5+ Awesome ESL Short Stories to Harness Reading Power in Your Beginners

Harness your students’ imaginations and let them blossom.

Reading English short stories can be an exciting, imaginative journey for your students to take without ever leaving the classroom.

They can create an exciting learning environment with key aspects of ESL popping from the pages.

You can find many short stories out there in the ESL world, but it’s essential to know exactly which ones will be helpful to your students and your lesson plan. Within each short little story, you’ll find powerful teaching resources that you can harness to deliver fun and exciting material to your students.

Getting students to read English can be a real chore, but with the right short stories they won’t even realize that they’re studying. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

Here are a few of our favorite short stories for the classroom, some ESL classics and possibly one or two you may have never heard of. Enjoy crafting your next reading ESL lesson plan around these bad boys!

What to Look for in a Short Story

Before picking any type of short story, it’s essential that you know your students first.

It may not be so effective to use “Little Red Riding Hood” as your short story material if your students are serious businessmen taking English to advance their careers quickly. Making sure you’re familiar with your students’ English levels, needs, goals and ages is important for designing any ESL lesson plan, but it’s especially important when picking out a short story.

Not all short stories are created equal. In saying that, yes, most short stories have excellent properties to use when teaching ESL, but it’s critical to understand the story and how your students will perceive it. Our above example of a business professional reading “Little Red Riding Hood” is the reason why all stories aren’t created equal.

If your students are children, then break out those classic nursery rhyme books we all read when we were children. For young adult and adult students, it’s good to expand your search to more relatable, interesting material considering their age groups and skill levels.

Another aspect of using short stories in your lesson is crafting an excellent presentation to help set up the short story and related material. If you’re using “Little Red Riding Hood” for your beginners, a good presentation would outline the characters and basic plot of the story using visual aids, important vocabulary and communicative exercises. A good presentation is always the key to a successful lesson. This will set you off on the right foot every time.

Last but not least, you have to read the short story yourself in order to craft a great lesson for your students to really enjoy. Even if you read “Little Red Riding Hood” 100 times when you were younger, you must now read it again. The reason for this is that you’re now reading from a teacher’s perspective. It’s essential for you to really look at the material in-depth to find important ESL elements in the story which you’ll use as the new learning topics.

Reading short stories isn’t only about reading, it’s about discussion, developing vocabulary, pointing out grammar and improving comprehension. Think of your class as a little book club or an open reading at a bookstore.

5+ Colorful ESL Short Stories to Enthrall Beginners

Our short story recommendations here are going to be ordered by difficulty and student age group. First, let’s start with ESL short stories for kids.

“The Gingerbread Man”

esl short stories for beginners

“The Gingerbread Man” (author unknown) is a timeless classic that dates back to around 1875. It’s clouded with a bit of mystery since the author remains unknown. There have been several variations of the story since its first publication and it remains a wonderful ESL reading tool.

For kids, “The Gingerbread Man” short story is perfect. It’s exceptionally short and very easy to read and understand as they flip from one page to the next. The plot isn’t very difficult to get: The main character, the gingerbread man, runs and runs throughout most of the story. Most books have colorful, fun illustrations that you can utilize throughout your lesson plan as you set up your class for reading success.

There are many amazing aspects of ESL in “The Gingerbread Man” and you’ll be able to easily pick little snippets from the story as your students read each page. The first ESL skill that you can strive to build using this short story is simple verb conjugation. Most of the verb conjugation here is in the past simple. The writing is loaded with excellent (and sometimes irregular) verbs in past tense forms.

One great way to teach language with “The Gingerbread Man” is to have students go through and identify parts of speech. It should be very clear, even to a beginner’s unsure eye, which words are verbs, nouns and adjectives. There’s plenty of variety available to play around with, despite the overall simplicity of the story’s narrative style. Allow your students to go line-by-line and use different symbols to denote different parts of speech. Discuss how the bits of language work together to create more descriptive sentences. How do adjectives pair with nouns? How do verbs propel nouns into motion?

Last but not least, “The Gingerbread Man” is very popular and widely used in ESL classrooms. For that reason, you’ll have lots of supplemental materials to use along with it. It’s easy to find short videos, audio recordings and images for your class to really enjoy and discuss. After reading a chunk of the text, you can then introduce listening comprehension activities and communicative exercises to get students discussing what may happen next in the story.

This is an all-around exceptional ESL short story for kids, full of educational material and entertainment.

Paul Bunyan Stories for Kids

esl short stories for beginners

Another great classic for ESL are the “Paul Bunyan Stories.” These stories will spark creativity, imagination and enthusiasm in your students.

The story of Paul Bunyan is as grandiose as the historical folklore has made him out to be. Paul Bunyan was rumored to be a real person, a larger-than-life logger from the northeastern area of the United States and Canada. His legend would eventually hit mainstream in 1916 after advertisement writer William B. Laughead wrote of his strength and grit.

There are several Paul Bunyan stories you’ll want to bring to class: “Round River Drive,” “Paul Bunyan Tames the Whistling River” and, the most famous of them all, “Babe the Blue Ox.” The short stories range in length and each one has a different theme, usually involving Paul Bunyan doing something amazing.

Unlike most short stories for kids, Paul Bunyan stories have a flavor of real excitement, which will make your students’ imaginations run wild. There are many elements of ESL you can extract while reading these, and they’re especially prominent in “Babe the Blue Ox,” since it’s one of the longer and more detailed stories. The devil is in the details, and you can really give your students some knowledge about how they can understand, read and later write with more detail filling their pages and minds.

There are also many areas in the Paul Bunyan Stories where common phrases are used within a readily understandable context. In English we tend to use many phrases and idioms to communicate, so this is a great time to introduce a few phrases to later build on in another lesson. Phrases like “knee-deep” and “teeny-tiny” appear with great descriptive force in the stories. There are also plenty of adjectives filling the pages for you to choose from and expand on before reading continues.

Due to the overwhelming popularity of these stories, you’ll be able to find many videos, cartoons and pictures to use as supplemental materials for your lesson. You can open up communicative learning as a sub-skill within the reading lesson and develop some great listening comprehension exercises to accompany the reading material as well.

Now that we’ve discussed a couple of stories for younger students, we’re going to move on to stories for young adult and adult students.

“The Californian’s Tale” by Mark Twain

esl short stories for beginners

This more complex short story is about gold prospectors and miners during the California Gold Rush days and the fun yet troublesome times they experienced. There are both light and heavy moments within the story. You’ll discover a number of great teaching points to cover with your students in this text.

The writing style should be refreshing for your students, as they may not have read anything like it before. Mark Twain spent a lot of his life traveling and writing during times of major change for North America. His stories often reflect the times, almost as if he were consciously documenting history through his literature.

There are several cool literary notes to point out during your lesson. The first would be the shifts of mood and changes of scene that occur within the story. You’ll want them to identify why, where and how these subtle shifts occurred in their reading. Where did the feeling or attitude of the characters change? Which words connote this change? When did the story move to a new setting or change over to another day or event? Which words indicate that the time or setting has changed? This will help them develop their reading and writing skills.

In “The Californian’s Tale,” you’ll find a lot of dialogue. The dialogue isn’t always shown as “he said” or “she replied,” but rather there are other ways in which Twain demonstrates who’s talking to whom. For beginner level readers, this could be confusing at first. Covering this and giving plenty of other dialogue writing examples in your lesson will be critical.

There are also great audio versions of this short story. Just check out this fabulous full audiobook! You could get through this audiobook in one class, allowing students to read along with the story. This is a fantastic was to help students clarify how dialogue works in English literature. You can also help them to develop some additional language skills like listening comprehension and communicative learning with this lesson.

One more great way to interact with this text is to show them the differences between classical literary styles versus adapted styles for modern, everyday readers. “The Californian’s Tale” has been adapted and shortened in various way. Start students off with this abridged, simplified version and move them to the longer, original version after. This story is a great adventure in classic Americana and the time period is often seen as romantic and adventurous to many non-native English speakers.

“Do You Speak English?” by Simon Collins

esl short stories for beginners

“Do You Speak English?” is a great book for ESL learners since it highlights some funny aspects of what it’s like to be in another country looking for someone who speaks your language. It also depicts some key cultural differences between people from different places in the world.

Get students together in a circle and let the reading fun commence. The best part about this story is that there are many small paragraphs that may be helpful for you when organizing which student reads which part out loud to the class. The plot is easy to follow and the nice flow helps students become really engaging in the story.

This story is great for teaching grammar and sentence structure. The sentences have a lot of punctuation and contain tons of very descriptive adjectives which are ideal for your ESL lesson plans. Take a break from reading every so often to delve into the diverse array of verbs, nouns, adjectives and pronouns that highlight the sentences’ structures. So you can have a better idea of what I mean, here’s a short excerpt from the story:

“Next to it a boy leaned against the railings, his rod and line dangling out over the floating garbage and the stream of brown, stinking waste which trickled from a pipe in the wall below.”

You can clearly see all the exciting descriptions the author uses. This can be great to add into your reading lesson plan.

There are also great elements of dialogue in the story for you to use as teaching points. You can enhance your students’ reading experience by discussing the various forms of dialogue and how the author displayed different dialogues in different ways. This can help your students understand who’s talking, why and what they’re trying to say in the story.

Use “Do You Speak English?” for thoughtful, communication-based activities, letting your students predict what will happen next in the story or letting them shout out descriptive elements regarding the scenes’ atmospheres. Communicative learning is essential in any ESL lesson, even when you’re totally focused on mastering reading.

Now, let’s explore one more short story that’s going to be perfect for ESL students of any age and reading level.

“Jeremy and the Magic Lobster” by Matthew Licht

esl short stories for beginners

“Jeremy and the Magic Lobster” is a wonderful short story for everyone to enjoy, no matter their age or reading level.

The story is easy to follow, telling a tale about a boy who finds a talking lobster in his mother’s groceries. The lobster has a funny sense of humor and pleads to be released from the inevitable cooking pot awaiting him. It has aspects of a children’s story with enough humor to be enjoyable for young adults and adults. It’s sometimes difficult to find a short story with something for everyone, so this is a great short story to have in your ESL reading tool kit.

This short story is a bit longer than some, but not long enough that it would take more than 2, 1-hour lessons to finish. Maybe it’ll take you 3 lessons, depending on how much of the story material you decide to pluck from the book and expand on in class. There’s plenty to mull over with your students, including great descriptive sentences and funny phrases like “get me out of this jam,” which are often used by native English speakers.

There’s an easy dialogue pattern in the story, so your students will be able to follow along without any problems at all. The boy speaks to the lobster or the boy speaks to his mother, so most conversation is easy to pick up on. The dialogue is an important element to the story, often being where much of the plot is unveiled, so this is a great teaching point for your beginner readers to understand. Often, beginner readers will get lost and lose the plot of the story when it’s hidden in the dialogue, but this story should pose no such problem. Regardless, touch on how gleaning information from dialogue is an important reading skill.

There are enough vocabulary words in this short story to fill your lesson plan, so picking out the most relevant ones will be great for your students to build on. The nouns, verbs and adjectives are clearly defined in the sentences with great context to bring the language to life. Some excellent points to touch on would be the sentence structure and how each section of the story flows together.

Remember to let your students read, but add that excitement and stop every so often to discuss the book and what’s happening in it.

Let your students expand on their thoughts and share what they’re thinking with their classmates and with you.

Pairing a reading lesson with other aspects of ESL can help keep your students motivated and more eager to learn.

So, get to it!


Stephen Seifert is a writer, editor, professor of English and adventurer. With over 7 years of teaching experience to students worldwide, he enjoys the many aspects of culture and traditions different from his own. Stephen continues his search for writing inspiration, boldly enjoying life to the fullest.

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