The School (Short Story): Comprehension, Discussion & Vocabulary Questions (ESL)

ESL Level: Upper-Intermediate and above

Skill Focus: Reading comprehension, vocabulary, speaking via discussion

Material Downloadthe-school-reading-lesson-13052016.docx

Foreword: The School is a short story written by Donald Barthelme. It is 1200 words in length (2.5 pages) and great for reading homework. I cannot reproduce it here due to copyright, but it can be freely viewed in its entirely on the NPR site.

Note: if you use the vocabulary questions below, you might want to highlight the words in the article (by underlining them) to make it easier for students to find them.

The School Worksheet Preview

The School Comprehension / Discussion Questions

  • How would you describe the narrator’s voice (writing style) in the story? What effect does it have?
  • Is the story funny?
  • Why did the students want the teacher to make love to his assistant?
  • Why did the children cheer at the end?
  • What does the author want to express in this story?
  • Discuss your opinion of the two ideas:
    • Death is that which gives life meaning to life
    • Life is that which gives meaning to life
  • How should we teach our children about death?
  • Do you think people are scared to think about death? If so, why?
1.     A picket line

2.     Conscientious

3.     Sabotage

4.     (something) crosses your mind

5.     ambiguity

6.     to have the heart (to do something)

7.     tragedy

8.     mundanity

9.     to make love

a.     Uncertainty

b.     To have sex (romantically)

c.     Boredom, dullness

d.     Careful; wishing to do what is right

e.     The deliberate destruction of property, especially for political or military advantage

f.      A line of people who are on strike

g.     When something enters your thoughts

h.     To be emotionally strong enough to do something

i.      A sad event hat causes great suffering

Paragraph 10 — the narrator describes his students’ complaint as `sound’. What does this word mean in this context?

Word Families — Complete the Chart


Speaking Extension Activity: The Bucket List

This story lends itself to a discussion of life goals, regrets, and the idea of a bucket list. There’s a great lesson plan on Lessonstream by Jamie Keddie on this topic.

In my class, I elicited the idiom ‘kick the bucket’ from my students and then we began to discuss the concept of a bucket list. Next we watched the trailer for the movie (2007) the Bucket List.

Afterwards, I gave students 10 minutes to compile their own bucket list. Finally, I had them create an interview worksheet (a grid with a square for each student) and walk around the class to interview their classmates about one idea on their bucket list. It created a good discussion. Also, ESL aside, evaluating where we are in life and thinking about our goals is a valuable thing to do for any human being.

There are plenty of ideas out there. This lesson would go well with a grammar lesson on the present perfect (“Have you ever been on TV?”) or wish (“I wish I hadn’t worked so much”) and the third conditional as well.

Good luck in your classes.

– Matthew Barton / Creator of

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2 comments on “The School (Short Story): Comprehension, Discussion & Vocabulary Questions (ESL)

  1. SF (Posted on 4-7-2021 at 06:58) Reply

    NPR link is not working.

    1. mb Post author (Posted on 4-7-2021 at 08:42) Reply

      I have updated it.

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