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Can Graphic Texts Aid Readers in Finding Information?

by Naomi Kruger-Arram, IOE, London

First off, I’m going to admit something – I don’t really like graphic works. I find the pictures are often harsh and distracting, and I prefer to read a regular, linear or “block” text.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not a fan. I truly am – just not for myself. As a teacher, I love the way some kids grab onto them and get so immersed. I love how people who don’t like reading, or have tremendous difficulty reading, find comfort in graphic texts and plunge in, undeterred and unintimidated.

Second, I’m going to be calling all forms of graphic works here Graphic Texts (GT’s) to avoid any of the confusion that comes with terms like “comics” or “graphic novels”. Some graphic works are not comic, nor are they novels. The term “comic”, even though it has been widened from its original meanings to include a variety of genres, still makes GT’s seem trivial, and “novels” is a term which limits the medium.

Now let’s start.

Tracy Edmunds and Jennifer Haines have both touched on an interesting and valid point, in excellent pieces on this site. And that is that graphic texts are far more powerful than we think, have tremendous potential to aid in reading, and are not the “fluff” that their critics and detractors will have us think they are.

Josh Elder sums up the usefulness of GT’s with his “Three E’s”

GT’s can be:

1)   Engaging

2)   Efficient

3)   Effective

The first “E” has been, and continues to be, the easiest to back up. Kids, parents and teachers will tell you that Several studies have looked at the motivating factors in using GT’s

Simply put, GT’s can be fun. Or as Ms. Haines put it – when a regular “block” prose text looks monolithic and intimidating, a GT can break the ice and draw a kid in.

But what about E’s number 2 and 3? Can GT’s be efficient? Yes. As Elder says, if they can “convey large amounts of information in a short time” then they can be called efficient.

But are they effective? Mr. Elder’s proof for their efficacy comes very indirectly from cognitive theories which suggest that we code things both visually and verbally. So some people suggest that when we read a GT, we are processing it twice, or in some form of a cognitive crossover, and this, we think, can strengthen its effect in our brains.

As part of my doctoral studies, I wanted to test this idea – focusing not on the motivational aspect of reading GT’s but on the cognitive processes involved.

The basic idea was to take a non-fiction GT, transcribe a section of it into a regular expository, or “block” text (BT) and then have participants read one BT and one GT excerpt from the same text. They would get easy comprehension and locating information questions for both and tell me whether it was easier to find information in the GT or the BT. Correct answers would be noted and coded, and their body language and responses during the task would be observed and recorded as well. They would also provide oral and written feedback, telling me about what it was like to read and look for information in both types of texts.

The text I chose to use was the Graphic Adaptation of the 9/11 Report, by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon. This text was chosen mainly because it conveyed a large amount of information and was easily transcribed into a standard expository, BT format as well. Because of the subject matter, I was a bit hesitant at first about using this book as the text for the study, but the technical advantages of using this particular book outweighed any potential disadvantages in terms of content. The sections of the book which I chose reflected my awareness of the difficult nature of the topic – they focus on relatively less contentious issues such as Bin Laden’s early years, the logistics of planning the attack, the choosing of operatives, obtaining travel visas and which flight schools the pilots attended.

Twenty-two young readers, male and female in their teen years, participated in the study. In addition, I interviewed one more girl, also a teen, who only wanted to look at the GT and not answer any questions, but was willing to provide insights into why she prefers reading GT’s.

All the participants had reading disabilities of various types. Many had been evaluated at school, and all told me that they found reading difficult and off-putting.

There were several design flaws in the study, some logistical problems, and the data was not complete. But some interesting insights did come from the participants. Beyond what I call the “fun factor” (motivational aspects), there were other, more cognitive, reading-related reasons why some of the students found using GT’s to be beneficial. Some of the readers mentioned that the pictures made it easier to visualize or understand what was taking place in the text. Several students found that finding information in the text after they had read it was easier with the GT than the BT. Other students said that a GT broke down the information into more manageable sections.

And most interestingly, a number of the participants felt that the GT had fewer words than the BT – even though the text was transcribed verbatim so that the GT and BT excerpts contained the exact same number of words. When this was pointed out to them, those who had mentioned this aspect were unfazed and said that it didn’t matter – it still seemed like the GT had fewer words, and was therefore less intimidating and more manageable for them. As a consequence, they found it easier to read, and searching for information in the GT was a less daunting task for them than it was using the BT.

Beyond just being “fun”, graphic texts have a great deal to offer many readers. If some people, as Howard Gardner postulates, are more adept at visual learning, then GT’s can help bridge the gap between not reading at all and getting “turned on” to reading. For some students, GT’s can be used as a scaffolding tool, to ease weak or reluctant readers into reading other types of texts as well. And some students will choose to remain with GT’s because that’s what they’re comfortable with.

As teachers and parents, it’s time that we recognize that perhaps some kids prefer GT’s, not because they’re lazy or choosing the “easy route”, but because GT’s have something to offer that regular texts don’t. And that something may not be simply a matter of “coolness” or “fun” – it may be an actual, cognitive tool that just hasn’t been explored and used to its fullest potential.


Download the full research paper here.