Sleuthing the Net

Posted December 4, 2003: Cynthia Kieffer discusses Internet activities to do with students as they read mystery novels. See Essential Teacher, Winter 2003 (p. 59), for Abigail Bartoshesky's review of the audiotapes The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and related Internet sites.

Sue Grafton's mystery novels provide a natural, authentic context for developing the language fluency and skills of students in Level 4 of the American English Institute's six-level Intensive Program. For individual and small-group work, teachers have students do Internet activities related to the mystery genre.

As each term comes to a close, I think about which Internet activities have worked well and what activities to add for the next term. Here is a sample of activities that I often use and some that I intend to try out.

Internet Activities That Have Worked

Search the Author's Web Site

I have students search the author's Web site for the answers to factual questions. Because I set a time limit, students need to use their skimming and scanning skills. They learn to use the headings on the Web page to get to the general location of answers and to use key words to find answers.

Read the First Chapter Online

Many authors, including Grafton, post the first chapter of their most recent novel on their own Web site or on bookstore sites, such as Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/). I have students use key words to find out, for example, how old the main characters are in the new novel or if another character is still working or has retired. What I like about this activity is that students don't have time to read the chapter carefully, yet they become familiar with the characters and with the author's sentence structure, vocabulary, and style.

Explore Failed Crimes

Dumb Criminal Acts (http://www.dumbcriminalacts.com/) is a library of failed crimes organized into categories--bank and convenience store holdups, kidnappings, drug-related offenses, robberies, and car thefts. In the computer lab, students

  • select a category and read a few entries. This activity often leads to a lot of laughter and sharing of stories.
  • choose a couple of crimes that they think are particularly dumb and write a one-sentence summary in which they identify what the criminal tried to do and why he or she failed. Students practice reading comprehension and summary writing as well as verb tenses and the use of active or passive voice.
  • describe one of the crimes to a small group as a way of developing oral clarity and accuracy.

Internet Activities I'm Going to Try

When searching the Internet for new possibilities, I came across numerous directories and sites featuring activities and lessons in the mystery genre. Students can become detectives and mystery writers in their own right as they practice reading and writing.

Solve a Mystery

Some sites (e.g., Mysterynet's Kid's Mysteries (http://kids.mysterynet.com/) post mysteries for visitors to read and solve. The mysteries change daily or monthly, and students can often post a critique and read critiques by other visitors to the site. On many of these sites, students can access interviews with characters, go back and forth in the story, and offer a solution whenever they are ready. If the solution is wrong, the student is told why and is shown where to go back and reread. In this type of Internet activity, students are reading for a specific purpose, identifying important details, using deductive reasoning, increasing reading fluency, and expanding their vocabulary.

Write a Mystery

On other sites (e.g., The Topic: Mystery, http://42explore.com/mystery.htm), students can write their own mysteries. Some sites provide a beginning, and students write a conclusion, which they compare with their classmates' versions and the original. Other sites give writing tips and strategies for writing complete mysteries, including guidelines on revising writing and even certificates of achievement to print and distribute. My own favorite is the story completion activity because writing a complete mystery may be too ambitious a task for my Level 4 students.

Web Sites for Further Sleuthing

As you explore the Internet, keep your eyes open for other mystery-related sites. Here are some of my favorites.

42eXplore. (2000). The topic: Mystery. Retrieved September 19, 2003, from http://42explore.com/mystery.htm

Part of a topic index of Web sites to use for classroom activities, this site is an excellent source for links and resources.

Google. (2003). Short stories: arts: online writing: fiction: genres: mystery: short stories. Retrieved September 19, 2003, fromhttp://directory.google.com/Top/Arts/Online_Writing/Fiction/Genres/Mystery/Short_Stories/

Google's Web directory includes a listing of online mystery stories.

Hopcott, R. (2001). Holiday to murder, chapter 1. http://www.hopcott.freeserve.co.uk/holiday-murder/chapter01/

The first chapter of this serial novella, which features the popular character Alice, is available free online. Readers can order the other chapters from the author by e-mail.

MysteryNet.com. http://www.mysterynet.com/
MysteryNet's kids' mysteries. http://kids.mysterynet.com/

MysteryNet offers online mysteries; information about famous authors, such as Agatha Christie; a Clue-A-Day game for solving a crime; and much more.

Ongoing Tales Mystery E-Magazine. (1997-2003). Antelope Publishing. Retrieved September 19, 2003, from http://www.ongoing-tales.com/SERIALS/mystery/

This magazine features mystery stories in serial format. A detailed table of contents is available at http://www.ongoing-tales.com/contents.html.

UptownCity. (2000). Mystery manor. Retrieved September 19, 2003, from http://uptowncity.com/mystry.htm

Uptown City offers short mysteries in simple English. Readers guess at the ending of each story or get it by e-mail.

Cynthia Kieffer is a senior instructor at University of Oregon's American English Institute, in the United States.