Connecting English Learners with Books That Inspire

Here is a thought-provoking piece by Mayra Linares who shares her experience as an English learner feeling disconnected from characters who didn’t look like her or speak her language.

When a teacher handed her a biography on Diego Rivera, she says “it changed [her] relationship with books forever,” prompting her to read because she enjoyed it and not just because it was an assignment.

Linares also cites research showing that reading comprehension is improved when learners connect with their reading (not surprising!). Don’t we all remember and understand material better when we’re connected to it?

Not that learners can’t connect with characters who don’t look like them: Finding common and starkly differing experiences in the lives of literary characters — in both real and imagined worlds — is one of the invaluable gifts of literature and one of the most inspiring reasons to read.

I’ve taught Chinese teenaged students who resonated deeply with Edna Pontellier’s stifling wife-and-mother role in The Awakening. I’ve had students of many backgrounds whose most impactful novel was Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which portrays colonialism in Nigeria in the late 19th century. It’s hard to predict sometimes why students connect with certain pieces and not others, and we certainly shouldn’t stereotype or pigeonhole students into identities we place on them.

The point is that students can more likely find literature that moves them (thus strengthening their reading comprehension and enjoyment of reading) when teachers give them “a large room of literary characters to connect with” (says Candis Grover at ReadyRosie, quoted by Linares). If educators can strive to offer a wide range of texts, authors, characters, contexts, and time periods in the curriculum (and enlarge our own banks of resources and networks so that we can help find connections for particular students) learners are more likely to find affinities in literary characters as well as be captivated by a completely different experiences, feeling the resonance of common humanity.

You’ll find a leaning toward contemporary literature on this site because most school curricula already include a heavy emphasis on “classic” literature. You’ll (hopefully) find a diversity of authors and backgrounds, again, in an attempt to offer as wide a room of literary characters as I can. I always welcome suggestions and enjoy hearing about your successes as a learner or as a teacher, as I’m only one person, and together we can hopefully create a wide network of resources!

  • Below are two more suggestions from author Gary Soto. Stay tuned for lessons on his poems or short stories!
A native of California, Gary Soto was born to Mexican-American parents. Themes of childhood and borders weave throughout his poetry and short stories.
Soto has also written several short story collections, including many for young readers.

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ELLiterature was created to connect students and teachers with quality, original, and accessible texts for English language learners. Visit to see the collection of poems, short stories, and creative writing lessons, and please reach out with any lesson requests, ideas, collaborations, or questions!

3 Short Stories for English Learners

I started ELLiterature in response to a challenge I and other teachers and students had in finding accessible literature for English learners to read.

Maybe you’ve experienced what I’ve experienced. “Classic” literature, written hundreds of years ago, is valuable, but the vocabulary is just not suited for those learning English, at least at first.

And many abridged stories, with their original language stripped down, are just boring.

I’m creating a collection of useable ESL, ELL, TEFL poetry, short stories, and nonfiction. I’ve included free teacher resources and student lessons that take you step-by-step through poems and short stories. Bonus, I’m also adding creative writing activities.

So here are a few recommendations to get you started! There is a free lesson on Sandra Cisneros’s “Hairs” (link below) and many more lessons to come! Also check back for online courses and book club offerings. Happy reading!

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Sandra Cisneros’s rich, poetic collection of very short vignettes is told from the point of view of Esperanza, who is growing up on Mango Street in a neighborhood with much to be desired.

Each story is a page or two long, and the vocabulary is accessible for ELLs and also rich and beautiful. There is so much value per word or page in this collection that English leaners will find much to enjoy and much to discuss. Appropriate for upper middle school through adults.

Read a sample and find a free lesson on “Hairs” here, PLUS a bonus creative writing prompt!

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In “The Pedestrian,” the main character is the last person who walks at night, just for enjoyment, while everyone else sits inside watching “viewing screens” the size of their walls. Like in so many of his stories, Bradbury has a way of seeing what is to come (“The Pedestrian” was published in 1951).

His stories are fitting for ELLs because he poses interesting problems of culture and society with accessible language and vivid characters, images, and plot turns that make great discussion starters as well as points of entry to talk about literary elements.

Check back soon to see a free lesson on “The Pedestrian” (more stories to come)!

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Flash Fiction is just what it sounds like — very short pieces of fiction that tell a story in a “flash.” The length alone makes these stories ideal for ELLs.

While some stories may contain very challenging vocabulary, this collection in particular includes engaging and meaningful stories such as Julia Alvarez’s “Snow,” a relatable piece for anyone who has moved (or dreams of moving) to the US and sees snow for the first time. You’ll find 72 different passages here, most appropriate for adult, university-aged, and even upper high school learners.

Check back soon to see a free lesson on “Snow” from this collection!

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