We begin walking with a few steps, not a mountain climb. So, it seems logical that teachers of reading should start with shorter texts before longer texts, right? Perhaps. Small children start with picture books, move to short chapter books, and eventually read longer books without illustrations. Length is certainly an important factor in this progression. However, I want to issue a caution about the “short story” as a literary form. I just don’t believe it fits in to that progression as simply as we might expect or hope. For teachers looking to build students’ confidence and love of reading, especially in the case of reluctant and struggling readers, short stories may not be a great place to start.
Before I explain why, I want to acknowledge some of the reasons I see English Language Arts teachers relying heavily on short stories.
1) The short story is convenient. Students can read it quickly; teachers can read it aloud and finish in a reasonable amount of time—and it’s just so easy (and cost-effective) to photocopy for a whole class!
2) The short story seems to offer a lot of “bang for the buck.” There’s so much that can be done in the classroom with a well-written, creative short story. They seem to be almost made for us to dissect and interpret... salivating material for English teachers. I get it. But this very strength of short stories also brings me to the caution I want to articulate.
Contrary to what its length suggests, the way that meaning is communicated in a short story is generally MORE complex and abstract than in other narrative forms, including the much longer novel. In order to grasp the meaning of most short stories, we must analyze and dissect them. Short stories offer a truncated story experience, not a complete one.They tend to be very limited in character development, and plot lines are symbolic, not literal, and/or they are self-conscious twists on traditional plot lines, playing with the reader’s expectations.
When we read short stories, we complete the experience through our analysis. For more mature readers, who have plenty of experience with more traditionally structured stories, this can be a fascinating and enjoyable challenge. But for readers who struggle to “get into a story” through reading, it can be an uncomfortable, confusing jump.
The first stages in becoming a reader, alongside breaking the code to be able to decipher words on a page, are (1) following basic—even predictable—plot lines, and (2) identifying with characters. These two elements work together to compel beginning readers.
When we identify with a character, we experience their story as an extension of our own life experience. (Neuroscientists have found that these virtual experiences are stored in our brains in the same way that real life memories are!) This is one of the huge draws for young people to read and hear stories. Take that away, and you immediately alienate some readers who need to spend time identifying with characters in order to feel reading is a rewarding activity.
Experience with traditional plot lines is also an essential building block to our understanding of “how stories go"—a form of background knowledge that readers can bring to literary texts. The more we know classic storylines, the more easily we can process new stories we encounter. Many short stories are experimental or abstract at the level of plot, so plenty of prior experience with variations on basic plot structures helps readers make sense of the condensed, thought-provoking methods through which writers of short stories often weave their commentaries. Without this background, struggling readers may feel lost and frustrated with a story that doesn’t, on the face of it, offer a fulfilling storyline.
Most novels, on the other hand, offer opportunities to identify with characters and follow along with a literal plot line, AS WELL AS analyze the author’s unique craft choices, use of symbolism, and conscious twists on our expectations. Less mature readers get a lot from the surface elements of the story, and can gradually dip further into the layers of the work as they gain experience and confidence. Short stories, though short, often don’t offer much for inexperienced readers to access on their own; teachers can easily compensate by over-teaching the story, and setting students up to depend on them for interpretation.
With supports, of course, all students can appreciate a great short story—and learn how to approach them independently as well. My point is NOT to reserve short stories for only advanced readers. I do want teachers to think carefully about where in the curriculum and for what purpose they introduce short stories to students. If the rationale is that their short length will make them more accessible to a range of readers and thereby build reading engagement and confidence, in most cases, I think that’s an illusion.
Curious to hear what others think. I imagine this will be an unpopular argument...
The opinions expressed in Teaching for the Whole Story are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.