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Why Teach with Comics?

By: Jennifer Haines
Originally published on Diamond Bookshelf

As school boards across North America are becoming more open to varied strategies to improve student literacy, there has been an increase in the use of graphic novels in the classroom. However, there is still a strong stigma attached to the idea of using comics as a teaching tool. Anyone who has tried to convince a non-comic reader of the benefits of comics has heard the same things: the reading level is too low, the subject matter is frivolous, comics are too violent. While these complaints may ring true for some books on the market, it dismisses the wide variety of books out there that are challenging to read, thoughtful and insightful, and age-appropriate. It also dismisses the fact that comics can be an incredibly rewarding teaching tool for a variety of learners.

To a reluctant reader or an English Language Learner, a prose text can be incredibly daunting; it is a wall of words, overwhelming to start, impossible to finish. The key to getting these learners to read is to engage their imagination and interest. Comics are a perfect vehicle. They divide up the text into manageable chunks, which are supported by images. These images help readers increase their vocabulary through the connection between words and images. Comics are especially useful for English Language Learners from Korea, China, and Japan, for whom comics are an inherent part of their culture. By offering a style of reading with which these students are familiar, they will be more willing to make the effort to read. The bottom line is getting them to read. Thus, it is better to offer a graphic adaptation of a prose novel covered in class to those reluctant readers, to allow all students to participate in discussions and unit work, rather than have some students fall behind and be unable to participate at all.

One criticism levelled at comics is that the reading level is too low. As it turns out, this is not true. “According to read-aloud specialist Jim Trelease (2001), to become proficient readers, people need to master a set of about 5,000 ‘rare words’ that appear infrequently in conversation. In the average adult novel, these words appear 52 times per 1,000 words of text. In comic books, they appear 53 times per 1,000 (Hayes & Athens, 1988). Consequently, comic books don’t reduce the vocabulary demand on young readers, but they do provide picture support, quick and appealing story lines, and less text.”1 As it turns out, comics are just as challenging as prose novels in terms of reading level and ability. But, since they are broken into chunks of reading, they are much more accessible to reluctant readers and English Language Learners.

Even beyond the support given to reluctant readers and English Language Learners, the benefits of graphic novels and comics in the classroom are vast. They can:

  • engage readers who learn visually, and who are comfortable with visual media, such as video games and computer graphics
  • increase vocabulary
  • encourage readers to explore different genres, and develop an appreciation for different literary and artistic styles
  • teach positive messages, such as helping others, working to one’s best ability, working as a team, and persevering
  • open a reader’s mind to new ways of storytelling, and increase their imagination, through the unique combination of text and pictures used in comics to convey the story.

The key is choosing the right comic books. Seek out your local comic store for advice and read 1 Newkirk, Thomas. “Media and Literacy: What’s Good?”. Educational Leadership, September 2006. some books before deciding what will work best in your classroom. Perhaps you are looking for a selection of graphic novels to get your elementary students into reading; there are a lot of engaging books out there with positive messages, such as Jellaby by Kean Soo or Mouse Guard by David Petersen. Perhaps you are looking for something that you can use in your high school English or history class; there are a lot of great books with historical and social context that could lead to rich discussion, such as Maus by Art Spiegelman, or It’s a Bird by Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen.

Schools have become increasingly more aware of the need to address the varying learning styles of students. In 1983, Howard Gardner put forth his theory of Multiple Intelligences, according to which, students learn in different ways. He identified eight different learning styles, of which, traditionally, schools have emphasized the Verbal/Linguistic and Logical/Mathematical styles. As a result, students who learn in alternate ways have tended to be identified as less intelligent, as intellect has historically been attached to linguistic and mathematical skills.

Although Gardner’s work has been met with some controversy, most teachers will tell you that they are able to observe these varying styles first hand in their classrooms. They will also tell you that they see a more consistent result from their students when they incorporate assignments and activities which tap into multiple intelligences, as this differentiated learning allows more students to achieve success. One way to address multiple intelligences in an assignment or activity is to build in options, which will allow different learners to more successfully demonstrate their learning. Another way is to create an assignment or activity which utilizes multiple learning styles. This insures that students who learn in different ways can increase their opportunities for success in the classroom. An assignment or activity in which students create their own comic or graphic novel can explore all of Gardner’s “Multiple Intelligences”:

  • Verbal/Linguistic Learners learn best through words and language, and in producing written work. Most comics or graphic novels will require the use of language to tell the story. In creating a work, students can focus on what the characters say and think. There is no limit to what words can do in a comic.
  • Visual/Spatial Learners learn best through visual elements, and in producing artistic and design work. Comics must include pictures; you can even tell a story without words. Placing characters in sets and backgrounds encourages spatial learning.
  • Logical/Mathematical Learners learn best when working with numbers or strategy. Comics have a long history of formalism, which has always involved the mathematical arrangement of panels. Devising a plot involves the use of logic and strategy.
  • Bodily/Kinesthetic Learners learn best by incorporating movement. In creating a comic book, many creators either study live models, or use their own bodies to create facial expressions and physical positions in order to draw characters. Students can thus figure out what their characters are doing by getting into positions themselves, in order to draw them. Students who are reluctant to draw can use photography and position models as the characters.
  • Interpersonal Learners learn best when working in a group, and in producing work involving emotions. Collaborating activities can lead to effective brainstorming in creating a comic. Interpersonal learners will create stronger characters by examining the characters’ social relationships.
  • Intrapersonal Learners learn best when self-reflecting, and in applying their own emotions to the situation. They will examine the character’s moods and motivations closely in creating their comic.
  • Naturalistic Learners learn best when relating things to their own environment. They will incorporate details about the character’s physical environment and how it relates to the action of the story. They can also use photography to generate backgrounds as they move their characters from one location to another.
  • Musical/Rhythmic Learners learn best when using music or rhythmical patterns. Comics inherently have rhythm through the repetition of panels or elements of panels. Additionally, students can incorporate music into their comic story.

The benefits of using comics in the classroom are certainly great, both in increasing literacy and in addressing the educational needs of differentiated learners. As schools struggle to maintain enrolment and ensure that students are not left behind in the learning process, teachers must adapt their classroom to the developing needs of their students. This means utilizing different teaching methods and tools. The application of Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences and the use of comics and graphic novels can provide students with greater opportunities for success, both in the classroom and beyond.

1 Newkirk, Thomas. “Media and Literacy: What’s Good?”. Educational Leadership, September 2006.