Short Stories for ESL Students

Everybody knows reading is good for language learners, but what do you do with students who aren’t ready for full-length books? Try short stories. Here are 4 fun quick reads that work well with intermediate+ students.

Short Stories in the ESL Class

How can teachers maximize the value of short stories? Here are two suggestions.

ESL Conversation Class

This pair work activity combines reading, speaking and listening skills.

Choose two stories. Assign reading homework to students. Half the students read Story A and the other half read Story B.

Next class, pair up students with different stories. Each student summarizes his or her story. The summary should include a description of character, plot and setting.


Encourage students to offer their own views about the story. For example:

  • did they like it, or not (with reasons)
  • describe the parts that were particularly interesting
  • engage with the story by asking questions about the characters and their motivations (e.g. Why did the woman want to kill her husband?)

ESL Writing Class

Short stories can be used as models. They show students what is possible in terms of creative ideas and story organisation. But first, students need to notice these things.

Here’s a noticing activity. Assign a short story as reading homework. Ask students to complete two tasks.

  1. summarize the character, plot and setting
  2. analyze the text according to the 6+1 writing traits

The analysis asks students to understand the 6+1 writing traits (pre-teach) and point out good examples from the text for each trait (maybe not presentation, the seventh trait).

Why bother with the 6+1 writing traits? Because they provide students with a clear answer to the question: what is good writing?

Short Stories

1.  Death by Scrabble by Charlie Fish (1280 words, high beginner)

Is Scrabble a dangerous game? Get the answer in this delightful short story.

Three features make it a great piece to study with students in the ESL writing class.

  • watch how two different sets of action can be blended into a single plot
  • notice how the writer uses small details to foreshadow a future event
  • be amazed by a surprise ending

2.  The Case of the Lower Case Letter by Jack Delany (598 words, advanced)

If some of your students are eager to try crime writing, here’s a great model. It’s short, so it lacks a lot of the subtle detail which you might find in a novel with Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. But because it’s short, it’s easy for ESL students to follow.

It’s a crime story, so expect the usual elements – a dead gentleman, a widow, a mysterious letter and a coffee sipping sleuth in Starbucks – along with a terrific pivot point which could be emulated by adventurous students in the class.

3.  Witches’ Loaves by O. Henry (1265 words, advanced)

Here’s an excellent model for an ESL class that is writing creative stories.  Writing in the third person, the author generates a lot of descriptive detail by telling us what the main character is thinking. This is instructive because ESL students often write stories driven by action rather than character reflection or over-simplified internal motivation.

This delightful story also demonstrates how a small clever twist can create an impactful ending.

The only part of the story which I don’t like, from the perspective of a language teacher, is that a small amount of the dialogue is written in English with a German accent. That, in itself, is not bad; it just adds a small amount of text confusion. Pre-teaching a few of those words would probably go a long way to aiding student comprehension.

4.  After Twenty Years by O. Henry (1263 words, high beginner)

A straightforward plot with a terrific end. It’s the tale of two young friends who follow separate paths in search of fortune. Before setting out on their respective journeys, they agree to meet up again in twenty years. Well, that time has arrived and one man has returned to the agreed-upon spot at the agreed upon time.

For the ESL writing class, this is a good model because it shows students how to use dialogue to drive the plot.


4 thoughts on “Short Stories for ESL Students”

  1. This is going to be so helpful. I was only yesterday telling students that reading for fun will help their speaking and writing. Thanks for reading my mind!!!

  2. Great resource. I spend so much time looking for good short stories for my HS Sheltered English class. Thanks for sharing your hard work.

  3. Thank you for your hard work but my experience working with most ELL’s is that many have low reading levels , especially if they have been in the U.S. for 4 years or less. Many have 2nd/3rd grade reading levels and this material would be very difficult and time consuming if this were attempted to translate.

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