Short way to build reading skills

Debbie Jacob -
Debbie Jacob -


HERE'S A novel idea for students: read short stories to improve your exam scores. SEA students can find picture books and short chapter books to improve their reading and writing skills while secondary students preparing for CXC exams, CAPE and the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SATs) to get into US universities can benefit from reading short stories.

Reading five short stories offers five times the practice you get in analysing a single novel. You can make a flimsy case for not having enough time to read novels outside of your school work, but you can’t argue not having the time to read short stories. When students tell me they’re too busy to read, I say, “You are on an electronic device checking your messages for more than the half hour a day that it takes to reap the benefits of reading.

Some of my favourite short stories listed below are in the public domain and can be found on the internet to read.

Light is Like Water by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – My all-time favourite short story comes from the book Strange Pilgrims. In this story, two brothers who live in Madrid ask for a rowboat as a prize for doing well in school. The father asks them to wait until they return to Cartagena because Madrid has no navigable water. Finally, the parents give in.

When their parents go the movies one evening, the boys climb inside the rowboat, turn on the lights and flood the city because light is like water. You just turn it on. This story, rich in symbolism, explores imagination, colonialism, education and the genre of magical realism.

The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin – This short story presents invaluable lessons about conflict and characterisation. Mrs Mallard has heart problems so everyone is worried about breaking the news to her that her husband is dead. No one understands her stoicism when she learns the news. Chopin does an admirable job of capturing Mallard’s complex feelings. Be forewarned, there’s a strange twist in the story and a surprising ending.

Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl – I have always found Roald Dahl’s adult stories even better than his children’s stories. They are shocking, humorous and ironic. When a woman learns her husband is leaving her, she kills him in a most unusual way; then covers up the crime. You can’t beat Lamb to the Slaughter for an example of mood and tone.

The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant – Another brilliant example of irony is this story of a poor woman who borrows a pearl necklace from her rich friend to wear to her husband’s Christmas office party. Borrowing the necklace affects the rest of the woman’s life. This is a good example of structure and irony.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter – This short story is often called the best piece of fiction written about the 1918 Spanish flu. Students will be surprised to find how well Pale Horse captures our experiences with the covid19 pandemic. This makes Pale Horse, Pale Rider a perfect comparative exercise in literary analysis.

Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor – Read this short story to understand structure, conflict and crafting a perfect ending. In this story, a prejudiced white woman gets on a bus with her son. When he begins to make fun of her ostentatious hat, she warns him that he will be sorry some day for his constant badgering.

O’Connor presents a masterful lesson about bullying and prejudice. Readers can trace the image of the hat through the story to visualise the theme.

A Small, Good Thing by Raymond Carver – Any Carver story makes a good contrast with O’Connor’s stories. Both writers feature flawed characters, heart-wrenching conflicts and rich dialogue.

In this story, parents order a birthday cake for their son. The story takes some strange turns when something unexpected happens and the baker calls them to pick up the cake. Here is an opportunity to visualise internal and external conflict.

Samsa in Love by Haruki Murakami – This quirky, Japanese surrealist writer provides the perfect comparative analysis with Franz Kafka’s novella Metamorphosis, about a man who wakes up as a giant cockroach.

Try reading one short story a week. Take your time to analyse it. Noting the structure will help to develop your writing skills. Practise identifying literary elements: characterisation, plot, dialogue, conflict, setting, tone and mood. Reap the benefits of reading.


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