Teaching short stories in the EFL-Classroom

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

15 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. The Short Story: Characteristics and Definition

3. The Importance of the Short Story for Teaching Literature today
3.1 Guidelines and Curricula for North Rhine-Westphalia
3.2 Reasons for Using Short Stories in the EFL-Classroom

4. Isaac Asimov’s The Machine that Won the War - an Example of a Short Story in English Language Teaching
4.1 Topic Analysis
4.2 Didactic Objectives
4.3 Language
4.4 Methods: Pre-reading, while-reading and post-reading activities

5. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

The short story has its origins in traditional oral storytelling. Many of the world’s greatest literary classics such as El Cid, La Chanson de Roland, Beowulf or the Odyssey were originally transmitted orally. In most cases, the story undergoes many modifications in the course of the telling processes; still, they are today’s primary testimonies for language, history, culture and people of the past. They were told in verse and therefore served as a mnemonic device for easier recall[1]. In Europe, the short story began to evolve from oral storytelling in the early 14th century with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Boccacio’s Decamerone, books consisting of individual short stories within a larger frame story. Only in the 19th century, modern short stories began to be considered a proper genre. Print magazines represented a strong market for short fiction; theories related to this new genre began to surge, as for example, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Philosophy of Composition. Nowadays, the number of commercial magazines publishing short stories has decreased but they appear to have found their place in online publications.

Today, reading has become a minor activity in people’s lives in a world of globalisation, technological progress and a fast-growing media industry. In schools, pupil’s interest is increasingly difficult to stimulate[2], especially as far as literature in the English Second Language classroom is concerned. Students are used to fast information input without necessarily having to become active themselves, they lose concentration easily when the learning process takes too long, or they lose patience when they do not understand everything right away. The use of short stories in the English Foreign Language classroom is one possibility to respond to this problem teachers of foreign languages have to face.

Therefore, this paper is going to define the genre of the short story as such in order to create a basis for the following presentation of the benefits of short stories for the North Rhine-Westphalian English Language Classroom. In the next step, the curricula and guidelines will be taken into consideration in order to develop some ideas on how to implement The Machine that Won the War by Isaac Asimov in class. These ideas will be integrated into a lesson plan with several activities around the story.

There are several theoretical works dealing with the lecture of short stories, starting with Poe’s work mentioned above, Allen Walter’s The Short Story in English, Charles E. May’s The Short Story – The Reality Artifice or Frank Myszor’s The Modern Short Story. Some articles have been written e.g., by Rüdiger Ahrens Die bisherige Rolle der Short Story im Englischunterricht der Sekundarstufe II, dealing with the use of short stories as a way of teaching literature. Most has certainly been written about didactics of English in German classrooms such as Wolfgang Gehring’s Englische Fachdidaktik Eine Einführung, Englisch lernen und lehren, Didaktik des Englischunterrichts by Johannes P. Timm, or Egon Werlich’s Praktische Methodik des Fremsprachenunterrichts mit authentischen Texten.

2. The Short Story: Characteristics and Definition

Poe’s and Washington Irving’s works as practitioners had introduced the short story to North America, however, this new genre remained relatively undetermined until the 20th century. 1842 is said to be the “seminal year in the history of modern short stories”[3] when Edgar Allan Poe makes a definitive statement about the nature of short stories in his review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales, requiring the short story to create a so-called single impression. A later theoretical approach by Brander Matthews (Philosophy of the Short-story[4]) comparing the short story to a novel extends this characteristic given by Poe: “The Short-story is the single effect, complete and self-contained while the novel is of necessity broken into a series of episodes.”[5] The short story is part of the genre of narrative prose, and is related to the genre of the novel. It is said that one of its characteristics as compared to the novel is its shortness; this fact often leads to conclusions about its qualitative value to be observed in its plot, the choice of protagonists, or the conceptions of the characters in the strong functionality of the different parts of the story.[6]

Washington Irving summarizes the short story’s essence with the following words:

the play of thought, and sentiment, and language; the weaving of characters, lightly, yet expressively delineated; the familiar and faithful exhibition of scenes in common life […] and there is a constant activity of thought and a nicety of execution required in writings of the kind, more than the world appears to imagine […] but in these short writings, every page must have its merit. The author must be continually piquant; woe to him if he makes an awkward sentence or writes a stupid page.[7]

This genre must therefore be considered a complex construct by a writer who has carefully chosen every word.

In 1958, Norman Friedman poses the essential question “What makes a short story short?” – and again it is its shortness that attracts the reader’s attention but Poe had already stated before that the short story was written to be read in one single sitting[8]. Franz H. Link and Klaus Doderer agree on the aspect that a short story reflects a decisive situation in a protagonist’s life which has to be analyzed by means of a psychological perspective.[9] Link adds that its endless structural possibilities make a typological determination of this genre difficult or even impossible[10].

In the 1960s, the definition of the short story undergoes a change as can be seen when Emil Staiger states that a short story is more than a genre; it has become an attitude, a way of thinking and of life, which expresses people’s experience of the 20th century[11]. The limitation to a single ‘slice of life’ which has often been considered the vital characteristic of the short story, presents man as a human being, showing him his very own humanity and, therefore, separating him from any temporal bondage.

In order to give a concise frame to the subject matter, the definition the Glossary of Literary Terms proposes is useful to comply with our needs:

A short story is a brief work of prose fiction, and most of the terms for analysing the component elements, the types, and the narrative techniques of the novel are applicable to the short story as well.

[…] like the novel, it organizes the action, though, and dialogue of its characters into the artful pattern of a plot, directed toward particular effects on an audience. And as in the novel, the plot from maybe comic, tragic, romantic, or satiric; the story is presented to us from one of many available points of view;[12]

The short story thus appears to be a precious piece of fiction that contains all elements of literary theory a student needs to be familiar with when leaving school.

3. The Importance of the Short Story for Teaching Literature today

3.1 Guidelines and Curricula for North Rhine-Westphalia

The appropriateness of a certain[13] short story for a particular grade always depends on its level of difficulty. The official curricula of North-Rhine Westphalia determined by the Kultusministerkonferenz require that at the end of grade ten (Sekundarstufe I) students have attained a communicative competence allowing them to extract statements from oral and written texts that are age-appropriate and problem-oriented, and which deal with issues of complex social contexts. They are supposed to have achieved the ability to take part actively in different everday-life-conversations and to interact with native speakers of English and also with lingua-franca speakers, without previous preparation. They should be able to make descriptions, reports, to tell stories, make summaries and evaluations (orally and in writing), as well as to rely on information deduced from texts or from their background knowledge, and produce simple interpretations on their own. As to intercultural competence, the students are expected to have a basic background knowledge about anglophone countries’ ways of life and to deduce values, attitudes from observations made. As refers to content, the focus of the norms of the Kultusministerkonferenz for Sekundarstufe I lies mainly on job-related issues but the use and risks of information technology have to be introduced as well.

In Sekundarstufe II, which corresponds to grade 11 through 13, the importance of academic work is stressed as a preparation for a future professional life or for the university. The guidelines consider communicative competence and independence as to academic work and life experience as major skills to be achieved. Topics dealt with in grades eight to ten can be worked on with a different focus[14].


[1] Hans-Christoph Graf v. Nayhauss, ed. Theorie der Kurzgeschichte (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2004).

[2] R. Wagner, „Offensive Langfristige Elternarbeit: Lern- und Leistungsmotivation.“Konzepte für Elternabende, Regierung Unterfranken, Apr. 2004, 9 Nov. 2007 <http://www.regierung.unterfranken.bayern.de/imperia/md/content/regufr/schuleundbildung/ 149.pdf>.

[3] Frank Myszor, The Modern Short Story (Cambridge: University Press, 2001).

[4] Different spellings of the term ‘short story’ are used by different authors. Matthews uses ‘Short-story’ but in the course of this paper the spelling ‘short story’ will be used.

[5] Brander Matthews, „The Philosophy of the Short-Story“, What is the Short Story? (Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1961), 36f.

[6] Alfred Weber, Walter F. Greiner, Short-Story-Theorien (Kronberg: Athenäum, 1977).

[7] Washington Irving, “On Style and Purpose in the Short Story,“What is the Short Story? (Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1961), 2f.

[8] Edgar Allan Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition,” Graham's Magazine April 1846: 163-167.

[9] Peter Freese, Horst Groene and Liesel Hermes, eds. Die Short Story im Englischunterricht der Sekundarstufe II (Paderborn: Schoeningh, 1980), 43.

[10] Franz H. Link, “‚Tale’, ‚Sketch’, ‚Essay’ und ‚Short Story’,“Die neueren Sprachen 6, 1957: 345.

[11] Ruth J. Kilchenmann, Die Kurzgeschichte: Formen und Entwicklung (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1967), 264ff.

[12] Meyer H. Abraham , A Glossary of Literary Terms (Fort Worth: Harcourt, 1993), 295ff.

[13] Ministerium für Schule, Jugend und Kinder des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen, Kernlehrplan für das Gymnasium – Sekundarstufe I in Nordrhein-Westfalen (Ritterbach: Frechen, 2004).

[14] Ministerium für Schule, Jugend und Kinder des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen, Kernlehrplan für das Gymnasium – Sekundarstufe I in Nordrhein-Westfalen (Ritterbach: Frechen, 2004), 35ff.

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Teaching short stories in the EFL-Classroom
University of Münster
Teaching Short Stories in the EFL-Classroom
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Berenice Walther (Author), 2007, Teaching short stories in the EFL-Classroom, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/85671


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