by Lisa Simon, Ph.D.
Whether you know it or not, it’s likely that comics already have a significant place in your classroom – in your students’ backpacks and desks and on their phones. Bringing comics into your teaching lets you take advantage of the high interest they engender. It’s also a great way to make reading a lively and engaging experience for your students. But wait, there’s more – much more. Here, in words and images, are six additional ways comics can support your teaching efforts.
Understanding and appreciating comics involves the use of sophisticated reading skills and many of those skills are the same ones we use when reading print.
Some of the most important skills necessary for understanding comics are:
- paying attention to details and
- seeing how those details connect to each other and to larger ideas.
Consider, for example, this excerpt from the popular Babymouse series (by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm). As you read it, notice how much you learn about the main character through the visual details – her style, her situation, how she feels about her looks, and the hopes she has for her life. This is complex and nuanced character development and almost all comes through the images.
Paying attention to details is a crucial reading skill. Texts’ details help us infer and fill in textual gaps (also crucial reading skills) as well as understand characters, themes, main ideas, and an author's argument. It is also a challenging skill to teach. By using comics and graphic novels, you give students many chances to practice attending to details. You can then help them transfer that skill to their print reading.
Visuals appear in almost any text we encounter and provide important information not always presented in prose. Newspapers and websites – the places from which so many of us get information - are dominated by images. Maps tell us about the weather and real estate offerings; photographs are used to give directions and describe current events. School texts (and high stakes exams) also require that we read visuals. To be successful, students need to be able to read diagrams, charts, graphs, timelines, artifacts, and political cartoons.
The proliferation of images means we all need to become confident and critical visual readers. Using comics in your teaching lets you bring a focus to the reading of images and lets you highlight strategies for how to read and critique them.
There are experiences and concepts that print cannot convey. For example, when CeCe Bell created her amazing (!!) memoir El Deafo, she needed a way to convey what it was like to grow up partially deaf.
But how could she help her hearing audience experience what deafness is like? As Bell explained in an interview on NPR, comics were “the perfect medium because of the speech balloons.” As she went on to explain:
If I'm wearing my hearing aids and I'm looking right at you speaking, I understand every word you say, because I've got some sound coming in and the visual clues from your lips.
So in a graphic novel, that speech balloon would be understandable to everybody, what you were saying in that balloon. Some things are most effectively communicated through visuals. Interpreting and critiquing visuals are crucial skills. But if I maybe had my hearing aids out and wasn't looking at you, your speech balloon would be empty, because I wouldn't know what you were saying, and I wouldn't hear what you were saying. And then if I had my hearing aids in, and I'm not looking at you — I can hear your voice because of my hearing aids, but it's all garbled, and so the speech in the speech balloon would be garbled.
Visuals can convey many things that would be hard or impossible to do in print. This is one of the reasons they are so widely used. And it is one of the reasons it is so important that we and our students become skilled in reading them. Using comics in our teaching is a great way to do that.
Many readers who lack confidence in their print reading abilities, approach images with justified confidence. By using comics, you can take advantage of that confidence to help these students enjoy and comprehend more complex texts than they otherwise would.
This is because a comic’s images augment its print (and vice versa). As students read, the images give them key information about setting, character interactions, and events. This lets them focus on and build their comprehension and they can use what they learn about the characters and story to read difficult words. The interest, confidence, and motivation that comics typically engender in readers will help them read difficult words as well as read for meaning and enjoyment. In last year’s post on readability, there’s a great example of how this worked in Nicole Salvitti’s middle school class when she used the graphic novel American Born Chinese.
If you’ve already had conversations with your students about comics or manga or anime, you know how important those stories are to them. If you haven’t talked to your students about comics, try it.
In my conversations, middle and high school learners have talked with great intensity about anime characters and their complicated plots. I’ve learned how these texts have inspired them to learn Japanese. They’ve told me about writing their own anime fanfiction and shown me their skilled drawing of manga characters. While this won’t be true of all of your students, it’s likely you have many dedicated comic, manga and/or anime readers, and that this group includes even your most resistant readers. This means that if you use comics in your teaching, you are connecting to very significant parts of their out-of-school lives.
Think back to your own adolescence and the popular culture phenomena that meant the most to you. What would it have been like if a teacher had recognized and incorporated into class the songs, video games, TV shows, movies, magazines, baseball team, websites, comedians, or comic books you loved? For many of us, it would have deepened our connection to school and helped us see the relevance of what we were doing in school.
Another benefit of using comic books is that it helps you highlight your students’ expertise. This was a central point that Nicole Salvitti and I made in our post on increasing engaged learning by providing students opportunities to share their passions and expertise. Using comic books in your classroom will provide those opportunities for many of your students. And, if you’re not already a comic book expert, your students will be able to help you become more knowledgeable just as you can help them connect their comic stories and skills to the learning they are doing in school.
Using comics/graphic novels in your classroom and using them thoughtfully and with respect, means your students will get to develop their reading skills. They’ll increase their confidence and skill in interpreting and critiquing visuals. They will get to show their expertise and approach challenging texts with confidence and success. All of that is important and makes it worth doing. But, perhaps most important of all, when you bring comics into your teaching....
Here are some great resources for teaching with comic books
1. Some wonderful graphic novels
El Deafo (CeCe Bell): relevant to middle and high school readers
American Born Chinese (Gene Luen Yang): relevant to middle and high school readers
The Babymouse series (Jennifer L. Helms and Matthew Helms): most relevant to elementary school readers
In Real Life (Corey Doctorow and Jen Wang): relevant to middle and high school readers
And one for you:
2. Some excellent resources for understanding and making comics
Scott McCloud’s books provide a great overview of comics – how they work, what they do and their history and he does it in an engaging comic format:
Another wonderful book, especially if you and your students are interested in making your own comics:
3. And some online resources:
Pixton (which I used to make the comic avatars of myself in this blog.)
Readwritethink.org – this is a great site in general. If you type “comics” into the search box, you will come up with over 40 lessons, ideas, materials, and suggestions to help you with your comic-infused teaching.