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The Best Short Stories for Teaching Irony

    the best short stories for teaching irony

    Teaching irony but don’t know where what texts to use? Short stories to the rescue! Here’s my roundup of 11 engaging short stories for teaching irony in secondary ELA that are sure to captivate even your most reluctant readers.

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years of dealing with reluctant readers, students are suckers for a good plot twist. And that gives me the upper hand when teaching irony in secondary ELA.

    Of course, irony is about more than endings that leave readers saying, “OMG, I didn’t see that coming.” Some plot twists are only so for the characters in the story while the reader is aware of the situation all along. In other cases, irony appears in the author’s carefully selected words.

    Regardless of how an author employs irony in their writing, one thing cannot be denied: irony is a powerful literary device. My favorite way to teach irony? Short stories, of course! That’s why I’ve dedicated this post to sharing why I recommend using short stories for teaching irony and giving you a list of stories perfect for getting the job done. But, first, let’s take a step back and review the basics of irony in literature.

    What is Irony in Literature?

    In the simplest of terms, literary irony is a rhetorical technique that involves a stark contrast between what is expected to happen and what actually does happen, disrupting the reader’s expectations. Suddenly, the reader is left to reconsider their assumptions and interpretations. Cue the critical thinking!

    Authors use irony to add a sense of conflict or suspense in their writing. It can be used to spark empathy for a character or add a touch of humor. By highlighting disparities between expectation and reality, authors can skillfully enhance character and thematic development. No matter how it is used, irony adds layers of complexity and depth to a story, giving your students plenty to think about and discuss!

    What are the Three Main Types of Irony in literature?

    Before diving into using short stories to teach irony, it’s important to ensure students understand the three main styles of irony: 

    • Situational Irony is when something happens that sharply contrasts what was anticipated or intended. In other words, it’s when you expect one thing to happen only to be surprised when the opposite occurs. To help students spot situational irony, have them look for unexpected plot twists or events that challenge conventional expectations.
    • Dramatic Irony is when a reader knows something that a character in the story does not. Cue the building of suspense and anticipation! The readers is privy to information that the characters remain unaware of, creating a sense of tension as the plot unfolds. To help students identify dramatic irony, encourage them to look for instances where the audience’s knowledge differs significantly from that of the characters.
    • Verbal Irony refers to when words are used to convey the opposite of their literal meaning. This usually results in humor or sarcasm as authors highlight discrepancies between what is said and what is meant. Ironically (see what I did there?) verbal irony is the type of irony that students are most familiar with–without even realizing it! So, to help them recognize it in literature, instruct them to pay close attention to the context, tone, and intention behind the speaker’s words.

    11 Engaging Short Stories for Teaching Irony in Secondary ELA

    It’s time to put those definitions of irony to good use! Consider using the short stories below to teach irony to your students: 

    1. “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury

    Students love this chilling tale of the Hadley family and their (ironically named) “Happylife Home.” The story’s unexpected ending begs some intriguing and highly relevant questions. How much technology is too much? What would happen if our love for and dependence on technology were to backfire? This story serves as a powerful example of situational irony as Mr. and Mrs. Hadely’s attempt to protect their children from the negative influence of technology completely backfires.

    2. “Click Clack the Rattle Bag” by Neil Gaiman

    Another eerie short story with an ironic plot twist of an ending? Coming right up! On the surface, this story appears to revolve around a rather mundane conversation between a man and a young child during bedtime. While the child admits to being afraid of the “click clack” sounds from the monsters in their closet, the reader realizes that the child may not be so innocent after all and that the adult may be in grave danger. While the story’s ending leaves the adult protagonist’s fate ambiguous, the situational irony cannot be denied!

    3. “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry

    Della and Jim, a young married couple, each sacrifice their most prized possession to buy a Christmas gift for the other. After all their efforts, they realize their gifts are useless due to the sacrifices they each made. Cue the situational irony! In an ironic twist, Della and Jim’s loving and selfless acts lead to an awkward yet sweet gift exchange.

    4. “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant

    The joke is on the main character, Mathilde Loisel, in this story! She borrows an expensive necklace from her wealthy friend in hopes of fitting in at a fancy party—and it works! All is swell until she loses the piece of jewelry. After spending years paying for a replacement, she learns that the exquisite diamond necklace that made her feel on top of the world was a fake. Talk about situational irony and a tough lesson for Mathilde Loise!

    5. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

    The irony begins with the title itself, as the story that unfolds has a more Hunger Games vibe than Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Students will be shocked by what the winner in this small town’s annual lottery gets in return for their “good” fortune. Jackson masterfully employs all types of irony in this one! It’s definitely worth a close reading.

    6. “Charles” by Shirley Jackson

    Jackson shows off a lighter, more humorous side of irony with this short story, making it a perfect contrast to “The Lottery.” In the story, young Laurie tells his parents about his classmate who does nothing but engage in mischief and cause trouble. It isn’t until Laurie’s parents attend a parent-teacher conference that the situational irony is revealed—the infamous student is none other than Laurie’s “alter ego,” whom he calls Charles.

    7. “The Ransom of Red Chief” by O’Henry

    In O’Henry’s story, two thieves kidnap a 10-year-old boy, hoping to receive a two thousand dollar ransom. Instead, they find themselves dealing with a real pain in the butt. In fact, the boy becomes such a handful that they agree to pay his father to take him back. The fact that the kidnappers’ plan completely backfires has situational irony written all over it!

    8.  “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs

    At first, the White family is thrilled by the idea of having a magical monkey’s paw with the power to grant them three wishes. However, they quickly learn the meaning of “Be careful what you wish for.”  After ignoring the warnings of the paw’s powers, the Whites find themselves living more of a nightmare than a dream. As the story builds toward its suspenseful (and unfortunate) ending, students can experience Jacobs’ use of situational irony in full force!

    9. “The Landlady” by Roald Dahl

    A young man checks into a quaint bed and breakfast run by a friendly, albeit slightly eccentric, landlady—what could go wrong? As the young man takes notice of the landlady’s fascination with taxidermy, readers begin to catch onto the situational and dramatic irony Dahl intertwined in the story. While the landlady appears warm and welcoming, her sense of hospitality is nothing but a cover for her true (and rather creepy) intentions. As it turns out, the landlady is hiding a dark secret, and the young man is about to meet his (unfortunate) fate.

    10. “The Sniper” by Liam O’Flaherty

    Set during the Irish Civil War, the protagonist, a Republican sniper, engages in an intense (and, ultimately, deadly) rooftop battle with an enemy sniper. In the wake of his victory, the Republican sniper discovers that the enemy sniper was his brother. While the story serves as a powerful commentary on the devastating nature of war, it also showcases a strong example of situational irony. This story will have even your most reluctant readers on the edge of their seats until the very end when the protagonist realizes he killed his own flesh and blood.

    11. “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe

    A classic Poe story for a classic example of dramatic and situational irony! As an unnamed narrator details the murder they committed to the reader, they swear by their sanity as they (ironically) slip deeper into guilt-ridden madness. While the narrator may not be able to face the facts, the truth is written on the wall for the reader very early—and only continues to become more obvious as the story unfolds. Ultimately, the sound of the victim’s heartbeat consumes the narrator, leading to their confession to the police.

    Whether you choose one or several of the titles above, these short stories offer the opportunity to engage students in analyzing the impact and effect of literary irony. And who knows? You may just experience a plot twist of your own as even your most reluctant readers enjoy the irony these short stories offer.

    Ready, Set, Start Using Short Stories for Teaching Irony!

    Teaching irony encourages students to become stronger readers, more critical thinkers, and, in turn, better writers. However, no matter which texts you use, teaching irony helps boost students’ critical thinking and analysis skills. However, I have found that short stories are a great tool for encouraging active reading and analysis while keeping students engaged. If you’ve made it this far, I hope you’re as excited about using short stories for teaching irony as I am!

    Using short stories as teaching tools provides an engaging and accessible way to introduce students to irony. Not only will these ironic short stories keep students engaged, but they will lay the foundation for students to have a deeper appreciation for storytelling and author’s craft.

    Looking for more? Read all about how to teach irony here.

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