Fast Fiction: Teaching Reading and Critical Thinking

2014_Sybil_Marcus  Sybil Marcus

In ESL we’re constantly looking for new ways to surprise and engage our students while teaching core language skills. My focus has always been literature—I’ve found it to be the perfect vehicle for combining all the core language skills of reading, speaking, writing, grammar, and vocabulary with lots of critical thinking and the chance to expand cultural awareness.

However, I know that sometimes language students (and teachers) may question the value of studying fiction, or they may feel intimidated by the demands. That’s why at the start of a new class, one of my favorite exercises is to warm up my high-intermediate or advanced students by giving them just the first part of an authentic short story and letting them dig into it as deeply as possible.

In this exercise, I’ll have my students read the beginning of the story in class. Then I’ll follow up with questions that guide their analysis of the text. The idea is to help them see just how many inferences they can make by carefully reading between the lines.

By giving students an excerpt to begin with, you’ll introduce literature in an accessible way. As an added benefit, starting with an excerpt is guaranteed to pique students’ curiosity. As Charles Dickens masterfully understood, a well-plotted story given out in serial doses leaves readers impatient to know what happens next!

The payoff comes at the end of the course when students tell me how much they appreciate the broad range of language and critical thinking skills they’ve gained by reading and analyzing a variety of short stories—skills that they can and do transfer to their specific academic disciplines.

A perfect story for this exercise is “Damn Irene” by the contemporary American author Susan O’Neill. Here’s how the story begins:

Harry dipped his paddle blade, the handle at chest level as Toni the Leader had taught them. Just beyond the three kayaks crouched a damp roll of fog; if he reached out, he could’ve grabbed a handful.

“We’ll make for Burnt Island,” Toni called. “It’s getting murky—stick together, we won’t get lost.”

“Okay,” Harry shouted. In the rear seat, Irene said nothing. He glanced back; she paddled clumsily, her face expressionless above her life vest. A wave tossed up spray. He shivered. Cold; he’d hate to have to swim in this bay.

“Left,” Toni called. “Follow me.”

Harry leaned into the paddle, dipping, dipping, but the kayak did not turn. Fog tickled his arm. “Left, Irene,” he ordered. “Push the left pedal.”

Behind him, her meek voice: “I can’t, Honey. It’s stuck. The rudder won’t go left.”

“You’re not trying,” he said through clenched teeth. Damn Irene. She never tried. She’d seemed so eager to please last year when they were dating. Then he’d married her. What a mistake.

I’ll usually suggest that students read the opening twice, as otherwise, it’s easy to miss important parts of a layered text with just one reading. Then I’ll test their reading comprehension with questions like these:

  • How many kayaks are there? Do we know who is in each kayak?
  • Why does Toni decide to row to Burnt Island?
  • Do Harry and Irene react to the outing in the same way? Explain your answer.
  • What do you learn about the relationship between Harry and Irene? Give as many factual and inferential details as possible to support your answer.
  • Through whose eyes is the story told? Explain your answer.
  • Pick out the descriptive language in the text. How does it contribute to the atmosphere? Give details to explain your answer.
  • What does the title of the story suggest to you?
  • What do you predict may happen in the story? Why?

Often I’ll ask students to write down their answers before discussing them in groups or as a class. Then I’ll give the rest of the story for homework so they can determine the accuracy of their predictions.

When I piloted “Damn Irene” in a class at U.C. Berkeley, the best part came the day the students discussed the ending of the story. There were almost as many interpretations as students, resulting in much animated discussion as students defended their answers. Indeed, the best stories are often ones where multiple interpretations are possible.

That said, not every answer will hold up to scrutiny, so it’s important to make sure that students substantiate their reasoning with reference to the text. By studying literature in this way, students practice structuring convincing written and oral arguments—a crucial skill set not just for literature but for any academic context.

For those of you who are curious to see how “Damn Irene” unfolds, you can find the entire story in A World of Fiction 1, by Sybil Marcus and Daniel Berman, along with questions that guide students through the plot, themes, style, language, and vocabulary of the text. The book also includes topics for debate, prompts that encourage students to evaluate the stories through their own personal and cultural lenses, and writing assignments inspired by the texts.

If you try out this excerpt in class (with “Damn Irene” or another story), please let me know how it goes! I’m always eager for teacher feedback at

Sybil Marcus has lived and worked on four continents.  She taught ESL at the University of California at Berkeley Extension and at the Summer English Language Studies on the Berkeley campus for over thirty years.  She has presented at conferences in Canada, the United States, Peru, Colombia, Russia, and Mexico. For 15 years, she ran a PCI workshop for TESOL on integrating literature into language studies. She has also run workshops internationally for the U.S. State Department on Using Literature for Critical Thinking and Using Literature for Conflict Resolution. She is a co-author with Daniel Berman of the A World of Fiction series, which uses literature to teach integrated language and critical thinking skills to ESL/EFL students at the high-intermediate to advanced levels.