Have you heard that kids shouldn’t read too many graphic novels? That they’ll lose a taste for “real” literature? That they’ll never become independent readers?
Telling students not to read graphic novels is like telling kids not to eat their vegetables.
Graphic novels can be a silver bullet. Struggling reader? Read a graphic novel. Dis-fluent reader? Read a graphic novel. Strong reader who’d rather be playing video games? You get the picture.
The just-right graphic novel can transform a reluctant reader into a confident bibliophile.
Last June, I was working with a second grader with severe dyslexia. She was finally decoding accurately, but she still read slowly. On the last day of school, we spent a few minutes reading Amulet #1: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi. She was hooked. A week later, her mom came in concerned. Sarah hadn’t wanted to go outside or play. Instead, she’d spent the past week devouring all five books in the series. Fast forward one year — this student’s reading fluency is at grade-level.
Every year I hear from parents and teachers who are concerned that their students are reading graphic novels. These are just a few of the concerns I’ve heard:
Concern #1 – If a student reads graphic novels, does he really understand what he’s reading?
Absolutely! There are a handful of studies that seem to suggest that the format of graphic novels may actually enhance comprehension. Here are some talking points:
- Graphic novels require the same reading strategies students use when reading text-only prose. While reading graphic novels, kids summarize, infer, predict, and apply fix-up strategies, just as they do in other genres (Brenna, 2012).
- Children develop additional comprehension strategies specific to graphic novels. They learn to interpret lettering style, recognize panel layout, and infer meaning from facial expressions and gestures. This may make students more effective readers of 21st century media like websites and advertisements (Brenna, 2012).
- The vocabulary in many graphic novels is just as rich as the language found in children’s books (Kerr & Culhane, 2000). Plus, the visual clues in graphic novels may help kids effectively use context to understand new vocabulary words (Smetana, 2009).
- Graphic novels hook life-long readers. Jim Trelease points out in his inimitable The Read Aloud Handbook that 59% of Finnish kids read almost a comic a day, and they have the highest reading sores on the IEA Assessment. It’s correlational data, and there are a whole slew of other factors, but still!
“Qu’ils lisent des romans graphiques!”
Let them read graphic novels!
Concern # 2 – Isn’t it important for students to visualize as they read?
Yes it is.
This is why graphic novels are such a great tool.
The graphic novel is a scaffold that helps students independently create crisp, vivid mental images. Investigators haven’t found any links between students’ ability to visualize and their preference for graphic novels. Further, one of the reasons why visualizing strategies may be effective is that they require active engagement (Clark, Deschler, Schumaker Alley & Wagner, 1984). Many argue that graphic novels are, for many children, a juicier read than more conventional forms of prose.
Concern # 3 – Will my students become fluent readers if they only reads graphic novels?
There are no data to suggest that students who read graphic novels have delayed reading fluency. We do know, however, that one of the major differences between strong and weak readers is time spent reading (NRP, 2001). If your student eagerly spends time with a favorite graphic novel, my best advice is to get out of the way.
Finally, graphic novels are an exciting medium for explicit fluency instruction. Teachers can use graphic novels for choral reading, echo reading, and readers’ theater. Usually students read more expressively because of clues like art, text format, and speech bubbles.
If you’re new to graphic novels, my first recommendation would be to sit down and actually read a graphic novel. You might be surprised by the sophisticated vocabulary, syntax, and themes it includes.
Brand new to graphic novels? Here are a few of my favorites:
- Consider reading Robot Dreams by Sara Varon. This mostly wordless book explores topics like loyalty, loss, and forgiveness.
- I love the Secret Science Alliance by Eleanor Davis. Three misfit kids outwit an evil scientist in this fast-paced, and funny novel. It’s sure to please with hijinx, secret lairs, and brilliant inventions.
- I already mentioned Amulet #1: The Stonekeeper. It’s a universally appealing book with both boys and girls clamoring to read it. I’ve had students with dyslexia read more than 1,000 pages in a week as they race from book to book in the series.
- Try Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke, which includes this description of an evil, tentacled, alien race, “The dangerous, agile, and enigmatic Screed have no existing home world and a very limited hierarchy.” There’s a lot of vocabulary to unpack here!
- Check out Adventures in Cartooning: How to Turn Your Doodles Into Comics. A brave knight and his wimpy horse set off to rescue the princess from the candy-eating dragon. Along the way, they learn the basics of cartooning in this laugh-a-minute book.
Six Tips for Success with Graphic Novels
1) Find exciting graphic novels. Enthusiasm is contagious. The American Library Association has great recommendations. Their recommendations for teen graphic novels can be found here.
2) Preview books before you share them. There are some violent graphic novels that aren’t appropriate for younger readers. Please, learn from my mistakes.
3) Model how to use comprehension strategies with graphic novels. Guide your students to summarize, connect, and predict. As you’re reading, you can ask questions like, “Why do you think Claudette wants to kill the giant?”
4) Teach genre-specific language. Discuss how the author conveys her message with tools such as panels, spreads, and speech bubbles. I recommend Adventures in Cartooning: How to Turn Your Doodles Into Comicsas a way to learn this vocabulary.
5) Read aloud together. Read aloud with your student alternating between panels or pages. Model how to read with expression by lowering and raising your voice, talking slower and faster, and pausing. You can help draw your students’ attention to the characters’ facial expressions and the type of font or speech bubble. These give great clues for how the dialogue should be read.
6) Extend topics through graphic novels. Try Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad when learning about slavery, or Rapunzel’s Revenge in a unit on retelling fairy tales. Personally, the Cartoon Guide to Statistics got me through AP Statistics in high school!
When I first started looking at graphic novels, I wasn’t impressed. I didn’t connect to the characters and I was confused by the layout. I’m so glad that I didn’t give up on them though! Graphic novels can be engaging and fun for students and adults. Best of all, as one of my students put it, “Graphic novels make you think hard.” What more can a teacher ask for?
I’m always on the lookout for great graphic novels. Do you have any favorites?
Brenna, B. (2013). How graphic novels support reading comprehension strategy development in children. Literacy, 47 (2), 88-94.
Brunyé, T.T., Taylor, H.A., Rapp, D.N., & Spiro, A.B. (2006). Learning procedures: The role of working memory in multimedia learning experiences. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20 (7), 917- 940.
Hansen, K. (2012). In Defense of Graphic Novels. English Journal, 102(2), 57-63.
Kerr, S., & Culhane, T.H. (2000). The humble comic: Possibilities for developing literacy skills and learning content. Retrieved April 4, 2014, from www.pearsonlearning.com/ communities/assets/research_center/ResearchPaper_ Comic.pdf
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000a). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
Lyga, A. W. (2006). Graphic Novels for (Really) Young Readers: Owly, Buzzboy, Pinky and Stinky. Who Are These Guys? And Why Aren’t They Ever on The Shelf?. School Library Journal, 52(3), 56.
Rapp, D. N. (2011). Comic Books’ Latest Plot Twist: Enhancing Literacy Instruction. Phi Delta Kappan, 93(4), 64-67.
Rick, J. (2011). Educate the Educators about Graphic Novels: Five Tips for Success. Library Media Connection, 30 (2), 34-35.
Schwarz, G. E. (2002). Graphic Novels for Multiple Literacies. Journal Of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 46(3), 262-65.
Smetana, L., Odelson, D., Burns, H., & Grisham, D. L. (2009). Using Graphic Novels in the High School Classroom: Engaging Deaf Students with a New Genre. Journal Of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53(3), 228-240.