When I was in school, kids would slip comics inside their textbooks to read on the sly. Comics were considered ‘recreational reading’ at best, but usually adults saw them as mind-numbing tripe. You certainly would never have seen one used in reading instruction. Times have changed, and as comics and graphic novels become more accepted as a legitimate form of art and literature, they are making their way into classrooms. Many parents and teachers, however, still remember the stigma that comics had when they were young and are asking “Why should kids read comics?”
The biggest reason that kids should read comics and graphic novels is because they want to. Many young readers, when confronted with solid pages of text, become intimidated and overwhelmed and just give up. Give the same reluctant reader a thick, juicy graphic novel like Bone or Castle Waiting and they dive in eagerly, devouring every page. With many struggling readers motivation is the key, and comics are motivating.
There is emerging research that shows that comics and graphic novels are not only motivating, but support struggling readers, enrich the skills of accomplished readers, and are highly effective at teaching sometimes ‘boring’ material in subject areas such as science and social studies. The following excerpts from the excellent Scholastic Graphix Teaching with Graphix sum things up well.
“Graphic novels can … help improve reading development for students struggling with language acquisition, as the illustrations provide contextual clues to the meaning of the written narrative.”
“They require readers to be actively engaged in the process of decoding and comprehending a range of literary devices, including narrative structures, metaphor and symbolism, point of view, and the use of puns and alliteration, intertextuality, and inference.”
“Reading graphic novels can help students develop the critical skills necessary to read more challenging works, including the classics.”
Emergent and Beginning Readers
Young children are just beginning to learn that concrete objects can be represented in different ways. For example, a dog is a furry animal that wags its tail and barks. It can be represented by a photograph of a dog, a stylized or ‘cartoon’ illustration of a dog, or letters forming the word ‘dog’. Most children begin to make this transition from concrete to abstract through picture books, with a single illustration on each page. Sequential art (wordless comics) can take learning to the next level, asking kids to follow a sequence of illustrations that form a story.
A book like Owly provides an opportunity for young children to ‘read’ the pictures in order and follow the story. They love to verbalize the story, which reinforces the concept that ink on a page can be translated into ideas and words. In addition, the characters communicate using symbols, providing another opportunity for children to make the connection between abstract images and language.
Before a child is ready to read text, sequential art can give them practice in making meaning from material printed on a page, tracking left to right and top to bottom, interpreting symbols, and following the sequence of events in a story. Sequential art provides plenty of opportunity for connecting the story to children’s own experiences, predicting what will happen, inferring what happens between panels, and summarizing, just as you would do with a text story. The advantage to sequential art is that children don’t need to be able to decode text to learn and practice comprehension skills.
Once a child begins to decode text, the comic format enables them to read much more complex stories than is possible with traditional text and illustration. Imagine what this page would look like as text:
It would take many pages of text to convey all the information in the last panel alone! With comics and graphic novels, beginning readers can enjoy more emotion, action, and detail than in a typical ‘See Jane run’ story. When kids read enjoyable, complex, compelling stories they are motivated to read more, so graphic novels can be a great stepping stone to longer text works. This is also an advantage when encouraging struggling or reluctant readers or English learners – they can enjoy great stories and practice high-level reading comprehension skills even at a lower text reading level.
Since my teaching background and area of expertise is early childhood and primary education, I’ll point you in the direction of experts in using comics and graphic novels with proficient readers:
Librarian Allyson A. W. Lyga’s comprehensive article on graphic novels includes specific ideas for using them with students and an excellent list of titles. Additionally, Gretchen E. Schwarz’s excellent article on graphic novels across the curriculum touches on using graphic novels in subject areas such as history, civics, maths, and multicultural studies.