Whodunnit Forensics Lab

There are a variety of ways that Whodunnit: Murder at Armstrong Manor can be deployed in the classroom depending on class size, make-up, level and, of course, whether it’s being taught in the flesh or online. It would be possible for a single student to work through the evidence alone, and some will, even in group a setting, but a collaborative approach will wring more learning and a wider range of skills out of the process. For that reason, a project-based attack is advised. Groups of five, with students themselves deciding how to divvy up the content is fairly efficient. Using a print-out of the Evidence Notebook or their own note-taking solution, individuals or pairs can assess a given piece of evidence then report back to the group at a predetermined time, sharing their findings through oral discussion, in English only, of course. A motivated group of 5 could probably motor through the task in 3 hours of classroom time. The bigger the group, however, the more likely some students will slack off and let their peers do all the detective work.

A group of three will stretch out the exercise significantly and tend to make students more accountable. Each student will be directly exposed to more content and will have more face time during sharing sessions. A presentation phase could be added with each group taking turns briefly presenting on one piece of evidence or interview to the whole class. This will have the effect of reviewing the events and vocabulary for all, while ensuring that comprehension levels and pacing are similar, across all groups. The presentation phase is also a good way to find out if any groups have misunderstood instructions.


A flipped classroom approach lends itself well to online learning with students chomping through the rote work of listening or reading and taking notes then coming to class prepared for forensic discussion in breakout rooms. If expectations are clearly established at the beginning of the semester most students will be motivated to do their part honestly. To keep the honesty quotient up, instructors can pop in and out of discussion rooms on a random basis to assist while keeping tabs on who’s contributing and who isn’t. Students should be aware in advance, or at least believe, that points are being awarded for active participation. See the Participation Tracking Print-Out below for a tool to help with that.

What level is Whodunnit for?

Remember that old adage: target the task, not the content. Since the content is designed to be ‘authentic,’ lower level students will require more scaffolding. Towards that end, at the bottom of the page, you’ll find a PowerPoint presentation that can be used to introduce the project and a list of phrasal verbs that can be pretaught. Other vocabulary is glossed in-context but instructors may want to pick out specific items to highlight for the entire class. With that in mind, Whodunnit should be deployable for motivated False Beginners or Lower Intermediate students and up.

Show, Don’t Tell

Before tasking lower level students to assess the evidence, choose a single interview and elicit salient details, building them up on the board in point form. Repeat the exercise with one of the pictures of evidence, getting students to examine it closely, articulating the detail and speculating on what it could mean in a criminal investigation. The last picture on the page, that of the victim’s father would be good for this exercise.

Part way through the project, pause in the group work and elicit descriptions of each of the characters along with an impromptu discussion of their personalities. The PowerPoint presentation below can anchor this review phase. The instructor or an assistant can build up the appropriate adjectives on the whiteboard, analogue or digital. Again this will help establish a baseline of knowledge for all participants.

Four Skills – Collaborative Learning

I have always tried to emphasize oral output, whether teaching conversation, a listening class, a writing class or indeed, content courses like American Literature or British & American Culture or Pedagogy courses. Of the four skills, speaking is the one which students need most yet have the fewest opportunities to garner whether in class or out; whether in an EFL or an ESL situation. Even in the latter, there’s a tendency of students to hang together in their linguistic and cultural groups for a myriad of reasons. There are ample opportunities for students to listen on their own. Even those who are motivated to do very little else will listen to English-based music or watch an endless parade of YouTube videos, television programs and movies in English, with or without the support of subtitles. Reading is a declining skill worldwide, among both language learners and the general population but sufficiently motivated students can easily find things of interest to read and require no feedback from the process in order to improve. The productive skills are quite different. Though some students will do writing on their own — keeping a diary, for instance — most are reluctant without some form of feedback even though there is proven value to writing in a vacuum. Speaking has it’s own, built-in feedback but, by its very nature, requires a minimum of two people, something hard to come by outside of the classroom.

Passive Skills Productive Skills
Listening Reading Speaking Writing
There are 8 suspect/witness interviews, each less than 5 minutes in length. There are also three very short radio news clips without transcripts.

The 8 interviews are accompanied by transcripts. Upper level students can be encouraged to get their info aurally only. A workable deployment could be listen as a class first, discuss then follow up by listening and reading simultaneously, then discussing and note-taking with instructor fielding questions as they arise.
Participants will also be required to read a number of documents
and news clippings related to the investigation.

Ideally, each step should be followed up with a brief discussion period to squeeze as much spoken language out of the process as possible. It should go without saying that students should be using English only at all times. To achieve this, students must be trained from the first day of classes. Letting this slide is an abdication of your responsibilities as a teacher. No need to be a Nazi about it. Firm reminders are usually enough. When all is said and done, students appreciate the effort. The point of the class is NOT to figure out a detective mystery. The point of the class is to master English.
The printable Evidence Notebook provides opportunities for note-taking and writing up a formal theory. If anyone wants I can provide the Word file so students can fill out the notebook while working online and upload it to an EMS [think Moodle] for assessment.

Supplementary Activities

You may want to undertake some of the interview sections as a class and discuss to promote a deeper sense of the story. With higher level students listen only then debrief and discuss. With intermediate level students, listen first, then read, debrief and discuss. Lower level students will be most comfortable reading and listening at the same time, followed by a few comprehension questions and a solo rereading before addressing vocabulary as a class followed by a directed discussion.

Interviews Discussion
Mrs Padma Forste Discuss Mrs Forste’s lost inheritance in the back story. Was it fair? Could you keep working for someone who so boldly robbed you of a fortune? Why do you think Russell Armstrong left his fortune to his housekeeper and not his son? Are there any parallels in the story? Why did Armstrong keep Mrs Forste on as a hosekeeper?
Christian Green Discuss the role of environmentalists in society. Why do some environmentalists become overzealous? What is an environmental cause that you personally believe in?
Damian Pierpoint Imagine a scenario in which Damian and his wife are the murderers. Do this early on to help students start thinking like a detective. Be sure to cover Means, Motive and Opportunity.
Miyuki Miura Why would ‘Yuki’ be interested in someone who, by all accounts, was a pretty nasty guy? Was it love? Was she a ‘gold digger’ as Detective ‘Huck’ suggested?
Rusty Hall Business Discussion: given what you know about Zodiaq, do you think the death of the controlling shareholder will affect business generally and the price of the company shares in the short term and the longer term. What kind of company is Zodiaq? Is Zodiaq an ethical company? Ideally, how should such a company behave from a social standpoint.
Bruno Wolfe Is ‘trophy hunting’ a sport? Do you agree with Detective ‘Huck’, that trophy hunting is just bullying? What do you think of ‘food hunting?’ How about food fishing? Industrial fishing? Whaling?
Fabian Wood Fabian is happy-go-lucky. What do you think of his hapless lifestyle? Could you live like him?
Reynard Armstrong
What kind of man was he? Contrast him with what we know of his father. Why were they so different?
Investigating the Crime Scene What do you think are the most important pieces of evidence? Based on just the evidence presented at the crime scene suggest a theory of how the crime took place. Discuss in pairs and then write it out on the last page of the Evidence Notebook.
Documents Discuss the will and have students write out their own will. Discuss inheritance tax. Why did Armstrong dispose of his fortune in the way that he did? Why not just leave everything to Fabian, as everyone expected?
 Debrief; How did the case turn out? In light of the will, were there any surprises. Follow the money: speculate on how the inheritance was distributed in the end. Characters: speculate on what became of other key characters outside of the realm of the evidence.


Participation Tracking Print-Out

Download and print to keep records on who’s taking part in discussions and who’s just faking it. You don’t need to even use the results but a clipboard and whole lot of jotting can have a miraculous effect on participation. Give praise where warranted and let the slouches know that you must have missed their moment in the limelight.

Whodunnit Intro on PowerPoint

Download a PowerPoint presentation that can be used to briefly introduce Whodunnit to your students.

Evidence Notebook

Download a note taking aid for your students.

Phrasal Verbs

[In Development]

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