6 Captivating Short Stories for Adult ESL Learners

Have you ever seen a kitten who wasn’t completely absorbed by a moving piece of yarn?

What about an older cat, though?

We need to keep our adult ESL students just as engaged during class as young, playful kittens.

But what with?

Short stories are one convenient tool which can produce the “ball of yarn” effect, grabbing your students’ full attention. Not only will the storylines themselves captivate your readers, but the right short stories can also pull adults into riveting discussions.

I’ve compiled six such short stories for you to use with your adult learners, plus handy tips on where to find others and how to best use them in class. To get started, let’s take a closer look at these benefits.

Why Use Short Stories with Adult ESL Learners?

Short stories are a great way for adult ESL learners to find common ground to have discussions. Who wouldn’t love to chat about which character is their favorite, or predict what will happen in a suspense story they are reading? Even your shyest students might get so excited about what you are reading in class that they start to participate more.

Discussions about short stories are a great way for your students to practice their oral skills. Not only are students speaking to you, but they are speaking and listening to each other. Having students read stories out loud during your lesson builds fluency, which in turn builds confidence. The length of a short story seems less scary, and if students are able to read fluently, they will most likely feel that they can read longer pieces of text.

Short stories are also a welcome break from routine, as students can get “lost” in a good story. Adults usually have so much to do during the day—including stressful jobs—so reading interesting stories serves as a relaxing break from reality. The more they enjoy reading the short stories you select for your lessons, the more your students will be motivated to learn more.

Hopefully, you can encourage your students to love reading through the use of short stories, and that will further motivate them to learn more English.

What to Look For in a Short Story for Adult ESL Students

Selecting short stories for adults is different from finding materials for children. Not that adults wouldn’t like the same content that children do, but rather you might lose their interest if the text is too easy.

If you decide to pick a fairy tale, for example, you would most likely want to pick one of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales over an adaptation, as they have more sophisticated language.

Here are some other qualities to keep in mind while selecting appropriate short stories for your students:

  • Vocabulary complexity. Make sure that any story you choose has enough words that the majority of your class can understand, while at the same time includes enough complex words they can decode. If a text is too easy, your students might get turned off and not be motivated to read it. Same goes if there are too many complex words in the story.
  • Simple language. You don’t want to pick stories with too many idioms or “old world” language, as that might also be too difficult and turn off your students.
  • Relevant content. Make sure the content is relevant to adults in some way, such as topics of relationships, business situations, family life or even something they can relate to culturally.
  • Relevant discussions. You also want to think about whether or not you can pull interesting themes or discussion questions from the story.
  • Neutral ground. Keep in mind, though, that you don’t want material that is too controversial. Keep it neutral enough that you can generate discussions, but not something that might result in arguments between students.

How to Use Short Stories with Adult ESL Learners

There are so many ways to use short stories in your lessons. To get you started, here are some ideas:

Roundtable discussions

This is where students agree to discuss a particular topic. Each student then must have equal participation rights, meaning that all students will have a turn to speak. This is more of an informal type of lesson where your ultimate goal is for all your students to speak in a comfortable environment.

Here are some tips:

  • Sitting around in a small circle works best. That way, everyone feels included, and they know that while you may be leading the conversation, you are not the only one to talk.
  • To make sure everyone has a turn, give each student a set amount of “tickets” (they can just be colored pieces of paper) at the start. Whenever a student wants to speak, take one of the tickets away from them. Once a student has used all of their tickets, they are not allowed to speak anymore until no tickets remain with any student. That way, no one dominates the conversation, and you are making sure even the quietest students are involved in the discussion.
  • If your students are able to, ask them to facilitate a discussion. You can randomly draw their names from a hat or do a rotation system so everyone gets a turn.

Reading responses

Give the students a specific question to answer (usually written) after they have finished reading the story. For example, you could ask your students to describe a part of the story that surprised them and why, using evidence from the story. Or here is another: Pick a character from the story and predict what might happen to that character long after the story ends.

These responses could be used as part of an informal assessment to see whether or not the student has a solid understanding of the story. For example, if someone writes about what surprised them in the story, but the evidence they used wasn’t anywhere in the book, you would then know that this student might not understand the plot of the story. You can use this information to either review the story with the student or review the concept you think they don’t understand.

Vocabulary building

Have your students pick out words they are unfamiliar with from the story, define them and use them in a writing piece for any writing assignment you give them.

You could even have different students reading different short stories. This way, students can be responsible for teaching others some words that they have learned from their short story.

Conversation starters

During or after reading the story, have your students write down a question or two which they would like to ask other students about the story. Encourage your students to create more open-ended questions so they can spark discussions.

Here are some ways you can use these questions once students have written them down:

  • Randomly assign pairs to swap questions. Students should answer the questions they have received as a reading response, and the written responses will go back to the person who posed the question. The question creator can respond, agreeing or disagreeing with what their classmate said.
  • Students could also lead small group discussions using their questions. Then, students can present what was discussed in the small group to the entire class.

There are even more ways to use short stories with adults, but begin by using the above activities one at a time. Then you can slowly incorporate them for every book. As your students get more and more interested in the reading material, you can push for more ways to use those short stories in your class.

Suggested Short Story Authors to Use with Adult ESL Students

The authors suggested below can be a good starting point for you because their works are easier to find than others. Also, these authors have more relevant content for adults and their writing is more accessible.

  • Ernest Hemingway — Hemingway is most noted for his simple, direct and plain writing style. You can use his stories to do more grammar lessons, such as diagramming sentences.
  • Stephen King — Known for his suspense and horror stories, King’s works can be used for diving deep into plot and subplots.
  • John Steinbeck — Steinbeck is most known for his journalistic writing style. You can use his stories to learn how to write recounts and reports.
  • Edgar Allan Poe — You can use many of Poe’s poems to teach about how to recognize an author’s writing style.
  • Jack London — Since London has a very descriptive style of writing, his stories are great for teaching adjectives and descriptive writing.
  • Roald Dahl — Most known for his children’s stories, Dahl’s works are still interesting enough for adults and work well for character studies.

Where to Find Short Stories for Adult English Learners

You can find free short stories online at the websites below. The price can’t get better than that!

  • Classic Shorts — You can search by title or author on this site, which boasts a large collection of short stories.
  • Project Gutenburg — There are almost 50,000 free books to browse here. You can either read them online or download their many e-book formats.
  • American Literature — Despite the title of the website, the short stories are not limited to American stories. You can search by level (e.g. high school), authors or popularity.
  • FluentU — This immersion program relies on authentic videos to teach English in an engaging and relevant way.

    Among the movie trailers, news segments and inspirational talks, there are also animated short stories. You can certainly use children’s stories like fairy tales, which are entertaining at any age. Or, you can use more adult-oriented videos like videos that tell the story of the English language, heartwarming events and interesting true love stories.

    You can use FluentU in a classroom or send assignments home. And you can rest easy knowing that students won’t struggle to keep up thanks to interactive subtitles with on-demand definitions. You can also use FluentU to teach and reinforce vocabulary that you learn from short stories in context and with personalized quizzes.

6 Captivating Short Stories for Adult ESL Learners

The six stories below are great for discussions and are also very easy to find, whether online or in print.

1. “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry

In this story, a married couple figures out how to get each other Christmas presents despite having no money. As your students are reading, talk about how much the characters care for each other, considering what they are willing to give up for the other.

The story is full of rich descriptions you can use to teach descriptive writing, or even the use of adjectives. At the end of the story, talk about the idea of irony—because the couple finds out their gifts are useless because they both can’t use the present they gave to each other. You can also use this story to discuss the theme of consumerism, or even what the couple could do with their presents now.

2. “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs

A man receives a monkey’s paw and it promises five wishes, though it comes at a price. As you read through the story, talk about how someone’s words can be twisted or misinterpreted, as when the son comes back to life but is no longer the same man.

“Be careful what you wish for” is a fitting saying to introduce with this story, and having your students think about their priorities in life (and why) is a great follow-up activity.

3. “The Tell-tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe

A man commits a murder and his guilt consumes him. As you read this story with your students, talk about how the author is creating suspense with the use of repetition and his sentence choice. As you near the end of the story, talk about what the symbolism of the lantern means.

You can also use this story to teach how verbs can be used to set the tone of a story. Phrases like “open the door stealthily” is a great one that Poe uses a lot, for example.

4. “Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger” by Saki

Mrs. Packletide plans on shooting a tiger, and it dies in an unexpected way—resulting in a story that is perfect for teaching satire. It is also a great opportunity to talk about jealously and whether or not you should do something just to show off.

The rich descriptions of the characters and the ways the villagers behave can be used in a lesson to talk about character sketches.

5. “The Door in the Wall” by Marguerite de Angeli

This is a story about a young boy who wants to become a knight during the bubonic plague. You can use it to teach character analysis, following how Robin changes throughout the story.

This short story is also a great way to teach about using colorful descriptions instead of simple words. For example, when the author describes blooming flowers instead of just saying “the month of May,” or how the main character recognizes various characters by the way they walk.

6. “A Haunted House” by Virginia Woolf

A woman and husband live among ghosts in their house. As your class reads the story, have them note the idea of the couple’s treasure symbolizing love.

The words “it” and “here” are quite important, and you can note their repetition to discuss why the author emphasized those words, and what they could be referring to.


Short stories can be a great way to get your students motivated, rather than risk intimidating them with longer pieces of texts. Using relevant themes, interesting discussions and fun reading response activities, your adult students can become lifelong lovers of reading.

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