Graphic Novels in the School Library: Using Graphic Novels to Encourage Reluctant Readers and Improve Literacy

By Crowley, Joel | School Librarian, Autumn 2015 | Go to article overview

Graphic Novels in the School Library: Using Graphic Novels to Encourage Reluctant Readers and Improve Literacy


Crowley, Joel, School Librarian


Introduction

Over the last ten years there has been a shift in how comics are perceived in the UK. One reason for this is the rise in popularity of comic book characters, which has come with the development of the Marvel and DC filmic universes.

This shift is having an impact on approaches to youth and children's literacy. In 2014, the first Comics Laureate, Dave Gibbons, was selected by the charity CLAw (Comics Literacy Awareness). He is working to champion comics and 'their potential to improve literacy' (2014, CLAw).

This article will look at how the school librarian can support this work by using graphic novels to encourage reluctant readers and help students to improve their literacy. It will look at practical ways in which this medium can be used in order to meet these two aims. The term graphic novel is used broadly here in order to include different types of sequential art including comics and manga.

Many of these techniques have been used over the last three years at Burlington Danes Academy (BDA) in West London. Experiences of using these techniques, including their strengths and weakness, when implemented at BDA, will also be discussed.

Encouraging Reluctant Readers

In recent years there have been a number of studies that show a correlation between reading for pleasure and improvements in literacy. The Department of Education's Reading: The Next Steps report (2014) highlighted a number of these studies including the 2009 PISA survey. It showed that there was 'a difference in reading performance equivalent to just over a year's schooling' between young people that read for up to 30 minutes a day and those that never read for enjoyment (2009, OECD). Such studies show just how important it is for students to be regularly reading for pleasure.

Encouraging students to do this can be a challenge but graphic novels can be used to make this task easier. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, they can be less intimidating to a student than novels that do not have sequential art. This problem of being 'put-off' by novels is often exaggerated if the student has low literacy levels and struggles with large paragraphs of text. The artwork in graphic novels reduces the amount of reading the student has to do and enables them to follow the narrative at a quicker pace. The art can also provide visual prompts if they are unable to understand particular words.

Similarly, we have seen that graphic novels can appeal to students due to the fact that many comics are in popular genres and include characters that they know and love. Such graphic novels often fall into two categories. The first is manga and superhero comics. Students are keen to read the adventures of the Shonen Jump, Marvel and DC heroes that are in the anime, films and cartoons that they enjoy.

In the BDA library, this correlation is particularly evident for graphic novels that are linked to upcoming film releases. For example, both Age of Ultron and Civil War are crossover events that are the source material for new Marvel films. These books are regularly borrowed and are a good introduction to the rich and complex Marvel universe.

The second category is funny comics. The Simpsons comics have always been really popular in the library. Similarly, the comics of Jamie Smart, a contemporary British cartoonist whose works include Fish-Head Steve and Bunny versus Monkey, are also loved by students.

There has been some research into proving this link between the use of graphic novels and students' reading for pleasure. Many of these studies have been carried out on a relatively small scale but nonetheless show the impact that graphic novels can have. For example, Bunn (2012) showed how graphic novels were used at Loughborough Grammar School to promote reading for pleasure amongst students.

There are fewer studies that show that graphic novels are a 'first step' that leads to students reading other forms of fiction. …

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