Why You Should Read Comics With Your Students

by | Aug 15, 2018

If you haven’t already figured it out, this blog is a place for teachers to explore new and innovative ideas about teaching with texts that they might, otherwise, not consider “academic” in a traditional sense. In particular, we talk a lot about teaching with comics and graphic novels and offer resources and lists of texts that are particularly memorable, useful, or cover a specific topic effectively. Those are wonderful articles. 

This isn’t one of those articles. 

Instead, this will explore a question that, most certainly, we have all considered at least once. A question that, perhaps, we all should ask ourselves before we even make the decision to try using these texts: Why should we read graphic novels with our kids? 

It turns out that there is a good answer to this question. It’s a complicated answer – so much so, that all possible responses cannot be listed here! Scholars and educators have written countless journals, teacher guides, and analyses that address this question1. A simple Google ScholarEBSCO, or JSTOR search will reveal dozens of articles for you to peruse. For my part, I am going to try to boil my own philosophy and pedagogy down to a few basic (but compelling) points to explain why using these texts work for me and why I think they will work for you. 

  1. Comics Share Qualities with Picture Books

All reading starts in the same place – with far fewer words than pictures. Some of the books we hold most fondly in our hearts are the ones that we read (or were read to us) as children. Stories by Dr. SeussEric CarleMaurice Sendak, and others, are staples of any child’s bookshelf. Why is that? Naturally, these stories are simple, wonderful, and memorable, but would we hold these tales as dear, had the illustrations that accompanied the text not been as iconic as they were (or absent altogether)? For example, Carle’s simple, yet brilliant, use of die-cut holes into The Very Hungry Caterpillar crystallized the life journey of our fleet-footed protagonist in a way that hardly seems possible otherwise. What if they weren’t there? Try to imagine that. You can’t, can you? You need those holes to be there or else, it’s just not the same! 

Likewise, the eerie but fascinating transition of Max’s room in Where the Wild Things Are into a primordial jungle populated by fantastically frightening (yet oddly friendly looking) creatures remains in our minds forever. For my money, it doesn’t get any better than the dance party center spread – it is a visual feast of color and imagination that is impossible to replicate (although the 2009 film adaptation made a valiant effort). 

In both of these examples, the illustrations and design are what we remember – just as much as the narrative. In fact, they complement, even amplify, the power of the narrative. This is what graphic novels do for our students. The juxtaposition of images and text create something new for our students to connect grab onto and remember. They have begun to take their own places in the canon of our memories. 

For example, the image of The Joker from The Killing Joke with his gloved hands tearing at his green hair, and the evil grin on his face, has become one that every Hollywood production has attempted to replicate. Spider Man swinging with a frightened man tucked under his arm from Amazing Fantasy #15 also comes to mind. One of my personal favorites is that of Barbara Thorson from I Kill Giants facing down a “titan” with her magic hammer. (Trust me, it’s amazing. If you haven’t read it, you need to go do that as soon as you finish this article!) 

The point is that we learn by connecting images and meaning, and there’s no reason that we can’t continue to do so through the use of modern graphic novels in our classroom. This leads to the next argument… 

  1. Comics Engage Kids’ Desire to See as Well as Read

 Yes, one of the greatest joys of reading is to use our minds to visualize what we are pulling off the page, and there isn’t a teacher in the world that would ever discount the value of this. The graphic novel medium (it isn’t a genre – let’s keep that straight) just offers a different way to absorb imagery. In fact, it forces us to change the way we approach reading altogether. It is necessary for the reader to focus closely on the images in order to get the whole story. 

 

I find this element crucial in scaffolding close reading strategies. For example, I utilize wordless comics like Will Eisner’s New York: The Big City or Chabouté’s Park Bench, and ask students to draw character information from the inferences provided by the illustrations. It forces them to look beyond the text, and to examine how an artist drops hints about meaning, in order to create a coherent and compelling story. The mastery of this skill can lead directly into traditional prose analysis because, once they understand how inference works, it’s just a short leap to finding it in a paragraph rather than an image. Oh, and speaking of pictures… 

  1. Images Offer Context Clues for Vocabulary and Symbolism

ESL teachers often come to me and ask about how graphic novels might help their students improve their mastery of the English language. Spoiler alert: they work very well. As in point #1 above, we learn to read through images with text so this concept can easily be transferred to English language learners who are trying to navigate the murky waters of our complex rule-breaking language. In fact, a 2015 article in the journal English Language Teaching entitled “Teaching Vocabulary with Graphic Novels” by Turkish educators Ahmet BaşalTalat Aytan, and İbrahim Demir2 showed data which indicated that graphic novels offered significant gains in vocabulary mastery among their students attempting to learn English. They concluded that “The results suggest that graphic novels, a combination of visuals and text in a storyline, is more effective in teaching idiomatic expressions than in teaching them with traditional activities”. The article is complex, contains a lot of metrics, and offers direct instructional exploration. I would encourage any ESL teacher to seek it out. 

Don’t get me wrong, by no means does the benefit of these texts need to be limited to ESL students. Teaching metaphor and symbolism takes on a new life when graphic novels are brought into the picture. Consider one of the oldest and most recognized comic heroes, Batman. He uses the symbolism of a bat to frighten and unbalance his opponents. The fear that his symbol instills in the criminal element of Gotham City is heavy handed, but also effective for exploring how representation in a text can be achieved. Another example that comes to mind is the Manga Classics adaptation of Jane Eyre, and how the book illustrates the chestnut tree being split by the lightning. Its connection to the imminent doom that the marriage of Jane and Rochester faces is, for some students, far more evident than through the prose alone. While we are on the subject of terminology of textual analysis, let’s expand from here and talk about how… 

  1. Comics Explore Traditional Literary Elements in a Way that Breeds Understanding

 Scaffolding basic concepts in order to create more complex understanding is the meat and potatoes of any English literature course. Educators use whatever means that they can, in order to create a base knowledge for their students, that they can build on and expand over the course of the instructional period. Some use film, others refer to previously explored texts, but I like to bring students to my graphic novel lending library and put comics into their hands. 

Consider the five basics elements of a narrative. We have character, plot, theme, conflict, and setting. We understand how these elements come together in a prose story or novel. How does this differ in graphic novels? 

Not much. 

The difference, of course, is the presence of sequential art as the cornerstone of the storytelling. Rather than relying solely on text and descriptive imagery to create the world of the novel, illustrations, dialogue, and narration bring these components to life on the page. Consider one of the graphic novel staples of middle school bookshelves, Smile by Raina Telgemeier. You can spend an entire week analyzing the main character, her struggles, motivations, and personal growth. The setting, too, is crucial to how the story progresses, whether it be the San Francisco area (complete with earthquakes), the school where she fights to maintain her status and friendships, or the frightening reality of the dentist who brings a healthy dose of pain with each healing session. There’s a lot here to digest and students are often compelled by the colorful artwork and the fast-moving bildungsroman story that unfolds stealthily before them. Speaking of artwork in graphic novels… 

  1. Comics Encourage Artistic Expression (Kids are Inspired to Draw After They Read Them)

Why do we read and study literature, anyway? What’s the point? For my part, I believe that storytelling is the meaning of life. We live to tell stories – our own stories, the stories of others, or stories that we just pull out of thin air. It is through both telling and hearing stories that we grow as individuals – that we learn as students. The greatest gift I can give my students is the desire to tell their stories and an audience (even if it is just me) to listen to, read, or watch those stories. 

The best books make us want to write, the best films make us want to pick up a camera, and the best graphic novels make us want to draw our own. Any of the titles, in this article thus far, meet that criteria. But just for good measure, let me offer one more. 

The graphic novel Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani, is the tale of an Indian American woman who is searching for the story of her family, and finds it with help from a magic pashmina which transports her to… Well, I don’t want to give too much away, but suffice to say, the artwork, accessible yet complex, lends itself to the fantastic nature of the narrative. The images are wonderfully detailed, but not so intricate that students would be intimidated by it. It has inspired me to consider taking on the challenge of crafting my own graphic novel and has done so for my students as well. 

Somewhere along the line in elementary school, most of us stopped drawing. We started using the phrase “I am no artist” whenever we are challenged to sketch something. We are all storytellers and we are all artists. The degree to which we are practiced in either of these skills is what separates us, not our capability to create. Graphic novels can inspire our students to do either or both. Why not cultivate this? 

So, there you have it. A few of the multitude of reasons we should be reading comics and graphic novels with our kids. Which books are some of your favorites? Which ones do your students like? Let us know in the comments below and follow me on Twitter @tryingteacher for more recommendations of texts to add to your classroom library! 

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Footnotes: 

  1. To compile a list of all of these resources would be impossible, but I can offer a few of my personal favorites.
  • First, there is Building Literacy Connections with Graphic Novels Page by Page, Panel by Panel (NCTE 2007) edited by James Bucky Carter. This is a collection of journal articles and studies compiled artfully by Carter, a resource in his own right.  
  • Another similar text offering a compilation of scholarly articles on the topic is Critical Approaches to Comics, Theories and Methods (Routledge 2012) edited by Matthew J. Smith and Randy Duncan 
  • For educators looking for specific strategies to employ with comics in their classroom, I suggest the following books: Teaching Graphic Novels: Practical Strategies for the ELA Classroom (Maupin House 2013) and Teaching Early Reader Comics and Graphic Novels (Maupin House 2013) both by Dr. Katie Monnin. These are invaluable resources for teachers who want to formulate lesson plans around graphic texts.  
  • The Graphic Novel Classroom (Corwin 2012) by Maureen Bakis. This is another text which focuses primarily how to teach a course on graphic novels and has a lot to offer teachers new to the medium. 
  • Teaching Visual Literacy by Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher. Frey and Fisher are superstars in the world of education, and they were among the first educator scholars from whom I started getting ideas about my own teaching. Top notch stuff here! 
  1. You can find this article online here:https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1110011.pdf

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