Literacy Skills Addressed by Comics and Graphic Novels

While you won't find too many copies of superhero comics such as Superman or Batman in a teacher's classroom resources, you may discover the titles of other comics or graphic novels. Using these kinds of texts with a class can help improve students' skills in reading and writing. Even though we often associate these texts with reading for pleasure, they are, in fact, powerful tools for teaching learners of all levels and abilities.

Comics and graphic novels alike require readers to use many of the same skills as they would if they were reading prose. When students begin reading instruction in primary grades, they begin to build inference skills—skills that are regularly tested by benchmark assessments. In prose, students would need to "read between the lines" to draw conclusions, or infer, information based on the written text and on what they know about the world in general, often including social contexts. With comics and graphic novels, students need to make inferences too, and sometimes the process is more complex than it would be when reading prose. This is because the inferences need to have considered all that can be seen in a single frame: a small amount of text and pictures of varying detail.

To make an inference in a comic or graphic novel, a reader must be able to distinguish nuances in the text. Much of the text may appear as dialogue between characters, and this would be shown with text surrounded by a bubble or speech balloon. Internal dialogue differs in its shape, and so does any narration in a frame that might indicate a change in time or scene. Readers must also understand the order in which particular text must be read. Equally important are the pictures within each frame. Artists create emotion in their characters. They use drawing techniques to emphasize traits of characters and important aspects of the setting. For students to comprehend the story and make inferences, they must learn to read all parts of a frame, not just its text.

All graphic novels, and many comics, include the elements of a story, making them useful resources to teach students about plot and character development. Often, they are filled with allusion, satire, irony, and parody; this makes them great tools for teaching tough literary terms. Likewise, they can help students interpret a story's literal meaning, as well as its figurative meaning. Of course, elementary teachers would want to procure materials that are easier to read than what may be available to students in middle school and high school. The rigor and complexity that comes with advancing through school are matched by graphic novels. For example, creators Adam Sexton and Yali Lin's Manga Edition of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet would be most appropriate for a course in which Shakespeare would regularly appear, such as a freshman-level language arts class. In this version of the famous drama, violence is still a recurring issue, and the text itself, while not as difficult as the original's Elizabethan English, challenges readers. Even though it is filled with pictures, it is probably not appropriate for an audience of young children.

The opposite argument, however, does not always hold true. Depending on one's reading level, graphic novels suitable for younger children may find their way into the hands of older students who are English language learners or students with learning disabilities. Pictures help students in acquiring the English language and practicing its use. Bill Zimmerman, the creator of the website, notes that comics can be used to teach students on the Autism spectrum how to read emotions in comics' characters.

The benefits of comics and graphic novels aren't limited to reading skills. When Bill Zimmerman created in 2006, his motive was to encourage literacy and to relieve stress levels in people of all ages. On this site, people can create their own comic strips with ready-made characters and settings. Using the program is almost intuitive, providing teachers a fun and easy way to motivate students to write. Students can use a computer or pencil and paper to create a comic; either way, rich opportunities exist for students to experiment with language.

Young children or those learning a foreign language can practice writing by making an autobiographical comic or a comic that is a memoir. Students can use their creative writing skills in doing this. They can also practice new vocabulary. This kind of learning activity helps students "practice conversation and offers ways to experiment with language, sentence structure, and vocabulary in a meaningful context."

Outlining is another kind of writing practice that can be used with comics. To do this, teachers ask students to interpret each individual frame of a comic as a paragraph. Within each frame, as in a paragraph, are the details: the dialogue, the graphics. Teachers can model how an outline would be organized based on the frame's big idea and its details. In addition to outlining, frames can be used to practice punctuating dialogue when writing prose. For this, teachers have students write out the dialogue in the comic, but they must also adhere to the mechanics and punctuation of quotations spoken by characters.

While a teacher would not want to rely solely on the use of comics and graphic novels in the classroom, they can bring incredible value to the learning experience if incorporated as extensions or bridges for learning.