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 Jeff Smith's Bone or Raina Telgemeier's Smile 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 Guide 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 Andy Runton's 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 from Aaron Renier's Spiralbound would look like as text:
It would take 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.
Learning Through Comics
In addition to the power of comics to teach and extend literacy skills, the comic format is also a powerful tool for teaching content! The Three E's of Comics, first noted by Josh Elder, founder of Reading With Pictures, categorize the strengths of comics as learning tools into Engagement, Efficiency, and Effectiveness.
Comics require readers to actively engage in making meaning from text and images. Neither the images nor the text carry meaning alone; the reader must interpret the interplay between them to understand the story. Author Sherman Alexie describes his experience learning to read by using the interdependence of text and images in comics:
At the same time I was seeing the world in paragraphs, I also picked up that Superman comic book. Each panel, complete with picture, dialogue and narrative was a three-dimensional paragraph. In one panel, Superman breaks through a door. His suit is red, blue and yellow. The brown door shatters into many pieces. I look at the narrative above the picture. I cannot read the words, but I assume it tells me that "Superman is breaking down the door." Aloud, I pretend to read the words and say, "Superman is breaking down the door." Words, dialogue, also float out of Superman's mouth. Because he is breaking down the door, I assume he says, "I am breaking down the door." Once again, I pretend to read the words and say aloud, "I am breaking down the door" In this way, I learned to read.
--Sherman Alexie, Superman and Me, Los Angeles Times
The dual-coded nature of comics also creates depth and complexity that isn't possible in text alone. In this page from Rapunzel's Revenge by Shannon and Dean Hale and Nathan Hale, placement in time and parallel story structure are shown through the style and positioning of the panels and images. How does the artist make clear which scenes took place in the past? Not only does he show Rapunzel clearly at a younger age, but also uses desaturated colors and line work to give the images a fuzzy, memory-like quality. These panels are used not only to show Rapunzel's returning memories, but also to explicitly draw parallels between the past and the present; the mirroring of the characters' positions in the panels shows that they have been through this experience before. Hale even goes so far as to tie the matching panels together in a common background panel. Note also the parallel of the mother dropping her bucket of water when she realizes that this is her long-lost daughter, and Rapunzel dropping her pink party hat (which she had been using as a cup for water) when she begins to remember her mother.
The comic format conveys a great deal of information in a short time, while allowing the reader to control the pace of reading and rereading.
The comics format is highly efficient at conveying large amounts of information in a short amount of time. They work so well, in fact, that it's a standard means of communicating lifesaving information.
And images in sequence have been used for ages to communicate stories and information efficiently without text.
While readers can gain a great deal of information quickly through the visual nature of comics, they are also able to control the pace of their learning. Jonathan Hennessey, author of The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation, and The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation, explains:
I think the interplay of words and pictures has a way of engaging many aspects of the human mind at once, and can create a powerful experience of interacting with emotions and ideas. Unlike movies, however, the reader can go at his own pace. He can be more involved and active in the experience. In one image or composition, the reader can linger over the potential significance of small details without having the sense that the narrative flow has been disrupted. No matter how much time you spend inside one panel, you never feel like the story has stopped or altered tempo. Not the way you would if you pressed “pause” while watching a video. So it’s ideal for students and teachers. It has the vividness of the moving image and the complexity of text.
National Ambassador for Children's Literature and graphic novelist Gene Yang:
…in comparison to other visual media like film and animation, graphic novels are permanent. …You see, language and actions in film and animation are time-bound. They're on screen one minute and gone the next. …Graphic novels on the other hand, have a 'visual permanence' to them. Time progresses only as quickly as your eyes move across the page…. It doesn't matter how quickly I 'say' the lecture. What matters is how fast you choose to read it! The rate of information-transfer is firmly in your control!
Processing text and images together leads to better recall and transfer of learning.
Recent studies have shown that students who read text and images together have better attitudes toward learning, recall information more effectively, and transfer their learning to new problems.
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Tracy Edmunds is a teacher and educational consultant specializing in curriculum development, editing, and writing, focusing on the areas of comics and science.