At the recent TESOL International convention in Toronto, I was privileged to attend an outstanding workshop entitled “10 Tips for Teaching Short Stories” by Sybil Marcus, an inspiring teacher from the University of California, Berkeley. Presenting excerpts from two short stories, she showed us how she uses stories to teach critical thinking skills, style, grammar, and vocabulary, and to lay the groundwork for classroom debates and writing assignments. Sybil’s approach to teaching ESL skills through short stories sounded so compelling to me that I dashed back to my own classroom as soon as the conference was over to try it out.
One of the short stories she showcased in her workshop was Daniel Lyons’ “The Birthday Cake” (.doc). The story features two immigrants—an old, embittered woman from Italy and a young single mother from the Caribbean—who find themselves locked in an unexpected conflict. The story subtly raises challenging issues of attitudes toward immigrants, single parenthood, aging, isolation, and death.
The story was an immediate hit with my high-intermediate, low-advanced students. When we discussed an issue central to the story—whether the old woman was justified in her contemptuous response to the young woman’s plea for a special favor—my students were as bitterly divided as the two protagonists themselves. Even students who were normally shy and reluctant to speak in front of the whole class launched into a passionate debate over the merits of the old woman’s behavior. And what was particularly fascinating was the discovery that the battle lines among my students were drawn in unpredictable ways—students whom I would have expected to sympathize with the plight of the young mother were surprisingly hostile to her.
One bonus of this particular short story is that it is written almost entirely in dialogue, as if it were the script for a short play for three characters (the two women, and a man who finds himself entangled in their conflict). So, naturally, I put my students into small groups of three and asked them to practice acting out the dialogue. After giving them the opportunity to practice their lines with three different sets of partners, I asked for volunteers to act out the story in front of the whole class. It was one of the highlights of the semester, as some of my shyest students threw themselves into their roles, displaying acting skills and abilities no one would have suspected, while some of the more outspoken students were able to “ad lib” additional theatrical lines for their character.
There are, of course, many ways to use this and other short stories to reinforce and extend students’ grammar skills. With “The Birthday Cake,” I had my students embark on an “infinitive safari,” hunting for as many infinitives as they could find in the text and then working with a partner to try to categorize their use (were the infinitives used after certain verbs? After certain adjectives? Or to express a reason or purpose?)
“The Birthday Cake” is one of 16 short stories featured in Sybil’s engaging and imaginative textbook, A World of Fiction 1 for high-intermediate and low-advanced students. (She also has a second text, A World of Fiction 2 for advanced students.) For students unable or unwilling to tackle an entire novel or lengthy work of nonfiction, short stories (and short plays) offer many of the same opportunities to practice their grammar, pronunciation, and speaking skills, and expand their vocabulary and critical thinking skills. Sybil—in person and in her textbooks—offers a fascinating map to help guide other instructors and their students along this path.
Do you have a favorite short story that you like to use with your intermediate or advanced students?
Lyons, D. (1995). The birthday cake. In The Last Good Man (pp. 105–108). Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.