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.

Continue reading “The Gift of the Magi Lesson Plan”


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

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?

Question Matrix

We all want to teach our students critical thinking skills. The best way to do that is to help them formulate questions, collect evidence for both sides of the question, weight that evidence, and come to a conclusion. That involves teaching them to be comfortable with ambiguity as they read, process and critically analyze a reading or a discussion topic.  Remember that they are already floating in a world of uncertainty as they learn a second language. Now we’re asking them to consider nuances of words and grammar functions they are just beginning to understand how to use.

That’s why I love worksheets for teaching critical thinking.  I particularly think teaching critical thinking works best with reading texts as well because students have a written page that they can go back to and analyze at their own pace. Reading provides a grounding that the ephemeral nature of speaking cannot.

So here’s my worksheet that works well for helping students address critical reading questions in texts, although it could easily be adapted to discussions or even choosing the topic of an essay.I I don’t think the method is particularly unique but this worksheet helps student see the process of collecting and weighing evidence for a point of view.

The handout

Question Matrix

Sample Question Matrix filled out by yours truly.

How to use it

After students have read the text, pose a question that requires critical thought. It should be one where the answer is not clearly cut and dry. This might mean that the author of the text is himself equivocal on the topic or one where tone is important. It might also require two step logic or looking at various points in the text and synthesizing that with background knowledge.

Have students take the worksheet and write the question in the box marked Question. Now have them collect all the evidence that might demonstrate that the answer to their question is positive in the box under Yes. After they have done that, they can collect evidence that the answer might be negative in the box under No. 

Then, let students evaluate the evidence they have collected. They can cross-out evidence that doesn’t really provide strong support or evidence that after a second look is irrelevant. They can star particularly strong or convincing evidence. Advanced students might draw lines to make connections between ideas and figure out which evidence relies on other evidence. In this way, they can get into analyzing the structure of the arguments themselves.

Finally, students should be asked to write an answer to the question,  their conclusion, and an explanation of why they feel that their answer is correct or at least supportable.

And that conclusion may lead to yet another question on yet another worksheet…

5W Chart

Here’s another one of my versions of a popular teaching tool–the 5W chart. It’s usually used to help students keep track of a story or news article by filling out the who, what, where, when, and why of the story. Especially helpful for beginning level readers, it can also be used for advanced readers doing dense and difficult texts. The questions break down as:

  • Who did it?
  • What did they do?
  • Where did they do it?
  • When did they do it?
  • Why did they do it?

Some people add “How” but that usually gets tangled up in “What”. And of course, not all stories are going to have answers to all those questions. I like to follow up by having students note which information the article is mainly about. Is it an article or story about an event (WHAT) or a person (WHO). MAybe it’s a portrait of a place or a time. An editorial might even focus on WHY more than the other questions.

While this is primarily meant as a reading tool to help students break a reading down, it can also serve as an outline for writing.

ELT Reading Materials Design Class

This looks interesting–an online class on ELT Reading Materials Design by Marcos Benevides. It seems to focus on adapting a work and creating a graded reader, but the website also says it covers creating original materials as well.

It’s a four week course from September 7th to the 28th for $49 or $75 if you want a certificate. It’s through iTDi and the teacher is Marcos Benevides, who authored Widgets and Whodunit (a course book that I have mentioned before as one I wish I had authored myself). Check out the class website for more information and to register.