Comic Books' Latest Plot Twist: Enhancing Literacy Instruction: Graphic Novels Can Add Value to Literacy Instruction, Especially for Struggling or Disaffected Readers

Article excerpt

Students need to acquire literacy skills and strategies for understanding, thinking about, and using information garnered from what they read. In formal settings, literacy training usually begins with picture books, becomes more complex with structured short story readings, and culminates in critical evaluations of classic works of literature. Instructors and parents hope that these activities will help children gain knowledge from what they read, as well as a broader appreciation for reading itself. Lifelong learning, after all, requires sustained interest in and success with understanding what others have written, making connections among the texts we read, and applying that knowledge in our everyday lives.

Despite carefully designed instructional materials and methods, many children have trouble acquiring and applying reading skills necessary to build meaningful understandings. Sometimes, the texts they get in class fail to sufficiently motivate them to learn to read or to read to learn. Literacy activities associated with texts assigned in school include formal practices that, unfortunately, fail to benefit some students. Some of us also argue that reading tasks and texts can seem unduly restrictive, given that literacy skills should transfer to other areas of students' lives--listening skills, interpersonal communication, and multimedia comprehension.

Recent reports on literacy practices have called for us to broaden classroom materials to encourage a lifelong love of reading and to include comprehension experiences that focus on reading skills but also to help students transfer those skills beyond the written word (National Council of Teachers of English, 2003). Some of these reports have focused on media literacy, for example, using television news programs and movies in classroom comprehension activities (National Association for Media Literacy Education, 2007). These activities are intended to help students develop core practices by integrating text and visual information in the service of building meaning, and making connections among diverse information sources.

Recently, support has grown for using comic books and graphic novels to enhance and support literacy instruction precisely by addressing these core practices. In some ways, it's surprising that the medium has only recently enjoyed such support. Stereotyped views of comics as unsophisticated, disposable entertainment, or material written to the lowest common denominator fail to consider the diversity of comic materials. Comic books (or graphic novels) can teach literacy skills and critical thinking in ways that other formats can't.

Comic book comprehension

Understanding what we read requires identifying the letters and sounds that make up words, determining the underlying concepts those words convey, relying on grammar to determine how those concepts fit together, and drawing inferences that go beyond what's explicitly stated in the text. Graphic novels require similar activity, as they include text in word balloons that convey characters' utterances and thoughts, as well as narration boxes that provide setting, background, and plot information. But, because they rely on visual depictions, comic panels recruit other processing behaviors that support comprehension.

Readers must learn to identify the differences between pragmatic features--the particular shapes of word balloons signifying characters' utterances versus the meanings of visual cues; speed lines to indicate motion; and how the contents of panels help readers understand the larger story (McCloud, 1994). Learning the "language" of comics is a literacy skill of its own that requires moving beyond focusing solely on text. This, of course, means readers must actively participate in the comic experience in a way that instructors seek to encourage during literacy instruction.

Comprehending comics requires integration of text and pictures, presented simultaneously, to account for ideas and events depicted in panels. …