17 Short Stories in English for ESL Students

Take a break from more formal ESL lessons and bring English to life with brief yet entertaining short stories.

Short stories strike the perfect balance of challenging, engaging and rewarding for language students.

Reading short stories also builds on the foundation of many ESL skills, including reading, writing, grammar, listening and discussion.

Turn English into page-turning excitement!


1. “The Gift of the Magi” the gift of the magi book cover

In “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, 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.

2. “The Monkey’s Paw” the monkey's paw book cover  

In “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. “Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger” 

In “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 jealousy 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.

4. “The Tell-tale Heart”the tell-tale heart book cover

In “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 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. The phrase “open the door stealthily” is a great one that Poe uses a lot, for example.

5. “How Anansi Brought Wild Animals into the World”

This short story brings a bit of West African folklore to your classroom. It is about following directions, which Anansi, the anti-hero of the story is not the best at. 

“How Anansi Brought Wild Animals into the World” is perfect for all ages and, although it may seem like a children’s story, even your more advanced-level students may find a word or two that they may not recognize.

There are also a few essential phrasal verbs in this short story you can utilize for further practice and reinforcement activities.

6. “The Door in the Wall” the door in the wall book cover

“The Door in the Wall” by Marguerite de Angeli 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. It’s 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.

7. “Kung Fu Monkey Style”

“Kung Fu Monkey Style” is a mix of the animal kingdom and human amenities that will get your students’ imaginations flowing.

It offers dialogue, presents wonderful adjectives and develops new vocabulary and also offers a bit of humor and fun to your students. 

You can ask your students questions and explore with them how this may differ from their own culture. This will open up cross-cultural communication that will allow your students to explain their lives and culture in English. 

8. “A Haunted House” a haunted house book cover

“A Haunted House” by Virginia Woolf is a story about a woman and her husband who 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.

9. “Fenris the Wolf”

“Fenris the Wolf” is a powerful Norse myth about Fenris, a wolf that tormented the Norse gods. The gods and Fenris often battle with one another due to Fenris’ cunning skills. 

This short story is told in a compelling way and offers a bit of mystery and a feel of the unknown as your students read it. You can use this mystery and employ a group writing activity to further your students’ ESL skills in regards to the story.

10. “The Remarkable Rocket” the remarkable rocket book cover

“The Remarkable Rocket” is a great short story that encompasses classical literature from the famous author Oscar Wilde.

The story itself is a metaphor for ego and boasting, which are two character traits you can explain to your students before beginning.

This short story is also loaded with dialogue and descriptive wording that will surely spark imagination in your students.

11. “Robin Hood And The Golden Arrow” robin and the golden arrow book cover

“Robin Hood And The Golden Arrow” is an educational tale of Robin Hood. Some of your ESL students may have some form of knowledge about Robin Hood already and this is a perfect place to begin this lesson.

Open up the floor for discussion about Robin Hood and evoke discussion in your classroom. After a bit of discussion, move into reading and listening.

You can employ a bit of ethical English thought into this short story lesson and ask your students if Robin Hood is a bad guy or a good guy. What makes him good or bad?

12. “The Gingerbread Man”

“The Gingerbread Man”  is a timeless classic that dates back to around 1875. There have been several variations and versions of the story since its first publication and it remains a wonderful ESL reading tool.

It’s exceptionally short and very easy to read and understand as your students 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. 

One skill that you can strive to build using this short story is simple verb conjugation, as most of the verbs here are in the past simple. You could also identify parts of speech. 

13. “The Elves and the Shoemaker”

“The Elves and the Shoemaker” is a Brothers Grimm tale that is timeless, ageless and wonderful for all ESL levels. 

This exceptional Christmas-themed short story offers a plethora of wonderful new vocabulary your students will find very useful. Though it is a short story about fantasy and elves, the vocabulary is anything but simplistic.

To build on the reading of the short story, you can employ a crossword worksheet to really solidify the new vocabulary.

14. “The Californian’s Tale”the short stories of mark twain book cover

“The Californian’s Tale” by Mark Twain is a more complex short story about gold prospectors and miners during the California Gold Rush days.

There are several 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. Ask your students what they think of the twist at the end. 

Start students off with this abridged, simplified version, and for advanced students, move them to the longer, original version after. There are also great audio versions of this short story. 

15. “Do You Speak English?” esl short stories for beginners

“Do You Speak English?” by Simon Collins 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. The plot is easy to follow and the nice flow helps students become really engaged with the story.

You can do thoughtful, communication-based activities, letting your students predict what will happen next in the story.

16. “Jeremy and the Magic Lobster” esl short stories for beginners

“Jeremy and the Magic Lobster” by Matthew Licht is 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. 

The dialogue is an important element of the story, often being where much of the plot is unveiled. There are also great descriptive sentences and funny phrases like “Get me out of this jam.” 

17. Paul Bunyan Stories

Paul Bunyan is a legendary figure who was rumored to be a real person, a larger-than-life logger from the northeastern area of the United States and Canada. 

There are several Paul Bunyan stories such as “Round River Drive,” “Paul Bunyan Tames the Whistling River” and, the most famous of them all, “Babe the Blue Ox.” The short stories vary in length and each one has a different theme, usually involving Paul Bunyan doing something amazing.

This is a great chance to introduce certain expressions and idioms, like “knee-deep” and “teeny-tiny,” as they appear with great descriptive force in the stories. 

Why Short Stories Are Exceptional for ESL Students

  • They’re great catalysts for bringing English to life. Many ESL students have the vocabulary and grammar know-how but find real-life language usage challenging. Short stories for your students will open their creative English minds as they enjoy an exciting or funny short story.
  • They’re a wonderful break from the formal, more traditional lesson plan or continual textbook learning style. They also get the whole class involved in an exciting way. Gathering your students in a circle and reading a short story offers essential communication they may not find in more traditional, ESL desk learning.
  • You have tons of options for interacting with short stories. Students could go around in a circle and take turns reading out loud, they could read out loud in pairs or groups, they could read on their own or they could listen to you (or classmates) reading out loud. 
  • There is the element of sharing different cultures and perspectives. Most short stories paint a picture of an event in time, or some may have a cultural undertone. They may often be able to teach something about history or culture. Plus, your students may all have their own takes on these stories based on their own backgrounds.

Essential ESL Skills Short Stories Bring to Your Classroom

Short stories serve a wealth of ESL skills. Instead of focusing on just one aspect of English, short stories connect various essential ESL skills together in an almost seamless way. You can utilize short stories in your classroom to cover almost every aspect of English.

  • Your students can read the content, listen to others read or listen to a recording of a native English speaker reading.
  • You can implement discussion breaks after a certain period of reading and listening, allowing your students to communicate and dive a bit deeper into what the short story is about.
  • Your eager ESL students will also see the correct grammar used in the various short stories. They will see how sentences are structured and how dialogue is written and/or used.
  • If you pair your classroom short story with an activity, your students can also gain vital writing and action-oriented ESL skills not found in traditional lesson plans.

You can also pair short stories with tech. For example, you can play a short story on the FluentU language learning program.

FluentU is a way to bring authentic English videos into the classroom in an approachable way. Among movie clips, news segments, funny commercials and other content that English speakers watch, you’ll also find animated short stories.

Play these for your class or assign them for homework. Students will have the benefit of seeing accurate interactive subtitles and the ability to click on any word within those subtitles for a definition.

Students using FluentU can also take quizzes following any video, add words to flashcard decks and review flashcards with personalized exercises that include speaking questions.

Employing short stories in an animated or visual format to expand your ESL students’ minds is the perfect way to spark their love for English in an exciting way.


Utilizing short stories in your classroom is an exceptional, fun and exciting way to build on almost every ESL skill your students need to communicate effectively in English.

It’s a surefire way to keep students engaged and active with each turn of the page!


Think your students are ready to move on from short stories to books? Take a look at this list: 

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