Some ideas on why and how to use short stories in the language classroom
This morning, while I was greeting students at the front door of my high school, Miki-Chan, a second year student in the International Course, came up to me with a book in hand. She slapped her palm against the cover and said, “This is a horrible story to read in the morning. It says, ‘people were cut up like meat.’” I’m not sure exactly how she wanted me to respond. She was reading a Sherlock Holmes story from a collection in a lower-intermediate level graded reader. We had read the first half in class and students had to finish the story as homework. While I was thinking of an appropriate reply, she huffed off.
In spite of Miki-Chan’s offended sensibilities, I’m a big fan of using literature, especially short stories, in the EFL classroom. One of the more obvious reasons is the simple fact that Miki-Chan did her homework. Stories, with their beginning, middle, and end help capture a student’s interest and keep them reading. People want to know what happened (Sell, 2005). But another reason I dig short stories can be found in the phrase, “cut up like meat.” It might not be the most pleasant of images, but anyone who reads a newspaper knows that murder is part of life, as is love, betrayal, hardship and joy. In our language classes, we want to invite the world in, to break down the wall between the class and life. But it’s not easily done, and even less so when working with high school students, whose egos can be so easily bruised.
When we ask our students to talk about their likes or dislikes, their families, or their hobbies, we hope to engage them by providing opportunities to discuss the things they care about most. I would argue that at times, it is exactly this strong feeling of connection which makes it difficult for our students to speak out. Short fiction is different. The vivid characters and detailed situations often lead to a strong emotional reaction, but because it is a fictional world they are discussing, students don’t feel the sense of self-exposure that is part and parcel of many personalized communication activities. Students can hate a character, they can long to be like a hero, they can describe the mansion house or run-down cottage within a book without feeling any of the shame that might come from a confession like, “I don’t like my father. He is mean.”
Still, in order for a student to be moved by a text, to want to discuss what is happening, a text must be level appropriate. If possible, using a text in which roughly 98% of the words will be recognized by the students should allow them to get most of the meaning without having to resort to a dictionary (Hu and Nation, 2000 ). There are a number of short story graded reader collections for lower level students. Most of the stories in these collections will come in at under 1500 words, and with a bit of judicious out of class assignments, are perfect content for two class periods. There are also some wonderful Internet sites which collect short stories from around the world. Barbara spread the word about a great one, World Stories on Twitter recently and I’d have to agree it’s one of the best. Unfortunately, most of the stories collected on the various sites haven’t been written with the language student in mind. It might seem like a lot of work, but I would recommend copying and pasting any story from the wild of the Internet into a vocabulary level checker. I usually use Joyce Maeda’s Frequency Level Checker. From there you just replace low frequency words with higher frequency equivalents and end up with a (theoretically) easily understandable text.
When using a short story in class, one of my favorite opening activities is to have my students put their heads down while I read the story to them. Their only responsibility is to listen. I ensure them that it doesn’t matter if they get lost, or can’t understand the story. They should just listen to the way the words roll along and the sounds of the language. Everyone loves to have a story read to them. Letting students remember the joy of being read to, without the pressure of having to understand, I think is a great gift.
The rest of the first lesson, especially with beginning or lower level intermediate students is a series of fast moving activities which help build language awareness. One of my favorite exercises is working with lexical chains (Lazar, 1994). For example, if I use an African folk tale, I might tell students to underline all the animal related words in the story. If I use a Sherlock Holmes story, I might ask students to underline all the words related to crime. This activity serves two purposes, it helps build students’ vocabulary while also getting them familiar with the idea of theme. From there, I might ask lower level students to read a paragraph out-loud and whisper all the nouns. Or if it is a story rich in dialogue, I might ask students to form small groups and read the story in dramatic form, each member taking on the role of one of the characters or the narrator (Hişmanoğlu, 2005). I do not do comprehension checks. Instead, I let the meaning of the story emerge individually for each student as they engage with the text from a number of different angles.
The second lesson is usually an output-based lesson. I want students to start using the language within the story. By this time they have read the story six or more times and have a pretty good idea of the basic narrative flow. I might have them start out with a summarizing activity, where they have to tell the outline of the story, to the best of their ability, to a partner. Sometimes I structure it as a 4/3/2 activity where the students have to give their summary to three different partners in progressively shorter spans of time (Nation, 2007; Kurzweil, 2011). For higher-level students, I might ask them to rewrite the story by changing the tense or point of view (Erkaya, 2005). While it’s not explicit, these types of activities not only let students produce the language of the story, they help develop critical thinking skills. By indirectly allowing our students to work with issues such as how content influences form, or how point of view changes emotional impact, we are respecting that a student’s level of English ability doesn’t alter their desire to engage with a story in deeper and potentially more satisfying manner (Sell, 2005).
As I was walking into school this morning, I finally figured out what I could have said to Miki-Chan. I could have just asked her, “Why?” Because here is the heart of what makes short-fiction so great for an EFL classroom. Each sentence within a short story is a question waiting to be asked. But unlike other forms of class content, there are no right answers for the questions posed by a short story. What matters is the search. Within the safety of the fictional world of a story, searching for those answers might provide an English student with the best chance to find their own true voice and let it be heard within the sometimes dangerous territory of the language classroom.
Erkaya, O.R. (2005) Benefits of using short stories in the EFL context. Retrieved April 9, 2007, from http://asian-efl-journal.com/pta_nov_ore.pdf
Hişmanoğlu, M. (2005) Teaching English through literature. Journal of Language and Linguistic Studies, 1 (1), 53-66
Hu, M. & Nation, P. (2000) Unknown Vocabulary Density and Reading Comprehension. Reading in a Foreign Language, 13 (1), 403-430
Kurzweil, J. (2011) Intentionality and Awareness in Language Learning. KOTESOL TEC 15 (4). (If you are interested in 4/3/2 activities, you can check out the full article at: http://www.koreatesol.org/TEC/Winter2011TEC.pdf)
Lazar, G. (1994) Using literature at lower levels. ELT Journal 48 (2), 115-124
Nation, I.S.P. (2007) The four strands. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching 1 (1), 1-12
Sell, J. (2005) Why teach literature in the foreign language classroom? Encuentro, 15, 86-93
Kevin Stein is an English teacher currently directing the International Course of Clark Memorial International High School Osaka Campus in Japan. He’s been teaching in Japan for 13 years and without noticing it has taken on all the most annoying habits of a 24 hour teacher, including asking his wife and daughter comprehension check questions during dinner conversations. His areas of research interest including humanistic preparation for standardized tests, vocabulary word cards, and use of literature in the language classroom. A collection of his short fiction for English learners can be found on his blog The Other Things Matter. When he’s not teaching, he likes to blow bubbles, spout nonsense on Twitter (@kevchanwow), and dream about taking a vacation somewhere warm.
Note: This article by Kevin Stein originally appeared as a guest post on Teaching Village, and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.