Why Not Teach English through Comics?

According to Jeff Hughes of the American TESOL Institute, his teachers used to criticize comic books in his youth stating “these books have zero educational value!” Nevertheless, he has testified that comic books actually improved his understanding of English and Grammar, as well as increasing his interest in reading. Moreover, his vocabulary improved, and he learned to research information.

Language learners can be fearful about reading prose texts in English, but the use of comics or graphic novels adds a plus to texts with language chunks and images together, as words and images can increase a student´s vocabulary, motivating students to make the effort to read.

Today, graphic novels and comics are recognized as a legitimate form of literature and are increasingly used in English classes.

According to research, they are not only motivating, but they also provide support for beginning and advanced readers, spicing up a somewhat dull subject matter.

Introduction

“In second language education, teachers and students know the truth of the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. In fact, … the right picture at the right time may be worth several times that many words.” (Stephen Cary, Going Graphic: Comics at Work in the Multilingual Classroom, p.23)

“It always strikes me as supremely odd that high culture venerates the written word on the one hand, and the fine visual arts on the other. Yet somehow putting the two together is dismissed as juvenilia. Why is that? Why can´t these forms of art go together like music and dance?” Jonathan Hennessey, Author of The U.S. Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation and The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation)

“It always strikes me as supremely odd that high culture venerates the written word on the one hand, and the fine visual arts on the other. Yet somehow putting the two together is dismissed as juvenilia. Why is that? Why can´t these forms of art go together like music and dance?” Jonathan Hennessey, Author of The U.S.

Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation and The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation)

Language learners can be fearful about reading prose texts in English, but the use of comics or graphic novels add a plus to texts with language chunks and images together, as words and images can increase a student´s vocabulary and motivate students to make the effort to read.

Comics in the classroom

According to Hayes & Athens (Haines, 2006), a number of observers think that the reading level in comics is too low. In fact, some have said that “proficient readers have to master 5,000 rare words appearing infrequently in conversation.” But in comparing the use of rare words in average adult novels and in comic books, it was found that although such words appear some 52 times per 1,000 text words, the average for comic books has been 53 times per 1,000 text words!

Another advantage of comics is that they provide fast and attractive story plots with less text. Comics can be as challenging as prose novels in ability and reading level, but are more accessible to reluctant readers.

Thanks to the visual aspect in comics, they represent a non-threatening and comprehensible medium for both writing and reading skills. It is interesting to note that there are high numbers of comic readers in countries such as Mexico (70 per cent) and Japan (90-95 per cent)!  (Cary, 2004) Another point to consider is that “popular media such as movies, video games, cartoons, and comic books can serve as a frame of reference in thinking about narrative structure” (Ranker, 2007) Comics can be used to teach punctuation or grammar aspects. They also assist students to organize their thinking and writing since comics generally are put together chronologically.

According to Gray & Fleischman (2005), Peregoy and Boyle, among other researchers, support the use of scaffolding strategies to help ESL students organize their thoughts… These strategies include teacher modeling, visuals/graphics, and hands-on learning – all of which are compatible with using comics in the classroom”.

Graphic novelist Josh Elder founded a nonprofit organization called Reading with Pictures in 2009 to advocate comic use to “promote literacy and improve educational outcomes.”  (www.readingwithpictures.org) He says that “Comics made my educational process so fundamentally different, enhanced my prospects so significantly that I feel I had to share that with other people.”

Elder summarizes the advantages of comics as educational tools regarding what he calls the “Three E´s of Comics”:

Engagement: Comics impart meaning through the reader´s active engagement with written language and juxtaposed sequential images. Readers must actively make meaning from the interplay of text and images, as well as by filling in the gaps between panels.

Efficiency: The comic format conveys large amounts of information in a short time. This is especially effective for teaching content in the subject areas (math, science, social studies, etc.).

Effectiveness: Processing text and images together leads to better recall and transfer of learning. Neurological experiments have shown that we process text and images in different areas of the brain: known as the Dual-Coding Theory of Cognition. These experiments also indicate that pairing an image with text leads to increased memory retention for both. With comics, students not only learn the material faster, they learn it better. (Elder, 2009)

Michelle Manno (2014) makes an interesting comment when she states the following:

Before children are ready to read text, sequential art can give them practice in making meaning from material printed on a page, tracking left to right and top to bottom, interpreting symbols, and following the sequence of events in a story. Sequential art provides plenty of opportunity for connecting a story to children´s own experiences, predicting what will happen, inferring what happened between panels and summarizing, just as you would do with a text story. The advantage of sequential art is that children don´t need to be able to decode text to learn and practice comprehension skills. (Manno, 2014) Many English-speaking adults in North America were taught to read from the 1930s to the 1990s with the Dick and Jane series which used the sight word reading Method, using repetition and phrases like “Oh, see Jane. Funny, funny Jane” as well as phonetic analysis. However, in comparison with more modern readers incorporating illustrations with text, this series appeared to be rather dull and uninteresting.  

When children are exposed to graphic novels and comics full of exciting details and action, they become motivated and want to be engaged in reading much more.

Such readers provide stimulus to read even longer texts later. As graphic novels make readers decode and understand the connection between images and text, they start to use more advanced level thinking skills such as synthesis and inference. Here, literary techniques such as metaphor and symbolism begin to take on more importance.

Education expert Tracy Edmunds is a believer in the power of comics and graphic novels as educational tools, requiring readers to not only receive information passively, but also interact with the text and images to construct meaning. He mentions that “the immediacy of comics can also take what students think of as “boring” subject matter and make it interesting and motivating.” (Edmunds, 2018)

There are a number of benefits in using comics and graphic novels in the classroom, as they:

  • involve visual readers who like visual media such as video games and computer graphics
  • teach positive messages, in helping others, team work, and perseverance
  • encourage exploration of different genres, appreciating distinct literary and artistic styles
  • increase imagination and open the reader´s mind to storytelling.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Dr. Howard Gardner promulgated his Theory of Multiple Intelligences to emphasize the fact that there are different learning intelligences that allow more learners to be successful, and not only emphasizing mathematical and linguistic skills.

Certainly, all multiple intelligences can be applied in students´ comics or graphic novels. For example:

  • Verbal/Linguistic Intelligence: students can focus on what characters think and say through language to tell a story
  • Logical/Mathematical Intelligence: Making a story plot involving logic, strategy, and numbers
  • Visual/Spatial Intelligence: comics include pictures of characters in settings that encourage spatial learning
  • Bodily/Kinesthetic Intelligence: Body movement drawing is incorporated in comics and photos can also be used
  • Interpersonal Intelligence: student learners learn better working in groups with the help of brainstorming
  • Intrapersonal Intelligence: students are stimulated to engage in self-reflection and apply their own emotions to the comic
  • Naturalistic Intelligence: pupils can incorporate details of the environment having to do with the story and photos too
  • Musical/Rhythmic Intelligence: a comic story has rhythm using repetition of panels or incorporating music in the story action (Gardner, 1993)
  • The application of Howard Gardner´s Theory of Multiple Intelligences and the use of comics and graphic novels in the classroom motivate students to become more successful in and beyond the classroom.

Gray and Fleischman in their work named Successful Strategies for English

Language Learners (2005), came up with effective strategies that could be used by teachers using comics in the classroom. Their interesting suggestions for possible application involve the following:  

Lesson Directions

Objectives:

  • Students will identify narrative story elements in a graphic novel /characters, setting, problem, & solution).
  • Students will create their own narrative story elements using a graphic organizer and illustrations.
  • Students will write and illustrate a comic strip using narrative story elements.

Procedure:

Opening

  1. Participants write and/or illustrate their favorite cartoons, cartoon characters, and/or comic strips. Participants then pair up and share their favorites.
  2. Teacher reads comic aloud to group – listen for and identify the key narrative elements (characters, setting, problem, solution).

Guided/Independent Practice

  1. Teacher and students discuss the key narrative elements and fill in a graphic organizer based on the comic. Teacher also reviews the speech/thought bubbles and author´s use of different colored dialogue bubbles to distinguish between speakers.
  2. Model using the graphic organizer to create a superhero character and story elements.
  3. Participants use the fruits and vegetables to create superheroes and outline stories. Participants can use art materials to physically “create” superheroes (markers, glue, felt, eyes, pipe cleaners, etc.)
  4. Teacher models using graphic organizer to create comic strip. Include and point out story elements.
  5. Participants use their graphic organizers to write comic strips independently or with a partner.
  6. Pair-share, if time allows.
  7. Revisions, if necessary/time allows. Show how to cut comic strip apart and add/delete panels.

Conclusion

  1. Author´s Chair
  2. Questions, discussions, extensions.

Materials

  • Favorite Comic frame
  • Narrative Story Elements frame
  • Graphic novel, comic strips, etc.
  • Large pictures of popular cartoon/comic characters (Spongebob, Dora the Explorer, Spiderman, etc.)
  • Oversized dialogue bubbles (different colors)
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Name cards for fruits and vegetables
  • Art materials (markers, glue, felt, eyes. Pipe cleaners, etc.)
  • Various comic strip panels
  • Materials for modeling (overhead projector, chalkboard, chart paper, easel, etc.)

Spin-offs

  1. Give a pair of students a wordless comic (or one with the speech bubbles deleted). Have students “script” the comic by adding speech bubbles that fit with the events in each panel. Students can also write descriptions for each panel or orally describe what is happening. (Cary, Going Graphic: Comics at Work in the Multilingual Classroom, p.81)
  2. Students can take a comic strip and add a panel (or several). Students must write and illustrate what would happen next in the comic. Another option is a “class strip.” One student adds a panel and then passes it on to another student. The expanded comic strip circulated around the room with each student reading, writing, and drawing what would happen next. (Cary, Going Graphic, Comics at Work in the Multilingual Classroom, p.74)

  • In pairs or small groups, give students a comic strip with one panel missing (preferably in the middle). Students must read the remaining panels and discuss what they need to add to the comic strip for it to make sense. As they create their “replacement” panels, students need to pay attention to what comes before, after, and what makes sense. They also need to focus on their grammatical choices, making sure verb tenses and antecedents, for example, align with the remaining panels. Cary, Going Graphic: Comics at Work in the Multilingual Classroom, p.88)

  • Comic Creator at http://www.readwritethink.org is an excellent interactive tool. Students can create and/or publish their comics. This site also offers several lessons based on the Comic Creator tool

Conclusion

In accordance with the information gathered, using comics in the classroom increases literacy and satisfies the educational needs of diverse learners. It is clear that teachers should adapt to the developing needs of their students, and consider using different methods and tools for learning to stimulate and help students achieve better reading ability through the use of comics.  

Bibliography

  • Cary, S. (2004). Going Graphic: Comics at Work in the Multilingual Classroom
  • Cutler, D. (2014). Using Superhero Comics to Teach English and History. George Lucas Educational Foundation.
  • Edmunds, T. (2018). Stem Series.
  • Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple Intelligences. New Horizons: Far Hills, New Jersey, USA
  • Gray, T. & Fleischman, S. (2005). Successful Strategies for English Language Learners. Educational Leadership, 84-85
  • Gray, W. & Sharp, Z. (1930-1990). Dick and Jane. Scott Foresman: Glenview, Illinois, USA
  • Haines, J. (2006). Why Teach with Comics? Diamond Bookshelf
  • Hayes & Athens (1988).
  • Hennessey, J. (2013). The U.S. Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation and The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation.
  • Manno, M. Comics in the Classroom. blog
  • Morse, S. (2008). New York: Scholastic, Inc.
  • Peregoy, S.F. & Boyle, O.F. (2005). Reading, Writing, and Learning in ESL. (4th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.
  • Ranker, J. (2007). Using Comic Books as Read-Alouds: Insights on Reading Instruction from an English as a Second Language Classroom. The Reading Teacher, 61(4), 296-305.
  • Starr, L. (2004). Education World.
  • Graphic Novels, Comics, Etc. For Use in the Classroom
  • Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey
  • Sticky Burr by John Lechner
  • Bone the Dragon Slayer series by Jeff Smith
  • Nancy Drew graphic novels by Stefan Petrucha and Sarah KinneyTeaching With Comics

http://www.flummery.com/teaching/

This site provides comic strip/panel templates, as well as lesson ideas and evaluation rubrics. Students can learn step-by-step how to sletch cartoon figures and backgrounds.

ESL and Archie Comics

http://www,archiecomics.com/podcasts/

Students can view an Archie comic while listening to a podcast of the comic being read aloud. Students can also listen to an explanation of the comic and learn definitions of key terms in the comic.

Everything ESL: Interactive Web Sites for ESL Students

http://www.everythingesl.net/inservices/elementary_sites_ells__71638.php

Various literacy based sites with interactive games, read alouds, and books that can be downloaded.

Activities for Using Comic Strips

http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/try/activities/activities-using-comic-strips

Ideas for incorporating comic strips into lessons

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