Short stories for ESL students help English language learners find joy in reading and improve fluency. Reading after all shouldn’t be a chore.
Here’s a collection of seven online short stories for ESL teachers. These stories are well-suited for ELL adults and university students. I aim for family-friendly content but did not include any stories for children. There’s plenty of content around for those age groups.
What makes a great short story for ESL students
I think we can all agree that student attention spans ain’t what they used to be. Oh, I think just dropped a hint about my age. Without sounding too much like a crusty grandpa, teachers need to respect the reality in front of them.
That respect manifests in three ways.
- Interest: the short story content should be appealing or a at minimum provide student choices
- Length: word counts can’t be too long
- Complexity: language level should be appropriate
What is appropriate? It depends on context.
If the aim is to build reading fluency, then easy is required. What’s easy? Around 90% word comprehension without a dictionary (a fundamental feature of extensive reading).
If the aim is to foster literature study and engage in deeper analysis (e.g. what you might do with an advanced ESL class) then comparatively more complex text might be okay but I would still choose short stories that require minimal dictionary work. I still get headaches when I think about Macbeth in high school.
Short Stories for ESL beginners
The Empty Pot
This ancient fable tells the story of a boy who learns the value of telling the truth. The Empty Pot has a neat twist at the end and a predictably happy ending.
This version of the short story comes from my website. It has 45+ level graded stories that focus on high-frequency words. I’ve used the stories in university courses and extension classes for ESL adult students. All with great success and positive feedback.
Every short story is around 300 words (or less) so they are ideal for beginners who read slowly or intermediate students to improve reading fluency. There are plenty of extension activities on the website (e.g. listening and vocabulary development) – enough to fill a 50-minute period with a single story.
How Shipping Containers Changed the World: Learn English Online
Here’s another short story from my listening website. ESL students learn the history of the shipping container and its vital but underappreciated role in globalization.
Stories like this one work well in adult classes. The story naturally leads into many areas of discussion. It’s also a great resource if you use short stories as prompts for cause and effect writing exercises.
The shipping container short story comes with a variety of listening and extension activities.
Where the Wild things Are
This easy to read picture book is a delightful short story about a boy who creates new worlds with his imagination.
Get the online PDF short story.
It’s a children’s story but adult language learners might like it for two reasons. It’s easy to understand and describe if you run a book club activity where students summarize their short stories. Plus, adult language learners can share the book at home if they have young children.
Short Stories for ESL intermediate+ students
This hard-luck short story by Guy de Maupassant is about a couple with no money but somehow get invited to a lavish ball. The wife doesn’t have a proper outfit so the couple make incredible sacrifices to attend the ball in style. Tragedy awaits and the plot twist at the end of the story is predictable but amusing.
This terrific short story touches on many human foibles like avarice, vanity, and honesty. Great for small group discussion or a written student reflection/critique.
Online options for this ESL short story
The Devil is in the Details
A fun short story for ESL students at or around the intermediate level. It’s the story of a man who mysteriously shows up at a woman’s door. He knows her name and many details about her life. He has a proposition. He asks her to choose between time and happiness. Much like the film The Devil’s Advocate (Keanu Reeves, Al Pacino, and Charlize Theron), you can figure out the identity of the salesperson. But that’s part of the story’s charm and surprise ending.
Read the short story online.
The Gift of the Magi
This classic short story is a favourite around Christmas time but it works all year, too.
Written by O. Henry and published in 1906, The Gift of the Magi is a touching story of two people short on money but full of love for each other. A rather touching story and a nifty plot twist.
Online options for this ESL short story
- Click here to open and download a pdf version of the short story.
- For a better experience on a smartphone or mobile device, open the ebook version of the short story from Project Gutenburg.
The White Dress
I updated, shortened, and simplified a classic horror story for my ESL students. The White Dress is about a high school student who steals a gown and pays the ultimate price. The premise is cool and the end is creepy.
Some students don’t care for creepy stories, so I ask before handing out this story.