The Whodunnit Mystery: A Game that Gets Students Listening Actively, Thinking Creatively, and Communicating

Charles McLarty, Hokkaido University of Information Science

Quick guide

  • Keywords: Mystery, communication, cooperation
  • Learner English level: Elementary to advanced
  • Learner maturity: High school and above
  • Preparation time: 10-15 minutes
  • Activity time: 25-45 minutes, depending on class size and level

Materials: Blackboard and chalk

This game, recommended by a former colleague, has gotten consistently favorable responses from students. It provides practice using simple questions while getting students to listen carefully and communicate better with classmates.


Step 1: Tell students that a crime has happened on campus and that they must solve it. After students calm down, explain that this “crime” is a story you have created and that they must solve the mystery by asking you questions to determine what has happened.

Step 2: Explain that students must find answers to the four items written on the blackboard. They are: (1) the criminal, (2) the victim, (3) the weapon, and (4) the place. For advanced classes, you can add a fifth item, the motive, but this is not necessary.

Step 3: Check student comprehension by providing definitions in their first language for criminal, victim, weapon, and place. Tell students that both the criminal and victim are in the classroom! When I first play this game in class, I usually play the criminal to see how soon students realize my chicanery. After all, the teacher is also in the classroom!

Step 4: Tell students they must ask questions about the four written items in order, finding the answer to item 1 before asking about item 2 and the answer to item 3 before asking about item 4. Only questions giving yes or no answers are allowed.

Step 5: Give additional hints as necessary. Write suggestions on the board for ways students can ask about items. For example, for item 1 ask “Is the criminal wearing glasses, blue jeans, sports shoes?” or for item 2 ask “Does the victim have black/brown/blond hair?” and so on.


Step 1: Write the four answers down on paper to avoid any temptation to change them during the game. Next, assign groups. I usually put students into groups of two or three. When students find all four answers, the game is over. Offer rewards or bonus points to groups who announce answers correctly during the game if feasible.

Step 2: Decide the order in which groups ask questions. In round one, each group decides (either by janken or coin toss) which member will ask the group’s question. After one round, go back to the first group. The member who did not ask a question in round one must do so now. For three-student groups, the two who have not asked a question can decide who will ask next.

Step 3: Choose some common object as the weapon (I usually choose an object in the classroom). Sometimes, I choose things that could not be real weapons, like my sunglasses.

Step 4: By now, many classes will have found answers to items 1 and 2. When students have found answers 1-3, tell them to guess number 4 by gut instinct. I usually make number 4 a place everyone knows, such as the school library. If class time is waning, let groups guess number 4 by raising hands. When a group gets answer 4, give them a reward or prize.


This is a good game to play after lessons on describing people. This game requires students to pay attention to other groups’ questions as well as teacher responses in order to gain hints about what to ask on their next turn. I have witnessed an increase in students talking to members of other groups, people they had seldom tried to communicate with previously. Also, students are motivated to communicate with their own group to help each other get bonus points or rewards. The atmosphere of tension and excitement slowly builds as students both compete with and cooperate with their classmates to get the answers. For these reasons, I highly recommend teachers try this game.