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Teaching Short Stories in The Secondary Classroom

teaching short stories

They might be short, but they sure are powerful teaching tools! This post outlines all the reasons why you should be teaching short stories in the secondary classroom, including some of my tips for teaching them and advice for selecting the right one.

I absolutely love teaching short stories. I mean, what can’t you teach with short stories? From character and plot to author’s craft and literary devices, there’s so much to do with these small yet mighty pieces of literature.

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that time is especially fleeting in my classroom. And don’t even get me started on the challenge of engaging students with equally fleeting attention spans. Thankfully, short stories come to the rescue. I’ve found that short stories are able to pack a punch and keep students engaged without taking weeks or months to get through. Additionally, with so many to choose from, you’re bound to find the right short story to fit your learning goals and students’ needs. 

With that said, why wouldn’t you incorporate short stories into your classroom? (Beats me!) But this post is filled with reasons why you should.

The Benefits of Teaching Short Stories

1. They’re well… short.

The compact nature of short stories means exposing students to strong literary pieces without the time it takes to read an entire novel. Nothing against novels, but short stories are far less daunting for students than several hundred pages – especially if the student is a struggling or reluctant reader. Break up short stories into manageable chunks or even read them together in one or two classes! Regardless of how the student feels about reading, the shorter nature of these stories means more time analyzing the words on the page, not just reading them.

2. They enhance critical and analytical thinking skills.

Thanks to their short length, students won’t have to spend as much effort keeping track of characters and plotlines that span over hundreds of pages. Instead, they can focus on honing their higher level thinking skills. They can make meaning and inference. They can draw conclusions and make connections. Oh, and that’s not all. As students improve their critical and analytical thinking skills with short stories, they’ll be building up their confidence and stamina for when you introduce longer, denser literary works.

3. They’re an easy way to change it up.

With so much to teach and so little time, it’s easy to stick to what you know. However, so many courses are led by outdated curriculum using the same old literary canon year after year. Short stories are a simple way to toss in new perspectives, authors, literary movements, and genres. If you know you need to teach a list of required classics, short stories are a great way to keep things relevant and spice it up in between longer texts.

4. They make for great replacement texts when needed.

This is especially true if you’re teaching a mixed-ability class or are running out of time to fit everything in. If you’re short on time or have struggling readers and need a different approach, replace a novel study with a short story or two that captures the same learning goals. For example, Fitzgerald’s “Winter Dreams” can be taught in conjunction with or as a replacement for his highly esteemed The Great Gatsby. If you’re looking to dive into dystopia but can’t quite fit in Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury has plenty of short stories that fit the bill.

5. They can foster engagement AND build a classroom community. 

Let’s face it – sometimes students lose steam over the course of a longer text, like a novel. However, with a short story, students are able to dive in and commit to the characters and plot. They can focus on the symbolism and underlying messages or commentary. Therefore, it can lead to some highly engaging discussions. (Just read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt” and you’ll see what I mean.)

6.  They make complex texts and skills seem more manageable.

Not all short stories are easy stories to read. In fact, some of them are surprisingly complex. However, it’s important that as students progress through their secondary education, they encounter increasingly difficult texts and continue to learn higher-level skills, right? Thankfully, it’s far less intimidating to work through several pages of dense text than to struggle through several chapters

7. They are perfect for text-to-text comparisons.

Looking for students to compare texts? Chances are, they’ll forget the first novel by the time they finish the second. However, short stories allow for easier comparisons. You can read short stories back to back to compare and contrast or to build upon meaning and increase understanding.

8. They’re a perfect way to differentiate (and scaffold) learning.

As much as I love reading groups, it can be a challenge to manage several groups of vastly different abilities. Thankfully, teaching short stories is a great way to differentiate learning. If your students fall into two or more ability levels, consider modeling the skills with an introductory story that you read as a class. Then, break the students up into more ability-appropriate stories that they can work through together before completing an independent assessment.

Teaching Short Stories: When and How?

While you can certainly teach an entire short story unit, that’s not the only way to incorporate them into the classroom. Here are a few of my other favorite ways:

  • Introducing new authors, literary movements, genres, or themes
  • Providing historical, social, or literary context
  • Supplementing a longer text or novel study
  • Teaching the essential elements of fiction
  • Enhancing and practicing critical thinking skills through literary analysis
  • Comparing two or more texts
  • Exposing students to more challenging texts
  • Differentiating texts among mixed-ability students

Regardless when and how you plan on teaching short stories in your classroom, these texts are engaging, approachable, and versatile. Therefore, you can teach them however works best for you and your students.

Tips for Teaching Short Stories

We’ve already established that, despite their length, short stories are full of learning opportunities. However, that can be a bit overwhelming for teachers and students alike. Here are some tips to ensure you are getting the most out of teaching short stories:

1. Set a purpose. Know why you’re reading the short story. That includes having identified related standards or competencies as well as establishing the desired learning goals. This will help both you and your students stay focused once you dive in.

2. Stay focused. To avoid overwhelming students, stay focused on your main goal. Otherwise, you risk turning students off by “over analyzing” a text. Instead of over doing it, spend your time diving deeply into one or a few specific aspects and really honing those skills.

3. Encourage rereading. With short stories, this isn’t such a big ask. Consider assigning the short story for homework and then rereading it with a clearer purpose in class. The first read is for comprehension. Second reading is for inferring and evaluating. You’d be surprised by just how much students can get out of this approach.

4. Scaffold the analysis. There can be a lot to unpack in just a handful of pages. However, thanks to their comparatively short length, you can take your time scaffolding the analysis. Begin with a teacher-led read-through, stopping to point out important aspects of the text. Then, you have students work in small groups to begin unpacking the meaning. Finally, assign students a form of independent analysis through questions, writing, or a more creative assessment.

5. Make real-world connections. With novels, especially some of the more dense ones in the classic literary canon, students become so caught up in unpacking long, complex texts that it leaves very little room for discussions about anything else. However, I believe there is magic to be had when students can connect literature to the world around them. Just because short stories take less time to read doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to discuss.

Choosing Which Short Stories to Teach

The good news is that there are tons of short stories to choose from. That means you’ll be able to find a short story that works for just about any purpose. However, when it comes to selecting the best short stories for your high school students, I suggest doing the following:

  • Preview the story for content, language, and difficulty
  • Think about how engaging the story will be for your students
  • Look for connections to other texts and/or modern day
  • Consider how the story fits into your curriculum
  • Match the story to a standard, competency, or learning goal

As much as I love just how many great short stories exist out there, I know that can also make selecting ones to share with your students a daunting task. Teaching high school? Consider starting with this list of the best short stories for high school students or this list of 20 short stories written by female authors. If you’re looking for short story suggestions for middle school, check out my list of the best short stories for middle schoolers.

When it comes to literature, I believe in quality not quantity! Yes, that means diving deeply into one novel over dipping our toes into three. However, it also means that you don’t have to read hundreds of pages to experience literary greatness – or, let’s be real, achieve learning goals. A high-quality short story can really pack a punch.

While they might appear simple on the surface, dig a little deeper and you’ll find them jam-packed with rich meaning, powerful prose, and teachable moments. Teaching short stories is an engaging and effective way to dive into literature with your students.  They are perfect for text-to-text comparisons and springboards for lively classroom discussions. They make for great supplemental or anchor texts. They can be used for mini lessons or make up an entire unit of their own.

Long story short – see what I did there – don’t let their limited word count fool you.

Happy teaching!

2 thoughts on “Teaching Short Stories in The Secondary Classroom”

  1. Thank you
    Teaching ELA students grade 9-12, but within each group the reading range sometimes leaves me at odds on how to fairly teach and not cheat any of my students, to have each come through with the same level of excellence, however, your advice is great and I will “never surrender, never give up! Vivre le short story!!!

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