Keeping it short

One of the many challenges I have encountered when working with upper key stage two and lower key stage three is having the time to use whole novels in literacy lessons whilst still covering the curriculum content planned for each term. Reading novels takes time and in a few English sessions, reading for extended periods can feel like a luxury. Torturous links between reading and lesson objectives sometimes ensue to justify the lesson time.

It is important that students begin to read and complete extended novels. Short stories, however, can often offer the same learning opportunities as a complete novel and have the advantage of being used over a short sequence of lessons, rather than a whole term. Many authors of literary significance have obligingly written short stories, some of them free as e-books or as PDF downloads. Short stories offer an excellent model for students as their writing in school is often short pieces of work, not novels. (Think of the marking!) The brevity of short stories means students are not overwhelmed by the volume of text and still read a whole story, not just an extract.

Doris Lessing’s coming of age story “Through The Tunnel” is a short and simple story which resonates with students in Year 6 and 7. The story simply describes a boy on holiday who discovers local boys ability to swim through an underwater tunnel. Seeking acceptance, he persists until he is able to swim through the tunnel too, through this process, distancing himself from his mother who visits a different beach. The vocabulary is challenging enough to use dictionaries for occasional definitions, it lends itself to a lesson on viewpoint and narrative voice, leading to character analysis of the boy and his mother. Students can also set each other comprehension questions to discuss key themes, why does the boy persist in his attempts? As the main character is eleven many or his fears and anxieties will reflect their own, which develops an opportunity to write their own stories about the challenges they will face in the school year, the effects of peer pressure and the beginning of independence from their parents that come with secondary education.

Short stories also lend themselves to a comparison of authors and genres. An example I enjoyed is ghost stories. Dicken’s “The Signalman” is a brilliant piece of storytelling and introduces students to his writing style. It is a challenge and does need to be framed with some short explanation of the Victorian railway system, of steam trains and signals. It is available on-line for free, therefore, reading it can be set as homework; it has been adapted by the BBC and animated on YouTube which creates a visualised frame of reference. The story slowly builds to a ghost story and questions whether the ghost was real or a product of the signalman’s isolation.

In contrast, Neil Gaiman’s “Don’t Ask Jack” from his “M is for Magic” collection is a sinister story about a demonic Jack-in-a-box, told in less than seven hundred words. It lends itself to a study of how the writing style makes it frightening, nothing is ever quite seen or remembered, forcing the reader to infer their own fears. The use of the word ‘don’t’ in the title makes the reader imagine ‘asking Jack’ even though the instruction is ‘don’t’. As a children’s story, it allows analysis of how the author matches the vocabulary and narrative structure to the intended audience. Together, these stories offer students a compelling, if slightly scary, introduction to ghost stories, written by two great authors.

When using a short story, lessons become focused on understanding what has been read rather than the mechanics of reading. Reading is a vital skill but comprehension comes from discussion, identifying themes and evaluating what they have read. Short stories offer opportunities to:

  • Read
  • Recall
  • Interpret
  • Evaluate using higher-order thinking questions
  • Analyse themes, ideas, characters, structure

The only real difference between short stories and novels from a teaching perspective is the length. Experience has shown me that reading novels is best done through reading aloud and enjoying the story rather than only using it for teaching and supplemented by reading clubs, challenges and certificates which allow some autonomy about what to read and reward achievement. Well written and well-chosen short stories enable lessons which develop and progress students skills, are rich with variety and make reading exciting.

Click here to read this article freely in the November 2014 Edition of UKEdMagazine.

Dr. Nancy Walbank is an educational consultant. She has worked across primary, secondary and tertiary education. She has held leadership roles in the primary sector. Her PhD focused on inclusion in faith schools. She is the author of “Six Top Tips for a Trainee Teachers.” Follow her on Twitter @nan282.

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