Review: History’s Mysteries – Sapp, Noble, Lacey, Gavell and Lawrence

Some time ago, I was lucky enough to get my hands on a copy of History’s Mysteries (a huge thank you to Walton Burns from Alphabet Publishing!), a book that aims to “create history-themed topics for reading and also for research, creative writing, and discussion” (p. viii). Being very much a strong proponent of reading-focused lessons (all the better if they are TBLT-focused), I knew that I was going to like it. What follows here is my review of the book, some reasons why I think you might like it as well, and some points to consider before buying it.

Three-sentence summary

History’s Mysteries is a book that ensures that the reader is not simply a “passive observer of history” (p. viii); rather, they are an active participant in ‘research’ and co-construction of knowledge, theories, etc. Readers/Learners learn about (and think about!) monsters and creatures, mysteries, famous heroes and villains, disappearances, and conspiracies through a medium-length text that can be adapted for varying purposed. The book contains plenty of activities for learners and, while it does not contain a ‘teacher’s book’, the activities do flow in a way that is logical and will be useful for most classrooms around the world (or learners on their own!).

What I liked

  • Loads of super cool topics: I’ve never been a history buff, but some of the topics that have included are really interesting. I will talk soon about the activities that I have tried, but here I’ll just mention that your learners are more than likely going to find some of them really entertaining and interesting. And, it’s not like they’ve gone in half-heartedly, they have included a good 270 pages of stuff covering 40 ‘lessons/topics’ and 14 extra miscellaneous activities.
  • The scene is set: So, from the start, the reader/learner is put into a state of ‘detective-ness’. The first real content page is a letter telling the reader that they are now part of a secret organisation that solves mysteries (see below)! I thought that this was just awesome – and there are some many ideas regarding how you could use this in class (e.g. ‘send’ this to your students and then they have come up with the detective personality).
  • It makes History seem not boring: When I ask my learners what they think of history as a subject, most of them come back to me with very negative replies. I feel like this more ‘experiential’ and investigative approach to history might be what some classes need to get learners feeling positive about history again.
  • It encourages critical thinking and liberatory autonomy: Each of the chapters encourage learners to go further than simply reading. If we think about Bloom’s taxonomy, we can see activities that get learners to really engage with higher-order thinking skills (e.g. many of the discussion questions get learners to analyse and evaluate, while the projects get learners to analyse, evaluate and create). But more than this, there are a number of supplementary activities that aim to develop what Kumaravadivelu calls liberatory autonomy. Take a look at just three of these awesome little extra ‘units’:
    • Finding credible sources (gets learners to type of info they get from sources and how ‘credible’ the source actually is)
    • In-text citations of sources (gets learners to think about how they can write and cite academically)
    • Critical questions for Media Literacy (gets learners to think about what messages texts convey and the people behind the messages – who they are, motivations, etc.)
  • Easily adaptable: So the book is written in a way that learners/readers can carry out the tasks by themselves. This being said, the book is so easily adapted. One of the lessons I created using this book was a TBLT reading lesson on Jack the Ripper. In essence, I took the Jack the Ripper text, created a while reading task and then created a whole lesson in which my learners were detectives (manilla folders and all!) and they had to come up with a summary of main suspects, victims, etc. and then tell me who they thought was the murderer. It was great! and you know what? No complaints about history in my EFL class. Here are some pics:
  • You can create your own: One of the other supplementary activities/units is the create your own mystery page. I think this is going to one of those that I use later on in the year after we have done another two or three of them. This is something that learners can do in class or even as a homework project.

Things I didn’t like

So as usual there are not a lot of things I ‘don’t like’ per se; however, there are some things that perhaps could be important to consider when using the book (or if you’re thinking about buying it)

  • Pre-reading vocabulary: This is one of those things that I really don’t like, but I can see the reason for it here – this is not a ‘course book’ and learners are likely to be on their own. That means, that, for me at least, I may skip these vocabulary activities and use them later if learners have identified that they are words they’d like to look at further.
  • There are some editing issues: When I read through the book, there were a few little typos and editing ‘issues’ that made some of the discussion question sections a little ‘weird’, for lack of a better word. Basically, there were questions that should have been ‘separated’ as they were questions for a specific task within a list of tasks. However, they have been kept in the same list as other tasks, so they don’t look like separate questions. I know that sounds a little confusing, and to be honest it really is a minor thing, but if you’re buying it, I feel it’s a nice-to-know. It certainly isn’t a deal-breaker.
  • No teacher’s book: I have already said that this is not a ‘course book’, so you shouldn’t be expecting a teacher’s book. That being said, I do feel that a teacher’s book could be immensely useful regarding how to best implement and exploit the activities in the book. For example, some of the reading activities could be made into narrow reading activities – the teacher’s book providing the other texts.
  • No while-reading tasks: You all know I try to follow the principles of TBLT as much as I can. I feel that reading is actually an easy skill in which to do this – while-reading tasks can be created rather easily. I think some well thought-out while-reading tasks could greatly benefit this book as it would then have quite a strong real-world correlation in terms of what learners are doing with the reading tasks. This being said, there are some comprehension questions which, in sense, view the text as a linguistic object – but the majority of the questions and activities around the texts view the texts as springboards for production – which is excellent.

Who should read/use this book?

  • B2+ Learners: Ok, so the texts are not too long (generally 400-600 words) but they do contain some complex vocabulary. Learners studying for a B2-level exam are likely to find these texts at their level, although learners at a B1 level are likely to struggle without support. With this in mind, I would not suggest this as a ‘study’ book for B1 learners.
Some readability scores taken from various texts using the Pearson Text Analyzer
  • Teachers of B2+ classes: Those of us that have higher-level classes are going to certainly benefit from having this book. One could move through the pages as lessons themselves, although many teachers will find that adapting it might better suit their needs. This being said, no matter how you move through the book, the fact that there are so many different topics and the book is written in a way that you can create thematic lessons, I feel every school should have this on hand.
  • TBLT materials writers: So, if you like to produce your own TBLT tasks based on texts, there is plenty of ‘source material’ here.

Final notes

As mentioned, I got this book a little while ago and the reason I’ve held off writing this review is really because I’ve been trying it out – and having such a good time as well! The book would make a great addition to any language teaching institution’s shelf as it really is easy to adapt and full of very interesting texts and activities. I know that I will be using it with my classes now and in the future, and I know that my teachers will be doing the same as they are all asking for it. In sum, a great book from Alphabet publishing – make sure to check it out!

Book details

Title: History’s Mysteries: Research, Discuss and Solve Some of History’s Biggest Puzzles.

Pages: 273

ISBN: 9781 95615 9004

Get it at here!

Amazon link


Sapp, T., Noble, C., Lacey, P., Gavell, M & Lawrence, A. (2021). History’s Mysteries: Research, Discuss and Solve Some of History’s Biggest Puzzles. Alphabet Publishing.

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