english short stories

28 English Short Stories with Big Ideas for Thoughtful English Learners

When it comes to learning English, what if you can understand big ideas with just a little bit of text?

I’m talking about award-winning short stories in English

Stories are all about going beyond reality, and these will not only improve your English reading but also open your mind to different worlds.


1. “The Bogey Beast” by Flora Annie Steel

english short stories

A woman finds a pot of treasure on the road while she is returning from work.

Delighted (very happy) with her luck, she decides to keep it. As she is taking it home, it keeps changing.

However, her enthusiasm refuses to fade away (disappear or faint slowly).

What Is Great About It: The old lady in this story is one of the most cheerful characters anyone can encounter in English fiction.

Her positive disposition (personality) tries to make every negative situation seem like a gift, and she helps us look at luck as a matter of our view rather than events.

2. “The Tortoise and the Hare” by Aesop

The Tortoise and the Hare: An Aesop Fable (Reading Rainbow Books)

This classic fable (story) tells the story of a very slow tortoise (turtle) and a speedy hare (rabbit).

The tortoise challenges the hare to a race. The hare laughs at the idea that a tortoise could run faster than he, but the race leads to surprising results.

What Is Great About It: Have you ever heard the English expression, “Slow and steady wins the race”? This story is the basis for that common phrase.

This timeless (classic) short story teaches a lesson that we all know but can sometimes forget: Natural talent is no substitute for hard work, and overconfidence often leads to failure.

3. “The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse” by Beatrix Potter

The Tale of Johnny Town-mouse (Peter Rabbit)

Timmie Willie is a country mouse who is accidentally taken to a city in a vegetable basket. When he wakes up, he finds himself at a party and makes a friend.

When he is unable to bear (tolerate or experience) the city life, he returns to his home but invites his friend to the village.

When his friend visits him, something similar happens.

What Is Great About It: Humans have been living without cities or villages for most of history.

That means that both village and city life are recent inventions. And just like every other invention, we need to decide their costs and benefits.

The story is precisely (exactly) about this debate. It is divided into short paragraphs and has illustrations for each scene. This is best for beginners who want to start reading immediately.

4. “The Night Train at Deoli” by Ruskin Bond

Night Train at Deoli and Other Stories (India)

Ruskin Bond used to spend his summer at his grandmother’s house in Dehradun.

While taking the train, he always had to pass through a small station called Deoli. No one used to get down at the station and nothing happened there.

Until one day he sees a girl selling fruit and he is unable to forget her.

What Is Great About It: Ruskin Bond is a writer who can communicate deep feelings in a simple way.

This story is about our attachment to strangers and why we cherish (value or appreciate deeply) them even though we do not meet them ever again.

5. “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury

There Will Come Soft Rains (Tale Blazers)

Earth has been destroyed by war and no one lives on it anymore.

The robots and the machines continue to function and serve human beings who have long ago died. 

What Is Great About It: The title is taken from a poem that describes how nature will continue its work long after humanity is gone.

But in this story, we see that nature plays a supporting role and the machines are the ones who have taken its place.

They continue their work without any human or natural assistance. This shows how technology has replaced nature in our lives and how it can both destroy us and carry on without humanity itself.

6. “Orientation” by Daniel Orozco

Orientation: A Story: And Other Stories

This is a humorous story where the speaker explains the office policies, as well as gossip about the staff, to a new employee.

It is extremely easy to read as the sentences are short and without any overly difficult words.

Many working English learners will relate to it as it explains the absurdities (silly moments) of modern office life and how so little of it makes sense.

What Is Great About It: Modern workplaces often feel like theaters where we pretend to work rather than get actual work done. The speaker exposes this reality that nobody will ever admit to.

He over-explains everything from the view out the office window to the intimate details of everyone’s life—from the overweight loner to the secret serial killer.

It talks about the things that go unsaid; how people at the office know about the deep secrets of our home life, but do not talk about it.

7. “Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

Jack’s mother can make paper animals come to life.

In the beginning, Jack loves them and spends hours with his mom. But as soon as he grows up, he stops talking to her since she is unable to speak in English.

When his mother tries to talk to him through her creations, he kills them and collects them in a box.

After a tragic loss, he finally gets to know her story through a hidden message that he should have read a long time ago.

What Is Great About It: The story is a simple narration that touches on complex issues. It is about leaving your own country with the promise of a better life.

It is also about the conflicts that can occur between families when different cultures and languages collide. In this case, the tension is so high that it destroys the relationship between a mother and her son.

It also has a moving message about never taking your loved ones for granted.

8. “The Missing Mail” by R.K. Narayan

Malgudi Days (Penguin Classics)

This story is part of R.K. Narayan’s “Malgudi Days” short story collection. 

Thanappa is the village mailman who is good friends with Ramanujam and his family. He learns about a failed marriage and helps Ramanujam’s daughter get engaged to a suitable match.

Just before the wedding, Thanappa receives a tragic letter about Ramanujam’s brother. He decides not to deliver it.

What Is Great About It: Despite the best of intentions, our actions can cause more harm to our loved ones than we ever intended.

The story is about the complicated relationships and feelings which are always present in our social circles, but we are often ignorant of them.

9. “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr

Welcome to the Monkey House: A Collection of Short Works

The year is 2081, and everyone has been made equal by force.

Every person who is superior in any way has been handicapped (something that prevents a person’s full use of their abilities) by the government.

Intelligent people are distracted by disturbing noises. Good dancers have to wear weights so that they do not dance too well.

Attractive people wear ugly masks so they do not look better than anyone else.

However, one day there is a rebellion, and everything changes for a brief instant.

What Is Great About It: Technology is always supposed to make us better. But in this case, we see that it can be used to disable our talents.

Moreover, the writer shows us how the mindless use of a single value like equality can create more suffering for everyone.

10. “The School” by Donald Barthelme

"The School" (Electric Literature's Recommended Reading)

A school teacher is narrating all the recent incidents that have happened on campus.

First, they mention a garden where all the trees died. Pretty soon deaths of all kinds begin to occur.

What Is Great About It: Most of the adults do not know how to deal with death, even though they want to teach children about it.

It makes us realize how weak our education systems are because they can not help us deal with life’s most basic issues.

Eventually, the students start to lose faith in everything, and the adults have to put on a show of love to make themselves less frightened.

It shows how adults can fail to explain and understand death, and so they just pretend that they do. In this way, the cycle of misunderstanding and avoiding life’s issues continues.

11. “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid

english short storiesA mother is telling her daughter how to live her life properly. The daughter does not seem to have any say in it.


What Is Great About It: This may not be technically a story since there is no plot. “Girl” talks about how girls are taught to live restricted lives since childhood.

The mother instructs (tells) her to do all the household chores, indicating that it is her sole purpose (only aim or duty).

Sometimes the mother tells her to not attract attention, to not talk to boys and to always keep away from men.

On the other hand, she hints that she will have to be attractive to bakers and other suitable males in society to live a good life.

This story is about these conflicting ideas that girls face when growing up.

12. “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” by Rudyard Kipling


“Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” is about a Mongoose who regularly visits a family in India.

The family feeds him and lets him explore their house, but they worry that he might bite their son, Teddy.

One day a snake is about to attack him when the Mongoose kills it. Eventually, he becomes a part of the family forever.

What Is Great About It: This is a simple story about humans and animals living together as friends. It is old, but the language is fairly easy to understand.

It reminds us that animals can also experience feelings of love and, like humans, they will also protect the ones they love.

“Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” is part of Kipling’s short story collection “The Jungle Book,” which was famously made into a movie by Disney.

If you enjoy the story but need a break from reading, check out this captivating trailer for Disney’s newer version of the movie.

13. Excerpt from “Little Dorrit” by Charles Dickens

Little Dorrit (Penguin Classics)

Dorrit is a child whose father has been in prison ever since she could remember. Unable to pay their debts, the whole family is forced to spend their days in a cell.

Dorrit thinks about the outside world and longs to see it (wishes to see it).

This excerpt introduces you to the family and their life in prison. 

The novel is about how they manage to get out and how Dorrit never forgets the kindness of the people who helped her. 

What Is Great About It: Injustice in law is often reserved for the poor. “Little Dorrit” shows clearly how it works in society.

It is about the government jailing people for not being able to return their loans, a historical practice the writer hated since his own father was punished in a similar way.

The story reveals how the rich cheat the poor and then put them into prisons instead of facing punishment.

14. “To Build a Fire” by Jack London

To Build a Fire and Other Tales of the North

A man travels to a freezing, isolated place called Yukon. He only has his dog with him for company.

Throughout his journey, he ignores the advice other people had given him and takes his life for granted.

Finally, he realizes the real power of nature and how delicate (easily broken) human life actually is.

What Is Great About It: The classic fight between life and death has always fascinated us. Nature is often seen as a powerful force that should be feared and respected.

The man in this story is careless and, despite having helpful information, makes silly mistakes. He takes the power of natural forces too lightly.

The animal is the one who is cautious and sensible in this dangerous situation. By the end, readers wonder who is really intelligent—the man who could not deal with nature or the dog who could survive?

15. “Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal

english short storiesSly is a chimpanzee who is much smarter than the other chimpanzees. He loves to play with clay on a potter’s wheel all day and likes to keep to himself.

But one day when the school kids bully him, he loses his temper and acts out in anger. Seeing this, the teacher punishes him and takes away his clay.

What Is Great About It: Sly is a character who does not fit into society. He is too smart for the other chimps, but humans do not accept him. He is punished for acting out his natural emotions.

But the way he handles his rage, in the end, makes him look more mature than most human beings. Nominated for the Hugo award, many readers have connected with Sly since they can see similarities in their own lives.

16. “The Boarded Window” by Ambrose Bierce 

“The Boarded Window” is a horror story about a man who has to deal with his wife’s death. The setting is a remote cabin in the wilderness in Cincinnati, and he feels helpless as she gets sick.

There’s an interesting twist to this story, and the ending will get you thinking (and maybe feeling a bit disturbed!).

What is Great About It: If you enjoy older stories with a little suspense, this would be a good challenge for you–in fact, until now, it’s still included in a lot of horror story compilations.

It talks about the event that made a hermit decide to live alone for decades, with a mysterious window boarded up in his cabin.

Aside from what actually happens in the story, there’s also a lot of emphasis on psychology and symbolism.

17. “The Zero Meter Diving Team” by Jim Shepherd

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster was one of the most deadly accidents in the twentieth century.

This is a story about that event through the eyes of a father and his sons. The family was unfortunate enough to be close to the disaster area.

The story exposes the whole system of corruption that led to a massive explosion taking innocent lives and poisoning multiple generations.

The technical vocabulary and foreign words make this text a little more difficult. However, the story is relatively easy to follow.

What Is Great About It: It is no secret that governments lie to their own people. But sometimes these lies can cost lives.

Very often we accept this as normal, but this tale opens our eyes to the cost of our indifference (lack of concern).

The story is divided into small parts that make it both easy and exciting to read.

The various events are about life in general in what was then known as the Soviet Union. And just like any other good story, it is also about human relationships and how they change due to historic events.

18. “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs

The Monkey's Paw and Other Tales of Mystery and the Macabre

A man brings a magical monkey’s paw from India, which grants three wishes to three people.

When the White family buys it from him, they realize that sometimes you do not want your wishes to come true.

What Is Great About It: Sometimes we wish for things, but we do not think about their consequences.

In this story, the characters immediately regret when their wishes come true because either someone dies or something worse happens.

They realize that they never thought about the ways their wishes could destroy people and their lives.

19. “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin

The Story Of An Hour: Short Story

Mrs. Mallard has heart troubles that could kill her.

When her husband dies, the people who come to give her this news try to do so gently. When she is finally informed, she bursts into tears.

Eventually, she goes to her room and locks herself in.

However, while thinking about the future, she is excited by the idea of freedom that could come after her husband’s death.

After an hour, the doorbell rings and her husband is standing there alive and well. When she sees him, she has a heart attack and dies.

What Is Great About It: Marriages can be like prisons for women. The one in this tale definitely seems like a heavy burden. Despite her grief, Mrs. Mallard is able to keep herself healthy with the hope of freedom from her husband.

But as soon as she realizes that she will have to go back to her old life, her body is unable to take it.

The story explores the conflicting range of human emotions of grief and hope in a short span, and the impact it can have on a person’s mind and body.

20. “Little Red Riding Hood” by The Brothers Grimm

This is a story that every English-speaking child knows. It’s about a little girl who meets a wolf in the forest while going to see her sick grandmother.

The wolf pretends to be her grandmother in order to trick the little girl. There are actually different versions of it, with different endings–the one I’ve linked above is the most popular.

What Is Great About It: “Little Red Riding Hood” is a fairy tale, which is a story for kids that has been traditionally told through generations.

It’s often used to teach children that it’s bad to talk to strangers, since the image of being eaten by a wolf can be very scary.

It has been adapted into different movies and media, and you’ll still hear mentioned in pop culture a lot.

21. “A Tiny Feast” by Chris Adrian

The basic characters are taken from Shakespeare’s famous play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

However, in this story, the plot and the concept are entirely different.

Titania and Oberon are the rulers of fairies who have been dealing with problems in their marriage.

One day they find a human child and decide to adopt him. They hope that this child will help them save their relationship.

However, the child develops a deadly disease and the fairies have no idea what to do since they have never known illness or death.

This is a tragic tale about how they try to understand something they have never seen before and their deep love for a stranger who is so unlike them.

What Is Great About It: The story is able to explore human relationships through imaginary creatures. It explores the grief of parenthood and also the uncertainty of knowing whether your child will ever even know you.

It also beautifully captures the sense of the unknown and the helplessness which every human being faces when faced with it.

22. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

The Lottery and Other Stories (FSG Classics)

Every year, a small town holds an event known as “the lottery” that everyone attends.

During this event, someone from the community is randomly chosen…but for what reason?

What Is Great About It: The story makes you wonder about human behavior, particularly within a group of people.

Perhaps you may have heard of the term “mob mentality” and how it can allow for some pretty surprising things to happen.

This short story is considered to be one of the most famous short stories in American literature.

It shows an example of what is known as a dystopian society, where people live in a frightening way. To learn more, check out this TED-Ed video that tells you how to recognize a dystopia. 

23. “The Velveteen Rabbit” by Margery Williams

The Velveteen Rabbit: Or How Toys Become Real (Reading Railroad Books)

A simple, stuffed rabbit toy is given to a young boy as a Christmas present.

At first, the rabbit isn’t noticed, as the boy is distracted by much fancier gifts. While being ignored, the rabbit begins to wonder what it means to be “real.”

One day, a certain event brings the rabbit into contact with the boy. After that, the toy’s life changes dramatically (a lot).

What Is Great About It: Have you ever loved a toy or doll so much, that you treated it as if it were alive? This story shows the power of love from a very unexpected viewpoint: that of a fluffy stuffed rabbit.

The velveteen rabbit toy is loved dearly by its owner, regardless of how worn out he becomes.

Although this story was made for children, its message is for anyone of any age. The rabbit’s quest (journey) of becoming “real” can be understood in a very human way.

The story shows the importance of self-value, being true to yourself and finding strength in those who love you.

24. “Paul Bunyan,” adapted by George Grow 

The story of Paul Bunyan has been around in the United States for many years. He’s the symbol of American frontier life, showing the ideal strength, work ethic and good morality that Americans work hard to imitate.

Some sources break down his story into even shorter versions.

What is Great About It: Paul Bunyan is considered a legend, so stories about him are full of unusual details, such as eating fifty eggs in one day and being so big that he caused an earthquake.

It can be a pretty funny read, with characters such as a blue ox and a dog that’s reversible.

This version of the story is also meant to be read out loud, so it’s fast-paced and entertaining. 

25. “The Happy Prince” by Oscar Wilde

The Happy Prince: A Tale by Oscar Wilde

In the middle of a city is a very fancy, decorated statue of a prince, and it is known as the Happy Prince.

One day, a swallow bird decides to rest on the statue, only to get wet by the tears of the crying statue.

The Prince, as it turns out, is not happy at all. When he was alive and living in his palace, he had no idea how much suffering was happening outside his home.

Now as a statue that stands high above the city, he can finally see the many injustices happening to the people.

At the Prince’s request, the swallow begins to take off pieces of the statue and give them away to the poor. Together, the two work to try and give what aid they can to the less fortunate.

What Is Great About It: It can be easy to ignore people who are struggling and having a hard time. However, it is not good to always “turn a blind eye” and pretend not to notice.

Sometimes, even one good deed (action) can make a big impact on both the person doing it and the person receiving it.

“The Happy Prince” is a story that shows the importance of charity and empathy. These two things can come with a lot of sacrifices, but you can gain a lot in other ways.

The story also points out that you should judge a person not by what they have, but by what they give.

26. “Cinderella” by Charles Perrault

Cinderella, or The Little Glass Slipper

You may already know the story of Cinderella; many people saw the Disney movie or read a children’s book of it.

However, there are actually many different versions of “Cinderella.”

This one by Charles Perrault is the most well-known one and is often the version told to children.

What Is Great About It: “Cinderella” is a loved story because it describes how a kind and hard-working person was able to get a happy ending.

Even though Cinderella’s stepsisters treated her awfully, Cinderella herself remained gentle and humble. It goes to show that even though you may experience hardships, it is important to stay kind, forgiving and mindful.

27. “The Friday Everything Changed” by Anne Hart

Because only “strong boys” are allowed to do this, the girls are teased for being “weaker.”

Not only that, but the boys also get more privileges than the girls, such as being the first to get magazines.

One Friday, a girl asks the classroom teacher why girls are not allowed to get water as well. This one question causes a big reaction.

What Is Great About It: One brave act, from one brave person, can cause a big change for the better. In this story, a single girl speaks out against what she thinks is wrong.

Her courage surprises everyone, but she inspires the girls to stand up for themselves against the boys who mistreat them.

The story reflects on gender equality and how important it is to fight for fairness. Just because something is accepted as “normal” does not mean it is right.

28. “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

Hills Like White Elephants

At a Spanish train station, an American man and a young woman wait for a train that would take them to the city of Madrid.

The woman sees some faraway hills and compares them to “white elephants.”

This starts a conversation between the two of them, but what they discuss seems to have a deeper meaning.

What Is Great About It: This story is very well-known as a text that makes you “read between the lines”—in other words, you have to try to find a hidden meaning behind what you read.

Much of the story is a back-and-forth dialogue between two people, but you can tell a lot about them just from what they say to each other.

There is a lot of symbolism that you can analyze in this story, along with context clues. Once you realize what the real topic of the characters’ conversation is about, you can figure out the quiet, sadder meaning behind it.

How to Use Short Stories to Improve Your English

Short stories are effective in helping English learners to practice all four aspects of language learning: reading, writing, listening and speaking. Here’s how you can make the most out of short stories as an English learner:

Use Illustrations to Enhance Your Experience

Some short stories come with illustrations. If you find a short story with illustrations, look at the pictures first to guess what the story is about.

What are they doing in the illustration? What part of the story is illustrated? The illustrations will help you to understand the meaning of the story.

You can even write your own caption or description of the picture. It can be a sentence or one word.

When you look at the story, go back to your image description. How do they relate?

Listen to Recordings of Stories

In our fantastic digital age, it is possible to find wonderful short stories online in audio or video form.

If you find a video with English-language subtitles, you can read while also listening to how a native speaker pronounces words.

Some of the short stories above are available in video format on FluentU, which is an online English immersion program.

In addition to short story video tellings, the program has many types of authentic videos like movie clips, music videos and inspirational talks.

These can help you work on your listening comprehension and pronunciation alongside your reading skills. Each video has interactive subtitles and a video dictionary for unfamiliar words.

For example, here’s a video retelling of “The Tortoise and the Hare”:

english short stories

If you’re doing a review quiz for the content, you have the option of speaking in the answers for some speaking practice.

Explore Stories Related to a Theme

Like novels, short stories can be in any genre you can imagine. Do you like ghost stories? Science fiction? Romance?

You can find short stories, old and new, on the subject that you want. Some short stories teach a lesson, like fables do. Other short stories use a lot of metaphors or symbolism.

If you’re learning about hobbies, find a short story about something that you like to do. Are you learning about food? Find a short story with a lot of food vocabulary. The list goes on.

Choose the Right Reading Level

First, some short stories are over 5,000 words long while others can be as short as 50. When you’re selecting the right short story for you, you have many different types and lengths to choose from.

If you choose a story that’s too difficult, you’ll spend too much time looking up vocabulary, missing the whole point of the story. If you choose a story that’s too easy, you’ll learn little to no new vocabulary and you may become bored.

Make sure that you always challenge yourself, even if you’re only learning a few new words.

Here’s an easy way to determine if the reading level is right for you.

Choose a paragraph in the story that you want to read. How many words can you identify?

Try the “five-finger test.” Hold up your fist while you read over the paragraph. Put up one finger for each word you don’t know. If you have all five fingers up before the end of the paragraph, try to find an easier text.

What if you really want to read a story, but the level is too hard? Try to read the story anyway. If the subject interests you, you’ll be motivated to learn the vocabulary you need to understand the story.

Bring the story to your English teacher. He or she will be happy to help you understand the words you don’t know so you’ll be able to enjoy the story on your own.

Practice “Active Reading”

Your reading will only help you learn if you read actively. You are reading actively when you’re paying very close attention to the story, its words and its meanings. Think about the vocabulary and grammar.

Start by looking over the text to get an idea of what the story is about. Read the text. Try to remember some of the things you read about. Finally, review the text again to get the best understanding.

Afterwards, discuss the story with your teacher and your classmates. If there’s something you don’t understand, write down your questions to ask during the discussion.

Talk about the stories and share your own opinions about the language, culture and messages within the story.

Choose Only a Few Words to Look Up

You don’t need to look up every single word you don’t know. Choose to look up only those words that will help you understand what the paragraph is about.

If there’s a word you don’t know but you know everything else in the sentence, try to guess what the word is about by looking at the whole sentence. You can look this word up later to see if you guessed correctly.

For stories longer than 500 words, take breaks while you’re reading, especially if the vocabulary gets overwhelming. Don’t make yourself too tired, or you’ll become frustrated and give up.

If you find things are getting to be too difficult, walk away for about 15 minutes and come back and try again.

Make Your Own Summary

When you’ve finished reading the story, review it again. Do this later in the same day or the next day to let your reading really sink in. Take notes while you’re reading.

Retell the story or make a summary of the story to get even more practice.

You can make this more challenging by actually using the story as a model for writing your own English story. By writing your own stories, you get more practice in the use of vocabulary and creating your own sentences.

Why Short Stories Are Best for English Learning

Short stories are amazing resources for any English learner. That’s because:

  • You can read a whole story in one sitting. Attention spans are very important for learning, and short stories are designed to give you maximum information with minimal effort.
  • You get more time to focus on individual words. When a text is short, you can spend more time learning how every single word is used and what importance it has in the piece.
  • It is best for consistency. It is far easier to read one story every day than trying to read a big novel that never seems to end.
  • You can share them easily in a group. Since short stories can be read in a single sitting, they are ideal for book clubs and learning circles.

    Most of the time these groups do not work because members have no time to read. Short stories are the perfect solution.

  • You can focus more on ideas and concepts. Language is less about words and more about the meaning behind them.

    If you spend all your time learning vocabulary and grammar, you will never be able to fluently speak a language because you will have little to talk about.

    These short stories give you the opportunity to understand big ideas in context.

You can choose almost any short story and get something useful out of it. Each story has its own special features that you can appreciate.

The best kind of story will be one that is interesting, has a strong message and, of course, helps you to both practice and learn English.

It will be one that leaves an impact, both in your English education and in your imagination.


I hope you have fun with these stories while improving your English.

Happy reading!

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