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Short stories in teaching foreign language skills.


Literary texts have always been an important source of material for ESL/EFL classes as they demonstrate a wide range of language use in authentic contexts. Particularly short stories are the most widely used literary genre in the foreign language classroom, with all levels of proficiency, all age groups and in many classroom activities. This paper aims to present a few suggestions on how a short story can be adapted in a university level intermediate EFL class for three different language focuses: grammar, writing and speaking.

Literature in Language Teaching

After being a notable source of material in the era of the Grammar Translation Method until the end of the 19th century (Prodromou, 2000), literary texts have been considered as a valuable variety for the ESL/EFL classes to supplement the main course materials for the in-class and out of class activities of language teaching, learning and practice. This interest in using literature in language teaching lies in three interrelated elements: authenticity, culture and personal growth. First of all, literary texts can be more beneficial than informational materials in stimulating the acquisition process as they provide authentic contexts for processing new language. Since literary texts contain language intended for native speakers, literature stands as a model for language learners to become familiar with different forms and conventions (Collie and Slater, 1991, 4; Ur, 1996, 201). Containing real examples of grammatical structures and vocabulary items, the literary texts raise learners' awareness of the range of the target language and advance their competence in all language skills (Povey, 1967). Second, using literature in language teaching has the advantage of providing cultural information about the target language. Literary texts increase foreign language learners' insight into the country and the people whose language is being learnt (Collie and Slater, 1991), which fosters learners' ability to interpret discourse in different social and cultural target language contexts (Savvidou, 2004). Lastly, since literature enables students to understand and appreciate other cultures, societies and ideologies different from their own, it encourages personal growth and intellectual development (Carter and Long, 1991, 2-4).

McKay (1982) differentiates between efferent reading and aesthetic reading: In the former, the aim is to use a text to gain information, such as reading to answer comprehension questions. In the latter, on the contrary, the reader relates his world experience to the text and explores the text in terms of language use. Underlining that literary texts are in the second category, McKay emphasizes the importance of selecting the appropriate literary text and adapting it considering the linguistic and conceptual level of the learners. If selected or adapted appropriately, literature in language classes is today considered to be not only suitable for advanced level adult learners but also appropriate for young learners and lower level students (Bassnett and Grundy, 1993, 8). Lazar (1994) and Paran (2001) present a number of activities for using poetry with lower level students. Besides, Ghosn (2002) bases her syllabus for primary school English classes on children's stories and reports how children are naturally drawn to stories due to their motivating and meaningful context for language learning.

Short Stories in Language Teaching

Collie and Slater (1991: 196) list the advantages of using short stories for language teachers: short stories are practical as their length is long enough to cover entirely in one or two class sessions; they are not complicated for students to work with on their own; they have a variety of choice for different interests and tastes; and they can be used with all levels (beginner to advanced), all ages (young learners to adults) and all classes (summer courses to evening classes). Accordingly, what Hirvela and Boyle (1988) report is not surprising: they examine students' attitudes towards four genres of literary texts (short story, novel, poetry and drama) and state that their adult Hong Kong Chinese students indicated short stories as the genre that is less feared and the second most enjoyed (43%; the novel is the most enjoyed with 44%), since short stories are easy to finish and definite to understand.

Spack (1985) highlights the importance of story selection and states that she chooses stories that would interest students, that she most likes to read and teach, and that have been made into film to provide visual interpretation. Gajdusek (1988) stresses that the classroom experience with the literary texts should enable students to discover what the text contains. Thus, she suggests a four-step technique of exploring Hemingway's "Soldier's Home": (1) pre-reading activities in order to present background information and new vocabulary items; (2) factual in-class work after reading the text at home to examine point of view, characters, setting and action; (3) analysis of structure, theme and style to study how the author uses the language; and (4) extending in-class activities such as informal journal or formal critical essay writing or dramatizing a crucial scene that has been told but not seen in the text in groups.

Oster (1989) suggests analyzing short stories from different perspectives in multi cultural ESL/EFL classrooms. She maintains that students should be encouraged to question and discuss the short stories that are told from a single point of view. Following that, they can tell the story from a different character's view or rewrite it from their own views. This activity not only integrates reading with the productive skills but also enables students to realize how their own experiences, culture and values affect their views.

Tasks Based on a Single Short Story

Having the benefits of literary texts in teaching a foreign language in mind, we decided to use three short stories extensively in an EFL class. We were teaching grammar, writing and speaking courses to the first year students at the Department of Foreign Language Education, Middle East Technical University (Ankara, Turkey), and there was a lot to cover in the classes due to the proficiency level and needs of the students. As we did not have enough time to create a meaningful context to teach everything in the syllabus, we had to find a practical way. Using short stories might save time, and the students were assigned to read three short stories at the beginning of the semester. After familiarizing the students with the details of the stories in class, we used them for different objectives without having to go over again. To save time, we also adopted a combination of home and class work, and saw that a wide range of possibilities opened up for several language skills. One of these short stories was Elizabeth Bowen's "The Demon Lover" [1], and below are a few tasks, based on the story, for an intermediate group.

Warm-up activity

Before the students read the story, as a lead-in activity to whet their curiosity, in one class a few phrases from the story (the demon lover, a middle-aged woman with an unbalanced psychology, war time London, a mysterious letter ...) and, in another class, a montage of some photos, place names and objects relevant to the story line were given. Then we brainstormed the possible narrative links between these clues and compared their version with the original one. (This activity also provided an opportunity to practice the Present Simple Tense in the grammar lesson and connectors in the writing class.)


1. As the story is filled with supernatural elements, the story was divided into several sections, and the students were asked to predict the likely course of the events after they read each consecutive section. (This activity offered a nice opportunity to practice the language of prediction.) When they finished reading, the open ending of the story also gave way to hot debates among the students. Some of them read the story at its literal level and argued that Kathleen had an abnormal psychology and made up the letter in her imagination; and some preferred the supernatural level and argued that the ex-fiance with his non-human skills took his revenge on Kathleen, who failed to wait for his return from war. Both groups built up their predictions in their attempts to unfold the possible continuation of the story and to guess what happens to Kathleen in the taxi. For example, to the question "What is likely to be the fate of Kathleen?" they gave a variety of answers:
 I think Kathleen will go mad.

 I think she will be saved by....

 I think nothing will happen to her because the taxi driver is
 not the ex-fiance ...

2. In another grammar class, their attention was focused on the mysterious letter from "K" and this gave us the opportunity to turn Kathleen's reaction into a problem solving activity with a question: "What would you do now if you were Kathleen?" Here the students were given a challenging case to practice the second conditional. (The ending also offered a similar opportunity.) In another class, the students created another setting for the events. For example, they imagined how Kathleen would react to such a letter in 2000, Istanbul. In another class, they cast a different personality over Kathleen such as a feminist or an intellectual and they imagined how she would react.


1. The ending scene and its aftermath were used as input for creative writing, and the students dramatized what they produced in front of the class. As homework, some of them wrote a monologue for Kathleen when she sees the letter in her shut-up London house and some wrote Kathleen's cries for help for the taxi-driver scene in bubbles.

2. In a writing class, the students wrote three letters to the agony aunt column of a well-known newspaper, to a friend and to a lawyer, as if from Kathleen, to ask for advice after her ex-fiance is reported missing. Here the students had the opportunity to practice different registers by varying the people to whom they wrote the letters. They also wrote a small note from Kathleen to "K" in response to his letter.

3. In a writing class in which they learned how to make physical descriptions, the students prepared a missing poster for Kathleen. They found a picture of a middle-aged woman and gave her physical description. The students were given the opportunity to practice descriptive language. Although the tense atmosphere is the most prominent thing in the story, in some places the characters with strange features come to the fore. Thus, focusing on physical or character description paved the way to introduce or elicit many adjectives or phrases about the characters. In groups, the students prepared a list of adjectives and phrases about the characters and compared their lists with the lists of the other groups. They added different descriptive phrases to their lists. Then the students wrote a descriptive paragraph about both of the characters using their lists. In another class, we did the same thing about the description of the setting, wartime London, which stimulated lively ideas. Afterwards they wrote a descriptive paragraph and exchanged it. Then, each group drew a simplistic map of a certain part of London reading closely the exchanged paragraph. The group which wrote the paragraph gave feedback on to what extent the other group's depiction reflected the details they put in their writing. As they could not come to a consensus, this gave way to hot debates, and the groups which drew the picture needed to convince the other group members to the fact that the picture reflected the relevant details. Here the students also practiced the language of persuasion in their discussion such as:
 That's all very well, but....
 It isn't really what I'm after. My point is ...
 What you say sounds a bit....
 I see your point but....
 I see the point from another angle....
 I would like to draw your attention to the fact that....


1. In a speaking class, as a valuable oral practice for the connectors and discourse markers, the students retold the story as a chain activity in small groups. Each student had a lot of opportunities to practice the relevant connectors or other discourse markers in a meaningful context. (They were given a list of the connectors and discourse markers beforehand.)

2. As the story is filled with supernatural and mysterious elements, there are many ambiguous points, leaving room for inference. Thus, the students were presented with some questions to provoke their inference skills. Here the students had the opportunity to practice the language of inference and some of the questions were as follows:

a. Do you think there is something wrong with Kathleen's expectations from her ex-fiance before he is reported missing?

b. Why can Kathleen not remember her ex-fiance's face?

c. If the door is locked and only the caretaker who was told to forward the letters to their country estate has the key, then how the letter was put onto the table?

d. What created the air turbulence although there was nobody except for Kathleen in the house?

3. In a speaking class, the students prepared an illustration to be put on the cover of the book. They discussed which details to include and what to exclude in their illustration. Again they practiced the language of suggestion.

4. In another speaking class, we wanted our students to go beyond the basic comprehension of the story and attracted their attention to the moral issues raised by the promise of Kathleen to her ex-fiance. This, actually, worked for a fruitful class discussion. To guide the students in the language they used, we asked some questions and highlighted certain points like "Should she have done this or that ... ?" This gave them the opportunity to practice "should have done" structure in their attempts to communicate.


Since they provide an authentic model of language use, literary texts offer various benefits in second/ foreign language teaching programs. However, the selection and adaptation of short stories should be done in accordance with the aim of the course, the profile of the learners and the content of the story in order to make the best of it. Since every teaching situation is unique, the use of one single piece of literature varies from teacher to teacher and from classroom to classroom. In our case, it offered us a wealth of different activities for grammar, writing and speaking classes saving us a lot of time. It helped us to create a meaningful context to teach different language focuses and to improve the students' interpretative strategies. The above tasks only hint at the rich reservoir of activities offered by the same story: the same story may also serve for some other language focuses or skills such as vocabulary development or listening.


Bassnett, S., and Grundy, P. (1993). Language through literature: Creative language teaching through literature. Singapore: Longman.

Bowen, E. (1992). The demon lover. In Peter J.W. Taylor (Ed.), Modern short stories. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Carter, R., and Long, M.N. (1991). Teaching literature. Harlow: Longman.

Collie, J., and Slater, S. (1991). Literature in the language classroom. (5th ed.). Glasgow: Cambridge University Press.

Gajdusek, L. (1988). Toward wider use of literature in ESL: Why and how. TESOL Quarterly, 22, 227-257.

Ghosn, I.K. (2002). Four good reasons to use literature in primary school ELT. ELT Journal, 56, 172-179.

Hirvela, A., and Boyle, J. (1988). Literature courses and student attitudes. ELT Journal, 42, 179184.

Lazar, G. (1994). Using literature at lower levels. ELT Journal, 48, 115-124.

McKay, S. (1982). Literature in the ESL classroom. TESOL Quarterly, 16, 529-536.

Oster, J. (1989). Seeing with different eyes: Another view of literature in the ESL class. TESOL Quarterly, 23, 85-103

Paran, A. (2001). Using literature at lower levels. In S. Phipps and D. Kurtoglu-Eken (Eds), Challenge and Creativity in Teaching Beginners: Proceedings of the 6th International

Bilkent University School of English Language Conference (pp. 168-175). Ankara: Meteksan.

Povey, J.F. (1967). Literature in TESOL programs: The language and the culture. TESOL Quarterly, 1,40-46.

Prodromou, L. (2000). Reason not the need: Shakespeare in ELT. IATEFL Issues, 156. Retrieved September 15, 2006, from: archives/Texts/156Prodmorou.html

Ur, P. (1996). A course in language teaching: Practice and theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Savvidou, C. (2004). An integrated approach to the teaching of literature in the EFL classroom. The Internet TESL Journal, 10 (12) Retrieved September 15, 2006, from

Spack, R. (1985). Literature, reading, writing, and ESL: Bridging the gaps. TESOL Quarterly, 19, 703-725.


[1] The story revolves around a middle-aged woman, Kathleen Drover, who did not need to keep her promise to wait for her fiance. He promised to come to her "sooner or later," and told her to "do nothing but wait." (The narrator deliberately casts supernatural features over this strange man and this prepares the ground for two levels of reading the story: the literal level and the supernatural level.) He was reported missing in the World War I and she married a traditional man in the post war years. During the second Great War, having moved to a country house due to the air raids, Kathleen comes to her shut-up London house to pick up a few necessary items and finds a mysterious letter signed by "K" which reminds her of her promise to wait and meet "him" at the "hour expected." Kathleen, getting panicky and scared, to save herself from a possible danger from her mysterious ex-fiance decides to take a taxi which, ironically, takes her to the unknown deserted street before she tells her destination. Again the mysterious taxi driver whose eyes remind her of the glittering metallic eyes of the ex-fiance contributes to the supernatural level of the story, and its open ending generates further questions in the mind of the reader.

Nurten Birlik, Middle East Technical University, Turkey

Deniz Salli-Copur, Middle East Technical University, Turkey

Birlik, Ph.D., is senior instructor of English Literature, and Salli-Copur, is research assistant of ELT in the Middle East Technical University.
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Author:Salli-Copur, Deniz
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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