Short Stories for Intermediate ESL

English as a second language (ESL) students who have mastered reading basics and know how to interpret English text are often ready to embark on more complex literary pieces. Junior high, high school and adult ESL learners often enjoy short stories that aren't too lengthy or complicated to digest. There's a wide range of American folklore, humorous tales and spooky stories to choose from, so consider well-known pieces and short stories that have intriguing plots and compelling characters.

"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"

"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," written by Washington Irving and first published in 1820, is a classic example of English literature. This short story is ideal for intermediate ESL students because Irving uses scary and monstrous descriptions in his tale. As a result, it's not too simple or juvenile for intermediate ESL readers, and the plot is suspenseful. As a teacher, you might discuss the importance of ghost stories in American culture, the significance of Halloween and some specific American superstitions. You might also discuss deeper universal human themes, such as the desire for food, money, respect and romantic love.

"The Gift of the Magi"

William Sydney Porter, better known by his pen name O. Henry, wrote "The Gift of the Magi." This short story, published in 1906, is sweet and sentimental, so intermediate ESL readers can clearly understand and sympathize with the emotional elements. Because the setting is Christmastime, you might discuss the relevance of giving gifts during the holidays. "The Gift of the Magi" is also a love story about commitment and sacrifice -- themes that teens and adults from all backgrounds can relate to. You might also discuss the portrayal of men and women in the story and discuss how some of those stereotypical roles have changed in American culture.

"The Squirrels That Live in a House"

"The Squirrels That Live in a House" was written by Harriet Beecher Stowe and is part of a collection of short stories published in 1897. Stowe was an American abolitionist, so ESL students can learn about slavery and Stowe's noble causes as part of the lesson. Stowe's short story contains uncomplicated sentences, simple language and easy-to-understand vocabulary, so ESL students won't lose the flow of the story. The story is ideal for intermediate ESL students because the themes aren't childlike -- they question human intentions as to whether they are pure or selfish.

"To Build a Fire"

Jack London's "To Build a Fire" was published in 1908 and includes a wolf dog as one of the main characters. The story is about survival in the Yukon, so the plot is suspenseful and entertaining. The vivid descriptions of the landscape and freezing temperatures create a foreboding mood that intermediate ESL students can quickly discern. The story takes place in chronological order, so there's no confusion as to where the author is headed with the story. Once again, the themes are mature and cover topics such as perseverance, loyalty and pride.

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