Clue by Clue: Empty Bank

Clue by Clue Empty Bank is one of my favorite critical thinking mystery activities.

Students follow a series of clues to figure out why 10 policemen drove up to a bank in the middle of the night, lights flashing, and sirens blazing, when there was no one inside the bank and nothing was stolen? Based on a true story, this critical thinking activity puts students close reading and speculative skills to the test.

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. Students work in small groups to solve a puzzle. 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. That means more time using critical thinking skills. It also means more talking time as students discuss the importance of each clue, reevaluate their previous ideas, and try to persuade others of their point of view.

Each Clue by Clue is solvable and the clues are carefully written to lead students down the path to the answer by eliminating alternative theories. There are also hint questions that teachers can give to students.

Why Clue by Clues

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.

Where to Get Clue by Clue Critical Thinking Activities

You can download and purchase Clue by Clue Empty Bank at my Teachers Pay Teachers Store. And check out my ever-growing section of mystery activities and lesson plans for other classroom resources!


I love reading mysteries and many students love it too. Not only are mysteries often action packed, but they also give students a reason to want to read. Instead of forcing students to read because it’s educational, students want to solve the mystery and find out who did it. There are a lot of great resources out there and a lot of ways to present mystery stories to your students.


  • To get students reading. Mysteries provide motivation to read extensively to get the main idea but also intensively for clues.
  • To practice speculating in English


First of all, you need a mystery story. Mystery Net has a lot of mysteries and they are updated regularly. Best of all, they have several different kinds of stories.
Get a Clue stories are more like puzzles than stories. Students are given a brief description of the mystery and then several clues one at a time. For each clue, students should discuss what this new information might mean. These Get a Clue stories are great for getting students talking and they always have a clever twist. Note that you can turn any murder mystery into a Get a Clue story by cutting it up into parts and giving students one part at a time.

I have also written several puzzles like this which you can find in the Mysteries section of my Teachers Pay Teachers Store.

Mystery Net also has more traditional mysteries stories called Solve It as well as See and Solve mysteries which include a picture to help students solve the mystery. If you don’t have Internet or computers in the classroom, you will have to click around the picture yourself and write down the clues so you can share them with the class. Finally there are Kid’s Mysteries and Quick Solve stories for kids. Both are fairly traditional reading mystery stories.

Obviously you can also use a short story too or a longer book by Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle and include a reading comprehension unit. There are even shortened and graded versions of classic mystery novels available out there.

If you know of any other resources, please share in the comments.

Using a Mystery in Class

Warm Up

Put the word “Whodunit” up on the board. Ask if students know what it means? Explain that it is slang for “Who did it?”, and another word for mystery stories because when you read mysteries, you read to find out whodunit.

Ask if students enjoy reading mysteries or watching them on TV and which are their favorites.
You can discuss famous detectives and authors and the difference between detective stories, police procedurals (which tend to focus more on how police solve a mystery with lab equipment and different legal issues), and mystery stories that may or may not allow the reader to solve them (Chesterfield’s Father Brown mysteries are more short stories than solvable mysteries).

Ask why people like mysteries in general and discuss whether it is good to read about murder and crime.
You might want to introduce some vocabulary at this point such as: alibi, suspect, witness, clue, fingerprint.

Another fun warm up is to write up, or name, famous detectives and have them name the author who created the detective. Or the opposite: name the writer and have the students name the detectives created by that author. Some common ones include: Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie created Poirot and Miss Marple, Dashiel Hammet created Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler created Philip Marlowe.

Now tell students that you are going to solve a mystery together.


Give students the mystery you have chosen and make sure that they have the appropriate vocabulary. Give them plenty of time to read and absorb everything and make good guesses about what happened. You will have to decide whether you are going to help them at all, or let them figure it all out on their own. You can guide students to the right answer by asking key questions or repeating key facts from the text.

If you have given them a long mystery to read, or the level of the class is low, I often give them my Mystery Worksheet or put it up on the board and go over the details of the story. What was the crime, who was the victim, who are the suspects and what clues do we have? This can help students solve the mystery and it also helps you check their comprehension. For some mysteries, putting a timeline on the board can also be useful.

I’ve also added a whole mystery unit that includes a reading, discussion, vocab, grammar and writing.

Hope you and your students have as much fun with these lessons as we do!

Mystery Lesson Plan for ESL

I am a big fan of mysteries, so I’ve done a complete mystery lesson plan using a fun mystery story as the basis for a vocabulary and grammar lesson. There’s also practice in close reading and critical thinking as students try to solve the mystery and a graphic organizer to guide students to write their own mystery story. I designed this for my ESL classroom but I know it’s been used in ELA classrooms across the country.

The Mystery Lesson Plan Includes

  • Mystery vocabulary such as alibi and motive.
  • Using modal verbs of speculation to guess the significance of clues
  • A mystery story as along reading
  • Reading strategies such as reading for key information and evaluating information
  • Graphic organizer in the form of a mystery reading worksheet
  • Mystery writing worksheet to help students write their own stories.

There’s complete teacher notes, ideas for alternative or extension activities and an answer key.

Why Use Mysteries

I love using mysteries. Here’s a few reasons why.

  • They encourage extensive reading. Most people like puzzles and mysteries so it can encourage students to read outside of class.
  • When you read a detective story, you tend to read for whodunit, for the outlines of the plot and then for the details. So students learn extensive and intensive reading skills.
  • Specifically mysteries teach analytical reading comprehension skills like skimming, scanning, and evaluating important material (i.e. clues)Mysteries are fun. Students love puzzles and riddles. They also love the CSI and Law and Order shows.
  • They teach reading and writing to a genre, in this case the Whodunit.
  • They give students practice making guesses and speculations
  • Provide the perfect jumping off point for creative writing , with good planning as mysteries require a lot of pre-writing outlining.

Preview and Buy the lesson plan?

You can purchase and download the full unit from Teachers Pay Teachers: Whodunit Unit

More Mysteries

As my loyal fans will know, I am a huge fan of mysteries and I love using them in the classroom. Mysteries are fun for students. You can bring up fun topics like murder and mayhen in an acceptable way. They teach logic , inference, and connection-making. And they lend themselves to practicing speculation, modals of certainty, not to mention mixed verb tenses.

So I was excited, if confused to see a post about teaching argument writing with mysteries on the English Companion Ning. It included a link to this school textbook on Argument Writing (No idea how legal this link is, but it is hosted by the publisher so click at your own risk) by Heinemann that starts out with a mystery(And also a fencing metaphor so this is pretty much the perfect textbook for me)!

I had never thought about it, but solving mysteries also involves marshaling relevant evidence and sorting opinion from fact, important skills for writing an argument or opinion essay! This seems like the most brilliant idea in the world and if anyone wants to hire me or join me writing a textbook on using mysteries in the ESL classroom, I would be ecstatic!

A Cool Web Resource for Mysteries

In the course of looking up some of the resources referred to on the Ning site, I stumbled on: 5 Minute Mystery which has short mysteries that can indeed be solved in 5 minutes or so. It also has a points and ranking system which makes it fun for students–you can even set up a league. But what I really like is the scoring system that gives you points for not only solving the mystery, but also identifying clues that incriminate or exonerate suspects. Sort of a high-tech version of my Mystery Solving Worksheet from my own mystery unit.

I like warming students up to mysteries by writing Whodunit on the board and having students guess what it means. It’s also fun to discuss the bad grammar of the target phrase (Who done it?) and the reason for it; I don’t actually know but it sounds like it targets readers of pulp crime fiction who may not be incredibly well-educated and are anxious to get to the solution, in other words the people who read detective stories for fun. Which is what we want our students to do, right? Read for fun?

Flashing and Mapping

Saw this activity a while back on So this is English…. You can click the link to read the full activity, but basically the idea is that you show students a picture for a few seconds and then get them to describe it. I have done similar things in the past and it works really well, especially if the picture is interesting and has lots of weird details. Students start arguing about what they really saw.

I posted once about my first course as a teacher and how my poor students suffered grammar pounding. The one good thing I ever did in that class was the first class.

I found a funny crime scene photo in a textbook (tried to find something good that works on Google but failed to do so), with the suspects wearing Groucho Marx glasses and crazy wigs. If I remember correctly, the victim was killed by safety scissors or a toilet brush or something ridiculous. I flashed it to one student for a few seconds and asked her to say what she thought happened. Then I showed it to another student who could add details or contradict the first students’ account. After showing it to three or four individual students, I gave copies to the students in pairs and had them come up with a story of what happened and why.

By showing it to individual students first, I piqued the other students’ curiosity and started a dialogue among a small group of students first as the students who saw it discussed what they had seen. At the same time, because the picture was weird, other students could jump in–What do you mean he had pink hair? He had a stick in his mouth? Was it a cigarette? And then I turned it into a basic story-telling/writing exercise for everyone.


A discussion oriented lesson that comes at the concept of corruption from a number of point of views to get students talking including giving them situations, a case-study and research on international corruption.


  • Promote fluency
  • Discuss corruption from a holistic point of view including bribes, favors, illegal corruption, and even rewarding children and friends
  • Give students a reading for discussion
  • Give students practice in reading and discussing a statistical table
  • Encourage students to provide support for beliefs


Note: that this can be a sensitive topic for some students and you should be careful to remain neutral about particular individuals or countries. First of all, you might get into trouble with students, administration or the law if you teach in a country where libel laws are strong. Also some students may get defensive about their country and culture. If you are a Westerner working in another country, they may also feel that you are trying to preach to them or subtly spread a political message. So try to keep the conversation philosophical and theoretical. Of course, if you feel comfortable and you are in a safe environment for open discussion, feel free to supplement this lesson with recent or famous corruption trials.

Warm Up

First, hand out the Corruption Situations worksheet and have students discuss the situations. They should decide if they consider these actions to be corruption or not. The list is meant to get more suspicious as it goes on. The discussion can be done in small groups with students reporting back or as a whole class. Make sure to have students give reasons for deciding if these are corrupt activities or not. Encourage students to think about different circumstances, and make sure to get everyone’s opinions as this activity can lead to a lot of discussion as people agree and disagree. You can also play devil’s advocate to encourage kids to speak up and analyze their position.

Then ask students which situations they believe are legal in their country, and if there is any relationship between legality and corruption. i.e. can there be legalized corruption? Finally ask students if they know of any other examples of corruption? What forms of corruption are most common in their

Definition of Corruption

Once you have gone through the situations, ask students how they would define corruption. Write anything they say on the board. They may come up with, or you can encourage them to include:
illegal, paying someone to do their job, paying extra because you are not connected, getting benefits from your job or family position, personally getting paid from business contracts, making fake documents.

The Culture of Corruption: Parking Ticket Study

Then introduce the Culture of Corruption study by explaining that two scientists, Ray Fishman and Edward Miguel did a study of corruption by looking at how often UN diplomats abused their diplomatic immunity. Explain “diplomatic immunity”, if necessary, and make it clear that diplomats do not have to pay parking tickets. Then explain that this study decided that that was a perfect definition of corruption: how often diplomats abuse their immunity by parking illegally. Ask students if they agree with this definition.

If you have a lot of grumbling you might draw a parallel to a rich and powerful businessman never being brought to court for crimes because of his job. Or some other more extreme form of abuse of position. Ask students which countries they think were most corrupt, which were least corrupt, and where they think their own country ended up. Then hand out the country table and let students discuss it amongst themselves. Be careful here if you teach in a multi-cultural class to make sure that students don’t start becoming disrespectful of each other’s countries.

Discussion Questions

Once the students have digested the table, hand out the Questions for Discussion and have students discuss them in pairs. The idea is to push
them toward thinking deeply about corruption. What causes it and how do we stop it? Or is it just part of human nature? Who is more to blame, the bribe-giver or the bribe-taker? Again encourage students to give reasons or examples to support their point.

Victimless Crime

After these questions have been exhausted, hand out the short story, Victimless Crime, about a man who finds out who suffers from corruption. Have students read the story and discuss whether they believe corruption is really a victimless crime or not. Promote discussion by asking them to consider the questions at the end of the text. You might choose to explain that the story is fictional but is based on real events that have happened to real people.

This is a class that usually runs out of time before all the students have had their say.


A fun lesson plan where students must come up with group alibis and then get examined separately to see how well they remember their alibi and how detailed it was. This lesson works best with classes from 6 to 12 people. For larger classes, this lesson takes a really long time! While theoretically it can be adjusted to students of any level, the procedure is a bit confusing so it goes better with higher level students.


  • Promote fluency
  • Practice asking and answering questions in the past tenses
  • Collaborating and negotiating in groups


  • None

Make up a crime that could have been committed in your town–I like to make them silly so students don’t get offended or concerned. Include a limited time frame for when it was committed. For example:

This afternoon, the Kremlin was stolen by a group of daring criminals. Yulia Smirnova left for lunch from her job at a nearby office building at 12:00 and claims that the Kremlin was still there. Ivan Kropotkin planned to visit the Kremlin that afternoon and reported it missing at 3pm. Sometime between 12 and 3pm, the building was stolen. All of you are suspects and must come up with an alibi for where you were at those times.

Check that students know the words ‘alibi’ and ‘suspect’. Then put students into groups of 2 or 3 and tell them that they were all together at the time of the crime. They must develop an alibi to explain where they were. Explain that the alibi must be as detailed as possible because each member of the group will be examined individually and the group with the most mistakes or discrepancies is the guilty party.

Give students 10-15 minutes (depending on their level) to come up with an alibi and rehearse all the details. Once everyone is ready, have each group in turn give a very brief summary of where they were such as at a restaurant, at school, at home, in London. The other groups must write down 3 questions about that alibi to ask each member of the group. So if one group says it was at the restaurant, people might ask ‘What was the name of your waiter?’or ‘What did each of you have to eat?’ ‘How much was the bill?’ and so on.

Now comes the fun part. Pick one group and send all its members but one into the hall. The member still in the classroom is the suspect. The rest of the class (acting the role of police investigators) will now ask their prepared questions and note their answers. This is where you find out who in the class are future CIA inquisitors–some students get really into the role of detective. Once all the questions have been asked, bring another member of the group in and have students ask the same questions, noting any discrepancies from the first member’s answers. So for example, if you ask what the waiter’s name was and the first student says ‘Jim’ but the second one says ‘Bill’, have the other students make a note of it. Bring in the third member of the group and once again, grill him noting any discrepancies.

Repeat the procedure of sending groups in the hall and interviewing the students individually while noting mistakes or discrepancies. Once everyone has been interviewed, the class should vote on which group is guilty based on how different their alibis were.

Kids and students love this lesson. However I like to put up all the steps in the lesson up on the board so they remember that the point of the exercise is to develop a detailed alibi and remember it. Students can get off-track and start accusing each other or confessing or even coming up with individual alibis instead of group alibis. So I often write on the board:

  1. Come up with alibi for the whole group. Where were you, what did you do, details!
  2. Give brief statement ex: We were in school.
  3. Groups are interviewed individually.
  4. Guilty group is the one with the most differences!

Thanks to for this idea which I basically stole. I am just sharing the exact procedure I use because this lesson can be difficult for students to understand.

Bogglesworld has a simpler version of this game where the alibis are already established and students just have to come up with the details. That would probably work better for lower level students.