without knowing every word.


What Does This The Gift of the Magi Lesson Plan Packet include?

  • The original version of the story, untouched and unabridged. (From the Gutenberg Project-text in the public domain)
  • The graded version, with some of the tougher vocabulary and turns of phrase simplified as well as explanatory footnotes for the more antiquated or obscure references.
  • A brief one-paragraph summary and a scene-by-scene guide to the text that students could read as a simplified easy-to-read version.
  • A word association warm-up where students brainstorm on the word “Gift”
  • A quick vocab pre-teach activity to teach gift, pocket watch, watch chain, and hair comb. If students don’t picture the right kind of comb, the story can fall flat.
  • Predicting vocabulary words meaning from context lesson plan.
  • An extensive set of vocabulary activities to pre-teach 24 key words from the text.
  • A thematic warm up on the moral of the story and the meaning of the magi. Students read the last paragraph closely and discuss the moral of the story. I love to start the lesson this way so that students can see the broader picture as they read.
  • An alternate warm-up where students discuss what a wise gift is and compare wise things to valuable things. This gets at the heart of the theme of the story.
  • A lesson on modelling critical reading skills, including ways of getting the gist of a story without knowing every word, lessons on forming questions and predicting as you read, and an unknown vocabulary prediction worksheet.
  • Extensive comprehension questions to guide reading. There’s also a “Find the Phrase” activity to help students find examples of common themes in the story.
  • Worksheet on the Scene to highlight the way the author sets the scene and establishes that Jim and Della are poor, but love each other very much.
  • Character Study Sheets for Jim and Della, plus a fun creative activity to retell the story through another character’s eyes.
  •  A complete lesson on situational irony including what it is, how it works, and how it differs from coincidence or bad luck.
  • Discussion Questions for students to dig deeper into the meaning of the text.
  • Practice doing exegesis or deep passage analysis on selected quotations from the story.
  • A set of essay and Creative Writing Topics
  • Assessment tools in the form of various quizzes and tests, all in open-answer and multiple choice form.

This packet is designed for maximum flexibility and adaptability. Go through the whole packet and spend a week on this text alone. Or pick and choose the activities you like best. Follow the order of the packet for a great unit on this classic story. Or put together your own The Gift of the Magi lesson plan from the 15 activities included.

For a long preview, go to the Teachers Pay Teachers page and check it out for yourself.





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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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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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Teaching There is/There are 

A nice activity I came across while searching for a way to teach There is/There are/There isn’t/ There aren’t. I can’t use this one as I’m trying to stay in the context of clothing. The activity below is in the context of creating a country, which I find students really enjoy (see my discussion lesson on creating a new country)

I found a really fun way to teach There is a …/ There are some …/ There are many …/ There aren’t any … . The first thing i do is elicit and write on the board 20 things you can find in a

Source: Teaching There is a/ There are some/ There are many/ There aren’t any… – ESL Games and Activities – eslHQ

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Vocabulary Square

This is one of those activities I stumble on in my files and think, “Surely, I’ve posted on this before.” That’s because this is such a  productive way to review vocabulary–students have to think about the meaning, the part of speech, and how to use it. And it’s an activity that produces something you can hang on your wall and refer to later, or reproduce and give to students in the form of flash cards. Most importantly, students love it. I did this in class and the students raved about it so much to their other teachers that the whole school started doing it.

Vocabulary Squares are easy to make but they should be done only as review of a list of vocabulary words or as further practice when students know the words well enough to use them in a sentence. Otherwise, they can reinforce errors.

Making Vocab SquaresVocabulary Square

  1. Give students one piece of paper for every word you want them to do.
  2. Have them fold the paper in half and then in half again. When they unfold it, they will have a piece of paper with four sections.
  3. In the top left section, students write the word they are studying. It’s good to have them mark the part of speech, either explicitly or by putting “to” in front of verbs and an article in front of nouns.
  4. In the top right section, students should illustrate the word. For some abstract words, they might have to draw a scene or make a little comic strip or caption.  Remind students that they don’t have to be great artists; stick figures will do just fine. Optionally, I let students Google search an image as long as they are critically thinking about the image they choose rather than just printing out the first result. That defeats the purpose of having students reflect on the meaning of the word and using their visual brains to depict it.
  5. In the bottom left corner, students should write the definition and/or synonyms.
  6. Finally, students should use the word in a sentence or ideally, write a question that other students can answer which involves the word.

Note: As students are doing this, make sure to monitor and correct any mistakes. Also make sure students aren’t copying from a dictionary or using the word oddly, possibly confusing it with a synonym or related word. 

In terms of dividing the vocabulary, that’s up to you. You might have every student do every word on their vocab list. You might give each student one or two or three words. This can be a group activity. It can even be a station activity, where students rotate doing different words or different quadrants.

Using Vocabulary Squares

The activity of doing the vocabulary squares itself is a great review. It targets the definition, visual associations, context, and even spelling. However, there are also a number of ways to use it.

  1. Students can fold their squares so that only the picture shows. Then they pass around their squares so that other students can guess. Or they hang them on the wall and students walk around and guess the meanings before checking their answers.
  2. Students can fold their squares so that only the definition shows and pass around their squares or hang them on the wall for other students to guess the word.
  3. If more than one student is doing the same word, you can hang up the vocab squares for the same word and have the class decide which the best one is. Alternatively, each creator can present to the class on why his vocab square is the best. This activity should focus on the sentence and the picture.
  4. Cut up a set number of vocab squares and have students reconstruct them by picking out and matching the word, definition, picture, and sentence. Of course, to do this you have to use squares done by the same students. Otherwise, students can use the handwriting to match.
  5. You can hang the vocab squares up and have the students respond to the sentence, or answer the question.
  6. Finally, you can just hang the vocab squares on the wall to make a giant wall of review. My students often browsed my vocab square walls before class or before a test or quiz.


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Predicting Vocabulary Worksheet

We all have our exercises for helping students predict vocabulary from context, and it’s nice to give students some practice with an authentic text. I wrote about the process I use for students to help them guess the meaning of a word from context and I mentioned a worksheet I used to have. Well, I never found it or the book I got it from, but I needed to do this lesson recently, so I made up a new worksheet for predicting vocabulary.

The feature that I like to add, one that is sometimes overlooked, is the check-box where students say whether or not their guess was enough to comprehend the article. Because we often tell students that they don’t need to know the exact dictionary definition of the word in order to get the reading, but it’s nice to give them a chance to reflect on that. And also to acknowledge that sometimes you DO need to know the exact meaning of the word. Or sometimes your guess is good, but there’s simply not enough information in the article for you to understand the word in question. So we need to give students a chance to say, “No, I didn’t get it. I know this word is some kind of animal, but I need more information to understand the author’s point.” That’s ok, too. That does happen.

So please, let me know what you think and check out the earlier post for how I use it.

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Predicting Vocabulary from Context

I had a really nice worksheet that I liked to give to students to help them predict words from context. It forced students to actually write down the sentence that the word came from which I really liked. Using context to predict or infer the meaning of the word is an important skill. However, realizing that context is an important part of a word’s definition is also important. Remembering how  a word is used in a sentence helps students use it to—it gives the part of speech, spelling, collocations and topics, sometimes connotations.

I have long since lost the worksheet, which was copied out of a book I would happily give credit to if I had it. However, the activity went like this:

  1. As students read the book, they look for a word that they do not know.
  2. Students write down the word and the sentence they got the word from.
  3. Students then write down what they can glean about the word from the text. These guesses might be as simple as, “a kind of animal”, “it lives in Africa.” Or “adjective”, “something bad”. Nobody expects them to actually guess the word.
  4. After students have read the text or passage, ask them to reflect on whether their guesses were enough to read and understand or not. In other words, were they able to understand the rest of the story despite not getting this word or was there something that didn’t make sense because they didn’t know this word? This takes some reflection on the part of the student. A good example of a word that you don’t need to know exactly is jaguar in the following (made-up paragraph):

    The two hunters looked for the jaguar in the trees. They knew the jaguar was dangerous. It could easily kill them with its teeth and claws if they didn’t shoot it first. Suddenly, they saw its black fur against the green leaves. John fired his gun and the animal fell from the trees.

    A jaguar is a big, black scary animal. That’s enough to understand everything that happens in the story. On the other hand, you would need to know what Keynesian means in this passage:

    Keynesian economics has been proven correct a number of times. Its central tenets explain the Great Depression and the success of the recovery. However the current government ignores Keynesian economics in favor of supply-side economics.

    In this case, the writer is assuming you know what Keynesian economics is and is getting into nitty gritty details of it. It will probably only get worse as you read.

  5. Now have students look up the word in the dictionary.
  6. Finally students can go back and circle elements of the sentence that support the definition.
  7. Now students have a new vocabulary word with an example sentence and a definition!

This has really worked with me and my students.

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Apple Pie and Ice Cream

Last year, Tailor Made English put up a lesson plan competition to plan a lesson for a classroom where the power had gone out 5 minutes before class. I was working on something about intonation and emotion but never finished it in time for the contest. I just found my notes so I thought I’d share them. These are just notes, so they’re a little sketchy.

I decided to challenge myself beyond the original challenge and imagine a pitch-black classroom! I was thinking that a classroom where students couldn’t see each other was a perfect opportunity to practice intonation. Students can’t use notes or body language or facial expressions. They have to make their voice work. To implement this in a normal classroom you could:

  • turn out the lights.
  • have students sit in a circle facing out
  • blindfold students, if that’s comfortable.
  • have them pinky swear that they will not open their eyes.

Warm Up

First, students need to be able to recognize each other’s voices. So pick students at random to 1) say an odd fact about themselves. Students have to guess who is speaking….

If you are intrigued by this idea, please check out the complete activity at Intonation and Speaking Skills in Dialogue on my Teachers Pay Teachers Store!

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A Fun Pre-Reading Activity: What is it?

As teachers we do a lot of pre-reading activities with our students. Some of them are more authentic than others. I prefer giving students tasks that they can apply on their own when they go on to read for engineering class, for example. When I read a book, I may or may not have access to a summary of it. But as teachers we give our students summaries of most readings. I may or may not have a question to answer about the text. I certainly don’t have a list of difficult vocabulary. Nor do I have a cloze exercise or a warm-up listening on the same topic!

I began thinking about how to make pre-reading activities authentic? The first thing I did was ask myself, “What do I do when I pick up a new book I am reading?” Close on the heels of that question came, “What information do I like to know about a book before I read it?” And then I was introduced to a lovely pre-reading activity a colleague picked up from the TESOL Conference last year that encouraged students to think about different kinds of reading materials with a little questionnaire. So basically, I just tweaked her questions a bit.

What is It?

  1. Preferably before students arrive, put different reading material out around the classroom. You can use what you like, but make sure there are a variety, and try to use things the students might read. For my academic English class, I’ll do a textbook, a bus schedule, a menu, a novel, a course catalog, an information brochure, a cookbook, a dictionary, a flyer from the Health Center…Alternatively, put students in pairs and hand them the reading materials. You can let them come up and choose their own, but if you have an engineering textbook and a short flyer, students will feel the assignment is unfair to the people “stuck” with the textbook.
  2. Put students in pairs and make sure each pair has a reading material.
  3. Hand them the What is it questions.
  4. Give them 5-10 minutes to skim and scan the reading material and answer the questions.
  5. Students present on their reading material.

That’s the activity my colleague presented with does a great job reminding students that they read things every day. But it has other uses as well.

Other uses

  • These questions could be recycled for the whole class to preview a reading. In that case, students would be reading the same text obviously. They might share answers in larger groups rather than presenting to the class.
  • Follow with a discussion of reading strategies such as skimming, scanning, reading for deeper meaning. Have students think about what type of reading they do with each material.
  • Use it as part of an evaluation–have students discuss which materials they read more often and which they have trouble reading.
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