group of young asian people are shouting

English Proficiency Level:

  • Intermediate to Upper Intermediate

By the end of this lesson the students will be able to:

  • Use “Wh” questions to “interrogate” their classmates
  • Ask and answer questions about the past


  • Student to student
  • groups of 3-5 work best, but may be more if the class size is large


  • 45-60 minutes


  • It’s impossible to be two places at once, so it might be a good idea to enlist the help of a teacher’s aide to coach the suspects, rather than alternating back and forth from inside and outside the classroom.


  • Four pieces of scrap paper for each group

This is one of my all-time favorite ESL activities; it encourages a ton of student-to-student interaction, and usually gets a lot of laughs from the students. It’s also versatile because you can grade it so it’s appropriate for different proficiency levels. I’ve done this activity with adults, teens, and even primary aged students.

When the lesson begins, I usually drill the class on simple past tense questions. You can start by modeling “Wh” questions in the present tense, (e.g., “When do you go to school?”, “What do you eat for breakfast?”), then elicit from them past tense forms of these questions.

After everyone has loosened up a bit and starts talking, you can set the stage for the “scene of the crime”. I usually like to tell the kids that someone stole my bicycle from the school parking lot, and the police saw three people running from the scene of the crime. You identify three students who will then go outside the class to make their “alibi”. The rest of the students are divided into three teams of “interrogators”.

While the three suspects are outside waiting, you coach the interrogators, and give them hints about what types of questions they should ask. Be sure to elicit past-tense questions from the students, and instruct them to write as many questions as possible.

Then, you can go outside to coach the suspects – they need to be sure their story holds water, so encourage them to agree on as many details as possible. Where were they last night? What time did they meet? If they went to a restaurant, where did they go? What did they eat? Who paid the bill?

Now, you bring in the suspects and let each of them sit with a group of interrogators for about ten minutes. Tell the interrogators to write the answers, because they will cross-reference them later. After the ten minutes is finished, have the suspects change to a different group to be asked the same line of questions. Repeat, so each suspect sits with each group of interrogators once. The class can get pretty animated once the kids’ stories start falling apart!

At the end of the class you can have a “trial” of sorts, and quiz the class about flaws in the suspects stories. Which details were the same? Which were different? You can even vote to see if they are released from custody or go to jail.

If anyone has done this lesson before, I’d love to hear how it went. And if you have any suggestions how to make it better, I’m interested to hear! Also, if you have an ESL lesson or activity you’d like to submit, please email me at:

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