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Home  >  Teaching and Learning  >  Reading Workbooks  >  Multiple Skill Levels
How to Read a Short Story
By Becky Patterson

Before Reading a Story: Previewing

Look through the story for three minutes or less. This is called previewing and is a reading technique to help you read faster and understand more. Set a timer so you don't spend more than three minutes; you are not supposed to "read" the story during this preview time.

Becky Patterson

Previewing is helpful with both on-line and printed texts because it quickly gives you a sense of the content. In this case, the award-winning student story is worth reading, but you need to preview to figure out what the story is about.

During the preview, figure out who the characters are and anything else that is going on. Carefully look at the beginning and end of the story, as these are important parts in short stories.

For example, this is how the preview process would work for the short story " Dust Mites " by Stacy Lynn Smith. After your preview, answer the following questions:

  • What are dust mites? (Tip: Jot down any references to "dust mites" in the story since this is the title and will have some significance.)
  • What could dust mites in your home represent?
  • What do you think a story about dust mites could cover?

The first line, "My mother thinks she will retire gracefully," gives us much information about the story.

  • What do you think of retirement?
  • What do you infer about the mother-daughter relationship from this line?
  • Why does the word "thinks" create doubt about the mother's ability to retire gracefully?

During Reading

As you read, ask yourself what conflicts are important in this story. Usually a story is more than just a listing of events. Instead, the reader's interest in the story is kept because of a problem or conflict that arises. Conflicts can be external (between individuals or something that is happening outside) or internal (in one character's mind). For example, if you are caught in a storm, you have an external conflict. If you have an argument with your best friend, you have an external conflict. External conflicts move the story from beginning to end. The internal conflict is a bit more complicated. It is put into motion by the external conflict. It is, in general, what the character realizes or learns about herself or her situation (as opposed to what is happening around her).

On a piece of paper, write the headings External Conflicts and Internal Conflicts. As you read, make a list of conflicts in this story and decide whether they are external (between people) or internal (one person's mind).

If there is something in the story which makes you react emotionally, summarize it briefly on your paper. This could be anything from loving the way the author uses words, to having a strong feeling during one section of the story. Don't expect to just remember these reactions. They need to be jotted down.

Remembering the Story

In order to remember stories or books you read you need to take steps to put them into your memory.

One way to improve memory is to organize information so it makes sense to you. You remember telephone numbers by saying the first three numbers as one group, and the last four as another group. Remembering seven separate numbers would be a much harder memory task.

A second memory strategy could be visualizing the story. If this story was a movie, imagine who would play the characters. Picture what the rooms look like and what the characters look like. Imagine smells, sounds, and sights. Find out about the characters by listening to what they say and paying attention to how they act.

The final memory strategy for this story is to talk about it out loud. That is why we remember a story we have discussed in class or with a friend. Have a study buddy who reads the story and discusses it with you. Even a short discussion will help you remember it.

For "Dust Mites," follow this organizational pattern by completing the following sentences:

This story is about _______________________________________.

At first, the mother _______________________________________.

Then the daughter _______________________________________.

At the end of the story the daughter realizes ____________________.

I especially liked/disliked __________________________________.

About the Author: Becky Patterson is a reading specialist and has written extensively about reading strategies. She is a UAA Professor of English Emeritus.

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