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


Christmas Tree Ornament

A Christmas lesson plan that discusses the American Santa Claus and his counterparts in other parts of the world. Since I teach in the post-Soviet Union, where Ded Moroz, or Grandfather Frost, brings presents on New Year’s Day and has some other differences, I thought a comparison of Kazakhstan’s holiday traditions and American traditions was a good introduction to Christmas. But of course, you could compare American Santa Claus and Sinterklass or other variations in your students’ cultures.


  • To discuss New Year’s and Christmas and other winter holidays
  • To promote fluency
  • To activate, elicit and teach Christmas vocabulary
  • To discuss the culture and traditions of Christmas in the West in a comparative context


Warm Up

Santa ClausShow them a picture of Santa Claus and ask them who it is. Then ask them what they know about Santa Claus. Don’t correct them at this point, let them discuss among themselves everything they know about Santa Claus and Christmas.


Now put a table up on the board with 3 columns. In the first column, write questions like:
When does he come?
What does he bring?
How does he get in the house?
How does he travel?
Where does he live?
Does he have family?
Who helps him?
How does he know what you want?
What does he wear?

On top of column one, write Santa Claus and on top of column two, write Ded Moroz or Sinterklass or whatever. Now discuss the answers to the questions as a class. Alternatively have students read the text, About Santa, and find the answers themselves. You could write up similar texts for Ded Moroz or other variations of Santa Claus and do a jigsaw reading where students in small groups read one text and then tell the other students about it.

Vocabulary Review

To reinforce vocabulary, hand out the Christmas flashcards. I recommend using only the flashcards that relate to Santa, and the words that came up in the lesson (North Pole, reindeer, presents, sleigh, chimney, fireplace/stockings, elves and so on). Call out a word and ask students to show you the picture of that word. Alternatively, use the word in a sentence or for higher level classes, give a definition or description of the word (How does Santa get into the house?). Get students to cycle through all the words.

Filler Questions

As part of the warm-up or as a closing, you can ask students what they want for Christmas or New Years, if they believe in Santa Claus, how old they were when they stopped believing, the best gift they ever got from Santa, the worst gift they ever got. You can also ask about family traditions, and what they are looking forward to doing for the holidays.

Yes Virginia There is a Santa Claus

A reading lesson plan on the famous editorial from The Sun Newspaper, “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus”. Students discuss whether they believe in Santa Claus and what Santa Claus symbolizes. It’s great for introducing Santa and the spirit of Christmas and it definitely crosses cultural boundaries as every culture has imaginary characters.


Warm Up

Ask students if they believe in Santa Claus. Chances are, they will say no.
Ask they why not and if they ever believed in Santa Claus. See if you can elicit any good stories about how they came to not believe. Did they see their parents putting the presents out? Did their friends tell them? Or an older brother?

Now ask why little children believe? Follow up by asking if it is important for children to believe in Santa Claus or is it better to tell them the truth, that Santa Claus is not real?

Now, ask about the symbol of Santa Claus and the Christmas/holiday spirit. What does Santa Claus stand for? Try to elicit the spirit of giving, kindness to others, happiness, childlike qualities, magic. Ask if they believe in those qualities?

Introducing the Editorial

Now introduce the article. Wikipedia actually has a nice introduction that you can adapt:

In 1897, Dr. Philip O’Hanlon, a coroner’s assistant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was asked by his then eight-year-old daughter, Virginia (1889–1971), whether Santa Claus really existed. Virginia O’Hanlon had begun to doubt there was a Santa Claus, because her friends had told her that he did not exist.
Dr. O’Hanlon suggested she write to The Sun, a prominent New York City newspaper at the time, assuring her that “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” While he may have been buck passing, he unwittingly gave one of the paper’s editors, Francis Pharcellus Church, an opportunity to rise above the simple question, and address the philosophical issues behind it.

Church was a war correspondent during the American Civil War, a time which saw great suffering and a corresponding lack of hope and faith in much of society. Although the paper ran the editorial in the seventh place on the editorial page, below even an editorial on the newly invented “chainless bicycle”, its message was very moving to many people who read it. More than a century later it remains the most reprinted editorial ever to run in any newspaper in the English language.

You might tell them the first part, that this little girl wrote to a famous newspaper to ask if Santa Claus was real or not. Ask what they think the newspaper did with the letter. Then tell them that the editor decided to answer the letter. Ask what they think he said.

The Text

Give them the original or simplified text.

Have the students read it over. Check comprehension by asking if the editor believes in the person of Santa Claus? What exactly does he mean by saying that Santa Claus is real? Why does he talk about hiring men to watch chimneys? What does he say about a baby rattle (or in the simplified version, a car)?

You might at this point mention the fact that Church had been a war correspondent and that he felt the country had become very depressed and cynical. Discuss what the students think about this article. Do they agree with it? Was it a good answer? Would it have been better to tell Virginia the truth?


Now ask if they have changed their minds about any of the questions you discussed in the warm up. Have some of your students become less cynical?

Lesson Plans for Making a New World

UPDATE: I have created an all-inclusive serious and not so serious worksheet for students to create their own nation. It prompts them to devise a map and a flag as well as more serious issues like whether or not to have the death penalty and freedom of speech. It also includes cultural issues such as holidays! The worksheet with some guiding questions is here: Create a new nation.


Cleaning up my desktop, I found this lesson plan: Create a Country from Turklish TEFL.

I have my own Creating a New Society lesson. I hadn’t posted this one before because it’s pretty closely adapted to the one I found on

Students love this kind of lesson. I like how the Turklish lesson plan focuses on fun stuff like a map and a capital and a language. And encourages them to make a new fictional country (The example of Beeristan may not be appropriate for everyone of course). My lesson plan is really only for high intermediate and advanced students and focuses on serious things like laws and industry and the education system! At some point in the future, I may combine them to a slightly more fun worksheet, unless someone beats me to it!


New York Times Lesson Plans for September 11th

The New York Times has a nice set of lesson plans on 9/11 including social effects and the war in Afghanistan. I really liked the first lesson. These are mostly for advanced students and are pretty heavily biased toward reading and analyzing readings, obviously.

Discussion Lines

A month ago, I wrote about a way to do discussions (Pyramid Discussion), so continuing the theme of explaining some basic techniques that can be applied to a variety of situations, here’s my second favorite way to do discussions: Discussion Lines.

It works well for:

  • questions that every student can answer
  • getting students to speak quickly and fluently
  • generating a lot of opinions or ideas or answers in a relatively short amount of time
  • getting students to talk to a lot of different people.


Have your questions or topic of discussion ready. There are a couple of ways to do this. Because students will be switching pairs a lot, you can either have a different question for each pair, or have them discussion the same question/questions with a variety of partners.

The Method

  1. Put students into 2 lines facing each other. The lines should be even so every student is facing another student. If not, you get to play too.
  2. Give students their first question or topic and a time limit. When you say, “go”, they discuss the first question.
  3. When the time is over, the student at the head of one line moves to the bottom and everyone moves over one. So now they have a new partner to talk to.For example, you have these two lines:

    Bob, Jane and Sarah
    Steve, Ling and Ali.
    Bob moves down next to Sarah. Then Jane, Sarah and Bob step one step to the right So now the two lines are:
    Jane, Sarah, Bob
    Steve, Ling and Ali

  4. Now the students can answer the same question or take on a new question. When they are finished, the student at the head once again comes on down and everyone moves one over to face yet another partner. You can keep cycling until you run out students if you like.

Besides “choosing” activities, students can have a series of statements to agree or disagree with. Or they can be actually agreeing on how to manage an activity such as a group project. They could even be discussing the meaning of a proverb or reading or saying.

This is an old activity, one I think I learned from the back of the Straightforward textbooks. Other variations from my dear readers?

Pyramid Discussion

From time to time I like to share simple activity ideas and techniques I use in the classroom in order to help people who might not have heard of them and to get feedback on different ways to do them. This is one my favorite ways to do discussion in a large class.

It works well for:

  • sensitive or complicated topics where you want students to have a chance to talk in smaller groups before talking in front of the whole class. I
  • activities where students have to rank things or pick the five best things out of a list or settle on an opinion
  • practicing the language and skills of opinion, persuasion and compromise


It’s always good to have groups pre-determined so you can separate students by language, background, gender, personality, activeness, shyness, ability.

Ultimately the class will be divided into pairs, then those pairs will form groups of 4, those groups of 4 will form groups of 8, and then 16, until the class is whole. So you should plan the whole thing out and work out any odd numbers and so on. I make a little chart personally.

The Method

  1. Put your task or questions on the board. Make sure students have all the language and resources that they need.
    For example, a list of ten items on the board that can help you survive on a desert island. Go over the vocab and the language of evaluating and the language of survival/basic needs.
  2. Put students into pairs and tell them to discuss the question/come to a conclusionFor example, as a pair the students must agree on the 3 most necessary for survival on a desert island.
  3. Once students have agreed in their pairs, put the pairs together into groups of four. If everyone finishes at the same time, you can go over some common errors and questions before moving on. If they finish at different times, you can just match them up as they finish. In their groups of four, they should first report their conclusions and why and second come to an agreement as a group of four.

    For example, pair #1 chose the shovel, the matches and the radio. Pair #2 chose the map, the glasses and the bug spray. Now as a group of four, they must persuade the whole group and come up with only three items.

  4. Once the groups of four have come to a conclusion, you can put them into groups of eight. They repeat the same procedure: report their conclusion and then agree as a larger group.
    At this stage, they have discussed this matter 2 times already. The shy students should be comfortable talking, the more active will be repeating themselves and producing more accurate language, and hopefully there will be some prompting of each other–Ali had a good idea, tell them what you said to me.
  5. Keep merging two groups until you get the whole class. You could then do a classroom debate or go over answers, or have a few people discuss their conclusions and why.

Besides “choosing” activities, students can have a series of statements to agree or disagree with. Or they can be actually agreeing on how to manage an activity such as a group project. They could even be discussing the meaning of a proverb or reading or saying.

This is an old activity, one I think I learned from the back of the Straightforward textbooks. Other variations from my dear readers?