THE QUESTIONABLE SUBSTITUTE - a vocabulary development story for struggling readers

Classrooms are built to be places of learning, but no learning was taking place in room 303 at Central High School. That was Mr. Cleary’s classroom, but the popular English teacher was nowhere in sight. Three weeks earlier he had been forced into the hospital by a compelling pain in his stomach that turned out to be a bad case of appendicitis. A string of substitutes had done their best to teach the students; but, lacking the entertaining qualities of Mr. Cleary, they quickly lost the class’s attention. Given the context of the situation, even the most diligent students had soon turned into menacing mavericks. Mr. Radcliff, the vice-principal, had been called to the classroom several times to restore order, but chaos would proliferate as soon as he returned to the main office.

News of the students’ crazy antics spread throughout the school district until the consensus among the substitute teachers was to avoid Mr. Cleary’s classroom altogether. With no one willing to step into room 303, the vice principal felt compelled to teach the class himself.  Fortunately he was spared this difficulty when one intrepid retired teacher volunteered her services.

Mr. Radcliff studied her carefully as she stood in his office. Her back was curved from osteoporosis and a cloudy film coated her eyeballs, evidently the beginning traces of a cataract. “Are you sure you want to do this Mrs. Haskill?” questioned Mr. Radcliff.

“Oh yes, Mr. Radcliff! Don’t worry about me. I’ve taught for sixty years and I’ve become assimilated to the ways of teenagers.”

Mr. Radcliff raised his eyebrow in doubt, and then laughed. “Very well Mrs. Haskill. They’re all yours. Room 303 is the last room on the right. Good luck!” As the vice principal watched her hobble down the hallway, he questioned whether or not she still had the vitality to survive a classroom full of teenagers.

What Mr. Radcliff did not know was that Mrs. Haskill was a very obstinate old lady who refused to give in to the ill effects of old age. She took the advice of the famous poet Dylan Thomas who refused to go gently into the night. After what seemed to be an eternity, she reached her classroom with only seconds to spare before the late bell rang. She opened the door and walked in with the students stepping in line behind her and taking their seats.

There was silence in the room as the students stared in disbelief at the frail figure standing before them. Mrs. Haskill’s ghostly eyes passed over each of them and finally settled upon the title of a book at the back of the room. Suddenly her face beamed with excitement as the students looked on with curiosity. “Oh! You’ve been reading The Great Gatsby! That’s a phat book! Gangsters and all!”

A gruff voice traveled from the back of the room. “You read it?”

“Read it? Why honey, I LIVED it!” With that Mrs. Haskill came to life, telling the students about the hurried life of the Roaring Twenties. “They called it The Lawless Decade,” Mrs. Haskill announced. Miraculously, learning had been restored to room 303 as the “experienced” teacher told the students stories of flappers, speakeasies, prohibition, the Harlem Renaissance, and so much more!

The audio-enhanced version 
of this story and 
supplemental materials 
may be purchased online. 

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Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth -


Reading teachers are familiar with "high interest low level" stories designed for use with middle school and high school students who are struggling readers. The Questionable Substitute belongs to a new genre of short stories known as "short stories with big words." Stories within this genre are flash fiction composed of approximately 1000 words. Students with attention deficit  disorder should have no trouble reading these stories as they can often be read within ten minutes. Despite the short length, these stories are beneficial for building vocabulary because they contain a high concentration of advanced vocabulary words. When used with the supplemental materials, students should be able to build their vocabulary quickly, which in turn will help improve their reading comprehension. Additionally, the downloadable version of the story, which is available on the website, included embedded audio so that a student with dyslexia may hear the story read aloud. The free version of Adobe Acrobat reader is all that is needed to use the downloadable stories, which a affordably priced. Check them out!