“There has been a deeply unfortunate incident resulting in a murder last night. I've brought you all here today because you are the suspects.” She presents the cast of characters she created to shape each story, handing out cards with new identities to students who will play key roles.
Then her students consider the four main categories of a scenario: the suspect, weapon, setting, and motive. Peake tailors the game for her more advanced classes, adding multiple options in each category. (One particularly wry group of 15-year-olds listed “Jeni’s jokes” as a possible implement of torture.)
Peake then has each student create a grid marking everyone's name and guessing the motives of potential perpetrators. The students start to interrogate one another, flexing their past-tense prowess as they pick over alibis. Portuguese is banned from the classroom; if anyone veers into speaking in their native tongue, Peake employs the element of surprise, sneaking up on students to tell them their English sounds somewhat suspect.
"The best thing about this activity is the students really want to find out who did it, and this encourages them to use the target language," Peake said.
When she first set out to find a new way to engage the wide array of ages in her English classes at the Cambridge School—which also offers classes in French, German, and Portugese as a foreign language—Peake researched a number of different plans before adapting the murder mystery idea that caught her eye online. Her teenaged students responded to the approach, and Peake expanded the method to her other classes.
“The motives section lets them get really creative: We’ve had contributions like ‘he hadn't done his homework,’ ‘he stole my girlfriend,’ and ‘she owed me lots of money.’ It's also a great way to challenge their vocabulary when discussing things like the murder weapons,” Peake said. Some of the more imaginative items students have suggested: a wooden spoon, a harpoon gun, and a shark tank.
“[The murder mystery lesson] was really different and surprising,” said 24-year-old Ana Caterina Alves, one of Peake’s students. “It led us into a hypothetical situation and we were part of the story because we became characters and detectives. The purpose was to find the murder weapon and the murderer, and with that goal, we developed our communication skills and learned new vocabulary. That will be useful in and out of class.”
Versions of the murder mystery lesson plan have become well-liked across the globe. One take on the method has held rank for the last two years within the top 100 most accessed pages on Macmillan Education resource site OneStopEnglish, garnering more than 1,000 hits each month.
“It’s safe to say it’s a popular one,” said Sarah Milligan, commissioning editor at Macmillan. “One of the main benefits of this lesson is that it shows teachers how they can easily set up a role-play activity which helps students to practice English in a safe and comfortable environment. Additionally, this lesson combines various skills like reading and speaking with practice of specific grammar points.”