How to Teach with Comics

The combination of words and pictures to tell stories can be traced back to ancient cave paintings. This device even appears in historical locales like ancient Egypt and the Maya civilization.

The enduring appeal of this format persists in the modern comic book, which has its roots in in the early 1900s. So, as an educator considering using comics or graphic novels as a teaching tool, there are essentially 3 questions you’ll need answered:

1. How do I read comics?
2. How do I explain their validity to parents or administrators?
3. How do I use comics to teach?

Here, I’m going to give you a brief overview of each, and point you to resources that you can use to expand your understanding, if you like. Ready? Let’s go!

How Do I Read Comics?

6 quick tips for reading comics and graphic novels:

  1. Slow down- Reading comics is different from reading prose, because the story is told simultaneously by both the text and the art. Think of it like listening to just the sound of a movie without watching the screen, or just watching the images on mute. Neither would give you the complete story.
  2. The boxes with the art are called panels- Using words and text, each panel communicates another portion of the story.
  3. Think of the art in the panels as actors- The art conveys the subtleties of the script. That’s where you’ll see emotion, action, and movement communicated.
  4. Panels are read from left to right, top to bottom- This is the rule in English comics (it’s right to left for Japanese comics). The arrangement of panels is generally designed to guide your eye through the story, so you can usually trust your instincts.
  5. The spaces between panels are called gutters. These allow for time jumps between the moments conveyed in the panels.
  6. Balloons/bubbles contain speech, thoughts, or sound effects. The shape of the balloon often indicates the type of speech being shared.

With these basics under your belt, you’re ready to read comics and graphic novels!

How Do I Explain Their Validity to Parents or Administrators?

A few things to remember here:

  1. Comics can address a wide range of educational topics- Comics books are a medium, where any story can be told. This allows them to cover many themes.
  2. Comics can be used to teach at different ages of maturity and development- Not every movie is appropriate for every age, right? As the same is true for comics, an educator can craft lesson plans for a wide range of educational levels.
  3. Schools and libraries regularly report that graphic novels are their highest circulating collections (even more than DVDs). PCC’s Director of Education, Illya Kowalchuk, describes comics’ mixture of text and art as “a connection between logic and beauty.” This format clearly appeals to students in a powerful way.
  4. Multiple studies show that comics increase student engagement, reading comprehension and vocabulary development- The succinct text in comics offers easier access to weak readers, while modeling concise language for skilled readers.
  5. Comics expand vocabulary through context- A struggling student might skip the text in a comic book, simply focusing on the visuals. That student will get some sense of the story (much like watching a movie on mute). In later readings, that student will be able to connect the text to the story presented in the art, gaining a deeper understanding of the complex words that he or she may have struggled with.
  6. Comics help fulfill National Common Core State Standard mandates- Briefly, this is accomplished through the following attributes:
    1. Advanced and concise vocabulary with image pairing- This creates memory pathways and associations, both important in functional learning.
    2. Development of themes, ideas and characters in visually sequential storytelling- Students can chart that development, increasing their attention to detail (for the story elements found in the art), and reinforcing their understanding of sequence (beginning, middle and end).
    3. Critical thinking is strengthened- The art in comics benefits visual learners, students who have weak language skills, and concrete learners with weak higher-order cognitive skills. The balance between words and text strengthens their grasp of metaphor, inference and social context. Also, the gutters call for the development of active problem solving, to extrapolate what has happened between panels.

You’ll find links to some of these studies below:

Comics Are Motivating

Words and Pictures Together Increase Recall and Problem Solving

Comics Have a High Average Vocabulary Level

Comics Enrich the Skills of Accomplished Readers

Comics Support English Language Learners

How Do I Use Comics to Teach?

”From verbal and visual literacy to critical thinking and memory, comics are a great tool to give young readers a head start.” – “Raising A Reader: How Graphic Novels Can Help Your Kids Love Reading!”

Pop Culture Classroom provides numerous free resources for educators to help with using comic books in the classroom, including lesson plans.

Here, I’ll just provide some quick, general ideas for using comics in the classroom. You’ll want to identify the themes of the comic book/graphic novel you’re teaching from. Then you can use those themes to engage the students in the following ways:

  1. Art arrangement: A discussion of how the art (color, page design, lettering, panel placements, panel size, artistic direction) conveys the themes and emotions of the story. These elements also work towards teaching students how to determine the importance of a text.
  2. Sequencing: Examining panels and stories is a strong method of helping students easily understand order, much more so than in prose.
  3. Art and themes: Have students work in small groups to choose particular panels or pages that most strongly exemplify the themes you want to discuss, and have them identify how the art communicates these themes.
  4. Current events: Often, once the themes are identified in a comic story, they can be used as a bridge to lead a discussion about current events.
  5. Performance: If your students are able to read, you may want to treat the reading as a performance, assigning the out-loud reading of different characters to different students.
  6. Script writing: You can design an assignment where kids write on their own, using existing comics pages where the teacher has blanked out the words.

You’ll find many more specific tools on this website to aid you in your use of comics as a teaching tool. In the meantime, happy teaching!