Short stories are ideal tools for ESL reading activities because they are entertaining and often use precise and challenging language. Furthermore, you can use stories to teach any aspect of reading, writing or speaking in English, and you even have the opportunity to teach elements of style.
Start by summarizing the story and explaining the type of language your ESL students will encounter, so they have clear expectations. Then read the opening passage aloud, and ask the class what information they were able to learn from it as well as any difficulties they encountered. For example, if you read the opening of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," they will learn that the weather was pleasant on the day of the lottery. Read the passage again, but this time have the class read along with you. Repeat this process for each subsequent passage.
Stories offer particular advantages for expressive reading exercises because they are written in the narrative mode. This means that your students get to read the words of a character or -- if the voice is in third person -- a carefully constructed storytelling voice. Model a short passage, and then have one student read that passage aloud. Briefly discuss the expressive qualities of the reading, and then have the same student read it one more time. Finally, read the next passage and repeat the process with each of your English learners.
Despite the fact that short story writers actively try to avoid using well-worn phrases and clichés, story reading still provides a rich opportunity for ESL students to identify difficult words and idiomatic phrases that native speakers consider common. After reading through a passage from a story, ask the class if they noticed any words or phrases that stuck out as unrecognizable or incomprehensible. For example, the phrase "matter of fact" might not make sense to an English learner. Take the time to discuss each phrase individually, and model other situations when the phrase is appropriate -- along with its spoken cadence -- in other conversational situations.
Because stories are carefully crafted and rely so strongly upon the artistic use of language, they provide a unique opportunity for an ESL writing activity: rewriting as a way to focus on the main ideas of a sentence and explore variations with language. Have each student select -- or simply assign -- a brief passage from a story the class has already read and discussed, and have each student rewrite the passage using simple, direct language. For example, this sentence from T.C. Boyle's story "Greasy Lake": "The first lusty Rockette kick of his steel-toed boot caught me under the chin, chipped my favorite tooth, and left me sprawled in the dirt," could be rewritten as "He kicked me hard in the mouth, and I fell to the ground." If your students are advanced, you could even have them take simple sentences and rewrite them using expressive language.
- Middlebury: The Lottery; Shirley Jackson
- Scholastic: 5 Surefire Strategies for Developing Reading Fluency; Lisa Blau
- Doubletakes: "Greasy Lake;" T.C. Boyle
Christopher Cascio is a memoirist and holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and literature from Southampton Arts at Stony Brook Southampton, and a Bachelor of Arts in English with an emphasis in the rhetoric of fiction from Pennsylvania State University. His literary work has appeared in "The Southampton Review," "Feathertale," "Kalliope" and "The Rose and Thorn Journal."