Mystery in the English Class

illustration from The Fall of the House of Usher (Tales of Mystery) by Edgar Allan Poe, Level 5 reader

Illustration from The Fall of the House of Usher (Tales of Mystery) by Edgar Allan Poe. Illustrated by Giuseppe Palumbo. © Helbling Languages

Events, people, occurrences which are difficult or impossible to explain are intriguing for most of us. Stories of mystery can distract us from our everyday routines and make us focus at the same time. Good mysteries are real page-turners, which engage the readers from the very first sentence, and this quality makes them excellent resources for language learners, and good stories almost always have a hint of mystery in them. Let’s see some language activities you can build around the theme of mystery, and then some titles that will suit teen and adult readers.

Mystery activities

Activity 1

In an open discussion, start with a word association game. Put the word MYSTERY on the board, and then ask your students to come up with related words and concepts. You can also play it as a ‘Chain of Thought’ game, a free association word chain game. It’s fascinating to see how different groups create different word chains. Do this activity quickly, letting the students’ intuition run riot.

Activity 2

Using the words below explore the meaning of the word/concept of ‘mystery’. You can use any dictionary to look for definitions. Then discuss the meaning of the following words and make sentences with them.

  • mystery
  • crime
  • puzzle
  • mysterious
  • mystic
  • mystify

Solve mysteries

Although we might not be as quick and successful at solving mysteries as Auguste Dupin or Sherlock Holmes, we can try out some problem-solving activities and see if we have the makings of a top detective.

Do parallel thinking activities, examine visual puzzles, and look for online mysteries you can solve in the classroom.

For young learners we recommend activities (check out Chapter 12, Solving problems) from the resource book Teaching Young Learners to Think (by Marion Williams and Herbert Puchta).

In the resource book Thinking in the EFL Class (written by Tessa Woodward) you will find a myriad of activities for teens and adults, classified in six chapters focussing on different thinking skills.

Mystery in life

In the book Mystery and Suspense in Creative Writing, Jacek Dąbała offers six different varieties of mystery:

  • The Mystery of the Other Person
  • The Mystery of God and Nature
  • The Mystery of One’s Own Self
  • Internal Illusion
  • The Mystery of Unpredictability
  • The Mystery of Subject and Situation

What do you think these varieties refer to? After clarifying the meaning of these concepts, ask your students to give you examples of any of categories.

Mystery in fiction

Mystery fiction has been popular since its first appearance, which can be dated around the publication of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe, published in 1841. Of course there had been novels with mysterious  elements and Gothic novels are also filled with suspense and mystery, but the classic mystery fiction genre was built around Poe’s short stories.

Read some mystery fiction with your students. Here are some titles – including original stories written spcifically for language learners, classics and their adapted versions, and young adult novels for both younger and older adults.

Classics in the Helbling Readers series

Original stories in the Helbling Readers series

Famous classics 

  • The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins
  •  Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) by Charles Dickens
  • The Hercule Poirot series by Agatha Christie
  • The Maltese Falcon (1929) by Dashiell Hammett
  • Rebecca (1938) by Daphne Du Maurier
  • The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) by John Buchan

Young Adult Novels

Visit our website dedicated to the anthology 101 Young Adult Novels written by Christian Holzmann for famous and almost classic young adult novel titles. Here is a selection of mystery fiction titles.

Mystery and creative writing

Students, especially teenagers, enjoy doing this writing sequence which includes the discussion of a Gothic painting or mysterious photograph, vocabulary building, the use of narrative tenses and paragraph writing. Follow our link to read the writing lesson plan ‘Read to Write – How to create a mysterious setting in 8 easy steps’. You can download worksheets and samples from readers.

Read more about detectives and mystery fiction:

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