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Time detectives – language detectives: using the Time Detectives series to engage your students

May 10, 2022 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

Time travel is a fascinating topic for younger and older students alike. Who hasn’t imagined going back in time or travelling into the future? What would it be like to experience lives and cultures we only read about in history and literature books? How much would we know without our mobiles and the Internet? How would we find our way? Who would we meet? Could we travel in time without interfering with the course of history? Introduce the topic of time travel to your students, and they will be able to add dozens of questions to this list. 

Our Time Detectives series, written by Martyn Hobbs and illustrated by Francesca Protopapa, combines the adventure and fun that comes with time travel with exploring exciting historical and mythological topics. The six stories in the series take your students to various times: in the 1400s we meet medieval knights; in the 1800s we see slavery up close; then we travel to the future; we also see Roman Britain; we go on an expedition to find El Dorado; and finally we visit the maze of the Minotaur and learn surprising things about Daedalus in ancient Crete. Each story is an adventure experienced by two teenage friends, Liam and Rose from modern day England and America.

These stories engage and inspire, making students want to find out more about the places and times they visit through the stories. And, as they travel, they experience language in a variety of engaging contexts and learn to describe the places they see thanks to the carefully chosen vocabulary. They also learn to focus on the meaning of the words by realizing that some words are specific to our times and meanings might change over the centuries. The fact that the two main characters need to find solutions without the Internet makes us wonder how well we would manage in similar situations, solely guided by our skills and knowledge.

One of the most important aspects of the readers is the way they engage the students in building vocabulary that is actively connected with these journeys. They are asked to make predictions, describe places and people, imagine what might happen next. The stories also make us more aware of the meaning of certain words.

How to read the stories?

The readers give you guidance for reading the story in the context of a lesson:

  • The FACTFILES (Guidebook and Let’s talk about…) before the story prepare students, give them knowledge of essential ideas, make them think, and make them want to find out more.
  • The CHARACTERS spread allows students to become familiar with the people of the story.
  • The BEFORE READING exercises give students an overview of essential vocabulary and structures you need to read the story.
  • The REFLECTION BOXES help students think about and connect with the scenes. They also show you how you can follow up the story with some research.
  • The INVESTIGATE boxes guide students in using the downloadable Time Detective Notebooks to learn new words and subject knowledge and create their own personal reactions to the story.
  • The GLOSSARY at the bottom of the pages gives easy definitions for words above the indicated language level of the reader.
  • The AFTER READING exercises help students practise and consolidate the language and knowledge of the story.
  • The final FACTFILE (History Detectives) connects the theme of the story to contemporary life and society, helping students to make links and connections with their own experiences.


Time travel projects 

Here are a series of activities inspired by time travel that you can use to engage with the stories in a fun way.

The six activities below can be adapted for any of the readers. The examples we have given are based on the last story of the series, Out of the Maze.


Look for key words that reveal that we are reading a time travel story. These are words which are hard to imagine in the past because the objects they refer to hadn’t been invented yet or the social/emotional phenomena were not yet relevant. Working carefully with language, paying attention to unusual wordings and clues is a bit similar to the field of forensic linguistics. This activity also makes students more aware of language and develops their meta-cognitive skills.

In Out of the Maze, the words ‘switch’ and ‘tickets’ reveal that something strange is happening to Liam and Rose. The difference between listening to and playing an instrument is also significant in the story. Why?


Using the descriptions in the story as a model, ask the students to pick something (an object, a person or a place) and describe it. They then share their descriptions in pairs and try to guess what the other one has chosen. Encourage students to rely on all of their senses when giving these descriptions: sight, smell, touch (surfaces they touch: what is their texture like, what temperature are they?), sounds, etc. 

For example, in Out of the Maze, Liam and Rose try to guess where THEY are by giving a detailed description of the place: “The warm sun shone like a golden ball in a narrow strip of sky above him. On either side were high white walls. It was like being in a corridor, but with no roof, and open to the light and air. He got up and ran his hands along a wall. it was cold to the touch. Marble, he thought, and maybe three or four metres high. The corridor ran in both directions where it seemed to meet other corridors.”


Ask the students to imagine that they travel back in time and describe a modern-day object to someone in the past (a coffee machine, photocopier, mobile phone).

For example, in Out of the Maze, Liam and Rose see a flying machine, and we read a detailed description of it.


Ask students to imagine their hometown 300 years ago and write a list of things that would be different. Ask them to visualize a street or place they know well and describe how it would have appeared in the 1700s. What might change in the future?

In Out of the Maze, Liam and Rose fly over Knossos, an ancient city on the island of Crete. They see all the details from a distance, and it looks like a scene from a history book.


Tell students to imagine that they can meet a famous figure from the past. Who would they choose? What would they talk about? 

For example, Liam and Rose meet Daedalus in Out of the Maze and want to learn about all his inventions.


Rose and Liam travel through time in the Time Detectives series during a total eclipse. What other ways of time travel have been described in fiction and film? Ask your students to work together, do some research, and prepare a list of their own examples.

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