Mystery Readers

In this col­umn, I’m pleased to share a brief overview of Nur­tur­ing the Devel­op­ment of Reflec­tive Read­ers,” a ses­sion I attend­ed at “Echoes of Learn­ing,” the lit­er­a­cy con­fer­ence at Zaharis Ele­men­tary in Mesa, AZ. Kris-Ann Flo­rence and Megan Kyp­ke, sec­ond and fourth grade teach­ers, shared how they pro­mote reflec­tion and enhance com­pre­hen­sion by using a stu­dent ver­sion of mis­cue analy­sis to help read­ers under­stand the impor­tance of mean­ing-mak­ing. In kid-friend­ly lan­guage, it’s sim­ply called “Mys­tery Read­er.” Kris-Ann and Megan show­cased the pow­er of this engag­ing and fun approach to lit­er­a­cy learn­ing by demon­strat­ing it in action. They were assist­ed by an eager bunch of brave stu­dents who vol­un­teered to spend part of their Sat­ur­day show­ing what they know in front of a group of con­fer­ence atten­dees. The activ­i­ty is usu­al­ly intro­duced and shared with the whole class. How­ev­er, it could cer­tain­ly be done with small groups of stu­dents who need extra guid­ance and sup­port with decod­ing, flu­en­cy, self-mon­i­tor­ing, com­pre­hen­sion, or choos­ing good-fit books.

Teach­ing kids how to effec­tive­ly par­tic­i­pate in mean­ing­ful dis­cus­sion about what it means to be a read­er is the ulti­mate goal of “Mys­tery Read­er.” You might agree that being respect­ful and sen­si­tive about cor­rect­ing errors and offer­ing sug­ges­tions for improve­ment requires a degree of tact and finesse that may not be refined in most sev­en- to eleven-year-olds. To counter this, Kris-Ann and Megan stressed the impor­tance of shar­ing audio record­ings of oral read­ing that guar­an­tee to keep the iden­ti­ty of the read­er a mys­tery. They rely on an inven­to­ry of record­ings of anony­mous stu­dents from years gone by as well as excerpts col­lect­ed from audio swap­ping with teacher friends from oth­er schools or districts.

I was so cap­ti­vat­ed by this unique idea! And as much as I love work­ing as an instruc­tion­al coach, the thought of set­ting up this “Mys­tery Read­er” as a rou­tine lit­er­a­cy prac­tice made me real­ly wish I had my own class­room again. I’m hope­ful that next fall I can sup­port teach­ers who are inter­est­ed with this inno­v­a­tive approach to fos­ter­ing inde­pen­dent, con­fi­dent, and moti­vat­ed readers.

Mystery Reader

The steps to imple­ment­ing “Mys­tery Read­er” are sim­ple. I’ve out­lined them as if I were pre­sent­ing them to students.

First, set the pur­pose. 

In this activ­i­ty we will lis­ten to some­one we don’t know read a short pas­sage as we fol­low along with a copy of the text. We will learn how to take notes about the read­ing so that we can talk about what we noticed and give advice to the read­er. “Mys­tery Read­er” helps us under­stand the text and the read­er. It helps us become bet­ter read­ers because we also learn about how each of us reads on our own.

Mystery Reader

Sec­ond, explain and prac­tice mark­ing the text with stu­dents. 

  • When we read aloud it is impor­tant to read with expres­sion, to sound the way the char­ac­ter would real­ly sound. We’ll call that using “voice.” Any time a mys­tery read­er does a great job of using voice, we will write a “V” on the paper at that spot.
  • When a read­er fix­es a mis­take all by him or her­self, we’ll call that a “self-cor­rect” and will write down an “S/C.”
  • Some­times read­ers pause because they are stuck on a word or are think­ing about the text. Oth­er times read­ers will repeat or reread a word or sen­tence to make it sound bet­ter. If either of these hap­pen, we will write down a “P” or an “R.”
  • If the read­er skips a word, we will write down an “S.”
  • Final­ly, we will lis­ten and watch care­ful­ly for any words that are not said cor­rect­ly. These are called “mis­cues.” If that hap­pens, we will cross out the word and we will write the word the read­er said instead above the one we just crossed out.
  • Lat­er when we talk about the mis­cues, we will decide if the word the read­er said changed the mean­ing or not. If the mean­ing was not changed, for exam­ple say­ing “home” instead of “house,” we will write “QM” for “qual­i­ty mis­cue.” But if the mean­ing did change because of the mis­cue, we will write “MCM” for “mean­ing chang­ing miscue.”

Guiding Questions

Third, prac­tice, reflect on, and dis­cuss the process using guid­ing ques­tions.

This year we will be prac­tic­ing, think­ing about, and talk­ing about “Mys­tery Read­ers.” We will share things we notice about what makes each read­er a good read­er. We will real­ly focus on whether the read­er is mak­ing mean­ing or under­stand­ing the text and we will decide if the text was a “good fit.” 

And final­ly, stu­dents demon­strate greater aware­ness and com­pre­hen­sion in their own read­ing. 

As we get more com­fort­able doing “Mys­tery Read­er,” we will see how it helps us with our own read­ing. We will be able to use voice to show good expres­sion when we read aloud. We will also get bet­ter at self-cor­rect­ing our mis­cues. And if we do have mis­cues when we read, we will be able to fig­ure out if they are qual­i­ty mis­cues or mean­ing-chang­ing mis­cues. All of these things will be impor­tant ways to help us learn how to choose “good fit books” and gain mean­ing from the texts we read.

A final note about “Mys­tery Read­er”… For as long as I can remem­ber, I have strived to cap­i­tal­ize on time spent with stu­dents in one-on-one ses­sions involv­ing read­ing con­fer­ences or tak­ing run­ning records. When class­rooms are filled with 25 – 30 stu­dents who range sig­nif­i­cant­ly in their read­ing pro­fi­cien­cy, self-mon­i­tor­ing abil­i­ty, moti­va­tion, and self-con­fi­dence, it is imper­a­tive that teach­ers bring effi­cien­cy and a sense of urgency and fun to the table. “Mys­tery Read­ers” has the poten­tial to do all of these things in one sweet and sim­ple swoop.

The next Teach it For­ward col­umn will offer addi­tion­al ideas for imple­ment­ing “Mys­tery Read­er.” Sug­ges­tions for col­lect­ing oral read­ing sam­ples and adding a com­pre­hen­sion con­fer­ence por­tion to the activ­i­ty will be offered.


The ori­gins of this approach date back to 1996 with “Ret­ro­spec­tive Mis­cue Analy­sis” by Yet­ta Good­man. To learn more, check out these arti­cles and handouts:

Ret­ro­spec­tive Mis­cue Analy­sis: Revalu­ing Read­ers and Read­ing” by Yet­ta Good­man and Ann Marek

Ret­ro­spec­tive Mis­cue Analy­sis: An Effec­tive Inter­ven­tion for Stu­dents in Grades 3 – 12,” pre­sent­ed by Sue Haertel

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