One of the most daunting tasks faced by educators is helping students to become better readers. This is accomplished by guiding them in developing strategies they can use to improve their own comprehension. Every lesson should begin by connecting the content of the selection with the students’ background knowledge and experiences, linking the unknown to the known. Students should be encouraged to become familiar with new vocabulary, especially words which may be specific to the genre that they are reading. Further, it may be necessary for the teacher to provide specific instruction on how to understand the elements that make the style of writing unique. Once these foundations have been established, students can combine their new knowledge, their background information, and the story to make predictions about what might happen in the selection. With all of these elements working in conjunction, they can anticipate what is upcoming, read to discover if their prediction is accurate, and either refine, revise, or discard their incorrect predictions. Students should be encouraged not only to talk about how they arrived at their answers, but also to be able to provide supporting evidence from the selection. Teachers need to ask higher level questions, not just those from which answers can be selected from a list or a multiple choice format.
Detective fiction is a genre of writing that provides a wealth of opportunities to incorporate all of these strategies to improve reading skills. Whether their background comes from having read Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys or from detectives portrayed on television, students certainly can identify some things which apply to detectives and detective fiction; hence, despite the sophistication we expect in this genre, it offers accessible points of departure.
One of the goals of the unit is to introduce more sophisticated adult literature to students. Although some of the vocabulary may be difficult, students need to be exposed to a variety of writing styles. The most difficult selection is the first, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe. Since this is the pioneering detective story, it seems the appropriate place to begin. The strategy suggested with this selection is meant to acquaint students with the unique elements of this genre. Here the background information can be integrated with specific instruction to provide a good overview of classic detective fiction.
The second selection, “The Red-Headed League” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is much easier to read and understand. Students are required to focus on Sherlock Holmes’s powers of observation, which directly relate to his ability to make predictions about people and events.
The final suggested reading is “And Then There Were None” by Agatha Christie. This novel is a departure from the other selections since the mystery is solved without the benefit of any detection by a specific main character. The task for this reading involves higher level thinking skills. Students are asked to develop a persuasive essay based on their interpretation of the appropriateness of the actions of Judge Wargrave.
In addition to the obvious skill development of these activities, there is opportunity also for students to work collaboratively and cooperatively. Collaborative learning is a group activity that asks students to work together on a task, such as writing a short story that conforms to the conventions of detective fiction. Cooperative learning is more structured; each group member is responsible for helping the others. This type of activity can be utilized in adapting portions of a short story or the novel for presentation in a Readers Theater format.
In accordance with these aims, this unit will:
1. Introduce and discuss the elements which are particular to detective fiction.
2. Provide the teacher with biographical notes on Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Agatha Christie.
3. Give a brief synopsis of the two short stories and the novel.
4. Include vocabulary development sheets with not only new or unfamiliar words, but also with words specific to this genre.
5. Develop lesson plans which will focus on the elements of the genre of detective fiction, the scientific method and powers of observation, and practice in writing opinion, expository, and persuasive essays.