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14 Short Stories for Teaching Cause and Effect in Secondary ELA

    short stories for teaching cause and effect

    Your students have been exposed to cause-and-effect relationships their whole lives. If they don’t brush their teeth, they will likely get cavities. If they don’t eat their vegetables, they won’t be allowed to have dessert. If they aren’t home by curfew, they will get grounded. If they don’t study for the test, they risk getting a bad grade. (You get the picture.)

    This is good news when it comes to teaching cause and effect in literature as this real-life context helps make the narrative pattern more concrete for students. However, despite having plenty of first-hand experience with cause-and-effect relationships, it might take some practice before students can apply the concept and spot the narrative pattern in literature.

    But that’s where explicit instruction comes into play. And what better way to make teaching cause and effect more effective and engaging than with short stories? (None.)

    Read on to learn my tips for teaching cause and effect with short stories and an all-star list of titles to help you do so.

    14 Short Stories for Teaching Cause and Effect

    I’ve put together a list of highly engaging short stories that are sure to capture your students’ attention with thought-provoking plotlines, diverse characters, and relevant themes. The best part? These short stories pack a (literary) punch while allowing students to analyze cause-and-effect relationships effectively without getting overwhelmed by (or lost in) a lengthy plot.

    1. “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury

    Why not kick the list off with a short story that is literally about the implications of one’s actions? The story follows a small group of adventurous hunters as they join a Time Safari, Inc. tour to travel back in time to hunt the infamous Tyrannosaurus rex. Despite the tour guide’s emphasis on not disturbing the natural environment, one of the hunters steps off the designated path and unknowingly steps on (and kills) a butterfly. The story demonstrates the cause-and-effect notion of the butterfly effect phenomenon, where small actions can lead to significant consequences in other places or times.

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

    Despite the warnings from a family friend, Sergeant-Major Morris, the Whites are eager to use a cursed monkey’s paw to solve their hardships. Unfortunately for them, the paw is, in fact, cursed and they quickly learn the meaning of the phrase, “Be careful what you wish for.” Jacobs’ story gives students plenty to explore in terms of cause and effect and the unforeseen consequences of greed.

    3. ​​“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

    While many students associate winning a lottery with monetary reward or some beneficial gain, Jackson quickly shows them that not every lottery is one you want to win. Despite being set in a small pastoral town, this story holds a rather dark plot twist— the winner of the lottery is stoned to death by their friends, family, and neighbors. By the end of this story, students will be eager to discuss the potential cause and effect of blindly following tradition.

    4. “On the Sidewalk Bleeding” by Evan Hunter

    Hunter puts cause and effect on full display in this story while focusing on one tragic event. Andy, the story’s protagonist and a member of a gang called The Royals, is stabbed one night by a member of a rival gang. As he lies on the sidewalk, slowly bleeding to death, is left to face the repercussions of his affiliation with the gang. Andy has no choice but to face the realities of the chain of cause and effect that brought him up to that moment. Students will have plenty to discuss as Hunter crafts a tale about how one’s choices and affiliations can have severe (and even fatal) consequences.

    5. “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    The story follows Dexter Green’s life, from his youthful aspirations to his disillusionment with the American Dream. As he falls in love with Judy Jones, an alluring beauty, she comes to represent the “rich life” he longs for. However, over time, it becomes clear that Judy Jones is just as unattainable as the American Dream, leading to heartbreak for Dexter as he gets caught up in a game of cat and mouse with Judy Jones. In typical Fitzgerald fashion, there is much for students to unpack, including analyzing the series of causes and effects for both Judy Jones and Dexter Green. After analyzing the characters, challenge your students to determine if the couple would have ever worked out (or not).

    6. “Thank You, Ma’am” by Langston Hughes

    I love the simplicity of this short and simple, yet powerful story that kicks off with a young boy who attempts to steal a woman’s purse. In a surprising turn of events, the woman, Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, responds with kindness and understanding. Instead of villainizing the young boy or turning him in, she takes him under her wing and teaches him an important life lesson. Not only is this a touching story, but it explores the cause and effect of compassion, showcasing the impact kindness can have on others.

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

    This heartwarming story follows a young couple, Della and Jim, whose financial struggles pose a roadblock as they try to buy each other the perfect Christmas gift. Ultimately, Della sells her prized long hair to buy a chain for Jim’s treasured pocket watch, while Jim (ironically) sells his watch to purchase ornamental combs for Della’s hair. In the end, the couple realizes they each gave up their most cherished possessions in order to express their deep affection for one another. Have students explore the cause and effect of love and sacrifice as illustrated through the couple’s selfless acts.

    8. “So What Are You, Anyway?” by Lawrence Hill

    Despite being the shortest story on the list, Hill manages to pack a powerful punch as the story explores the themes of race, discrimination, and identity. The story follows a young mixed-race girl named Carole as she is seated next to an older, presumably white couple on an airplane in the 1970s. The couple, Henry and Betty Norton, incessantly question Carol about her race asking things like, “So, what are you anyway?” Carole, who is clearly unaware of the social constraints around race anyway,  is left feeling confused, uncomfortable, and unsure how to answer the questions. While the story is short, students have plenty to unpack when analyzing the cause and effect of this uncomfortable interaction on the different characters.

    9. “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl is filled with surprising cause-and-effect moments as a wife impulsively murders her husband and cleverly deals with the consequences of doing so.

    10. “The Devil and Tom Walker” by Washington Irving teaches students the cause and effect associated with greed and making a deal with the Devil. 

    11. “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman highlights the effect of restrictive patriarchal control and gender roles during the 1890s.

    12. “To Build a Fire” by Jack London analyzes the cause and effect of man versus nature and the consequences of underestimating natural forces.

    13.  “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury focuses on the effect humans (and their reliance on technology) have on the environment

    14. “The Jacket” by Gary Soto unpacks a young boy’s experience with an “ugly”  second-hand jacket to explore the cause and effect of social pressures and, ultimately, self-acceptance.

    Strategies for Teaching Cause and Effect with Short Stories

    • Start with Real-Life Examples: Introduce the concept of cause and effect using everyday scenarios familiar to students. Discuss the cause-and-effect relationships they encounter in their lives, such as staying up late and feeling tired the next day.
    • Incorporate Visual Aids: Provide students with graphic organizers, flowcharts, or diagrams to visually represent cause and effect relationships. These aids help students visualize the connections and organize their thoughts, supporting their comprehension and analysis.
    • Ask “How Do You Know?”: This simple yet effective question encourages students to dig deeper into cause-and-effect relationships when making inferences and making meaning of a text. Asking this question pushes students to read between the lines and dig up less obvious clues to answer questions and analyze a text.
    • Compare and Contrast Multiple Stories: Select a couple of short stories with similar themes but different cause-and-effect outcomes. Have students compare and contrast these stories by closely examining the plotlines and characters. Then, have students identify and explain the factors that led to the dissimilar outcomes, requiring them to closely analyze cause and effect in each text.
    • Reiterate Real-World Applications: Connect the concept of cause and effect to current events and historical situations, emphasizing the relevance of the concept. After all, students are always curious to know “When am I ever going to use this outside of school?”

    The Lasting Benefits of Teaching Cause and Effect Using Short Stories

    Speaking of real-world application…

    Your students likely use this concept to make decisions, avoid negative consequences, and generally understand the world around them—they just might not realize it. They also might not realize that understanding cause and effect can help them become stronger readers and problem-solvers. It helps foster empathy and encourages critical thinking. 

    In turn, by using short stories for teaching cause and effect, we build upon the foundation of this valuable (and highly transferable) knowledge. Teaching cause and effect using short stories is a great way to engage students in critical thinking, strengthening their ability to analyze scenarios in longer texts and real-world scenarios. In turn, students will be better equipped to unpack complex issues, develop a broader perspective, and make more informed decisions as they step into the world beyond our classrooms.

    On that note, cheers to teaching skills that last a lifetime!

    In addition to using short stories for teaching cause and effect, consider using these bite-sized narratives to teach foreshadowing, characterization, settinginferences, and plot.

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