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Why Teach With Comics?

As school boards across North America are becoming more open to varied
strategies to improve student literacy, there has been an increase in the use of
graphic novels in the classroom. However, there is still a strong stigma attached to
the idea of using comics as a teaching tool. Anyone who has tried to convince a
non-comic reader of the benefits of comics has heard the same things: the reading
level is too low, the subject matter is frivolous, comics are too violent. While these
complaints may ring true for some books on the market, it dismisses the wide
variety of books out there that are challenging to read, thoughtful and insightful,
and age-appropriate. It also dismisses the fact that comics can be an incredibly
rewarding teaching tool for a variety of learners.
To a reluctant reader or an English Language Learner, a prose text can be incredibly
daunting; it is a wall of words, overwhelming to start, impossible to finish. The key
to getting these learners to read is to engage their imagination and interest. Comics
are a perfect vehicle. They divide up the text into manageable chunks, which are
supported by images. These images help readers increase their vocabulary through
the connection between words and images. Comics are especially useful for English
Language Learners from Korea, China, and Japan, for whom comics are an inherent
part of their culture. By offering a style of reading with which these students are
familiar, they will be more willing to make the effort to read. The bottom line is
getting them to read. Thus, it is better to offer a graphic adaptation of a prose novel
covered in class to those reluctant readers, to allow all students to participate in
discussions and unit work, rather than have some students fall behind and be
unable to participate at all.
One criticism levelled at comics is that the reading level is too low. As it turns out,
this is not true. "According to read-aloud specialist Jim Trelease (2001), to become
proficient readers, people need to master a set of about 5,000 'rare words' that
appear infrequently in conversation. In the average adult novel, these words appear
52 times per 1,000 words of text. In comic books, they appear 53 times per 1,000
(Hayes & Athens, 1988). Consequently, comic books don't reduce the vocabulary
demand on young readers, but they do provide picture support, quick and appealing
story lines, and less text."1 As it turns out, comics are just as challenging as prose
novels in terms of reading level and ability. But, since they are broken into chunks of
reading, they are much more accessible to reluctant readers and English Language
Learners.
Even beyond the support given to reluctant readers and English Language Learners,
the benefits of graphic novels and comics in the classroom are vast. They can:
engage readers who learn visually, and who are comfortable with visual media,
such as video games and computer graphics
increase vocabulary

encourage readers to explore different genres, and develop an appreciation for


different literary and artistic styles
teach positive messages, such as helping others, working to one's best ability,
working as a team, and persevering
open a reader's mind to new ways of storytelling, and increase their
imagination,through the unique combination of text and pictures used in comics to
convey the story.
The key is choosing the right comic books. Seek out your local comic store for
advice and read some books before deciding what will work best in your classroom.
Perhaps you are looking for a selection of graphic novels to get your elementary
students into reading; there are a lot of engaging books out there with positive
messages, such as Jellaby by Kean Soo or Mouse Guard by David Petersen. Perhaps
you are looking for something that you can use in your high school English or
history class; there are a lot of great books with historical and social context that
could lead to rich discussion, such as Maus by Art Spiegelman, or It's a Bird by
Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen.
Schools have become increasingly more aware of the need to address the varying
learning styles of students. In 1983, Howard Gardner put forth his theory of Multiple
Intelligences, according to which, students learn in different ways. He identified
eight different learning styles, of which, traditionally, schools have emphasized the
Verbal/Linguistic and Logical/Mathematical styles. As a result, students who learn in
alternate ways have tended to be identified as less intelligent, as intellect has
historically been attached to linguistic and mathematical skills.
Although Gardner's work has been met with some controversy, most teachers will
tell you that they are able to observe these varying styles first hand in their
classrooms. They will also tell you that they see a more consistent result from their
students when they incorporate assignments and activities which tap into multiple
intelligences, as this differentiated learning allows more students to achieve
success. One way to address multiple intelligences in an assignment or activity is to
build in options, which will allow different learners to more successfully demonstrate
their learning. Another way is to create an assignment or activity which utilizes
multiple learning styles. This insures that students who learn in different ways can
increase their opportunities for success in the classroom. An assignment or activity
in which students create their own comic or graphic novel can explore all of
Gardner's "Multiple Intelligences":
Verbal/Linguistic Learners learn best through words and language, and in
producing written work. Most comics or graphic novels will require the use of
language to tell the story. In creating a work, students can focus on what the
characters say and think. There is no limit to what words can do in a comic.

Visual/Spatial Learners learn best through visual elements, and in producing


artistic and design work. Comics must include pictures; you can even tell a story
without words. Placing characters in sets and backgrounds encourages spatial
learning.
Logical/Mathematical Learners learn best when working with numbers or strategy.
Comics have a long history of formalism, which has always involved the
mathematical arrangement of panels. Devising a plot involves the use of logic and
strategy.
Bodily/Kinesthetic Learners learn best by incorporating movement. In creating a
comic book, many creators either study live models, or use their own bodies to
create facial expressions and physical positions in order to draw characters.
Students can thus figure out what their characters are doing by getting into
positions themselves, in order to draw them. Students who are reluctant to draw
can use photography and position models as the characters.
Interpersonal Learners learn best when working in a group, and in producing work
involving emotions. Collaborating activities can lead to effective brainstorming in
creating a comic.Interpersonal learners will create stronger characters by examining
the characters' social relationships.
Intrapersonal Learners learn best when self-reflecting, and in applying their own
emotions to the situation. They will examine the character's moods and motivations
closely in creating their comic.
Naturalistic Learners learn best when relating things to their own environment.
They will incorporate details about the character's physical environment and how it
relates to the action of the story. They can also use photography to generate
backgrounds as they move their characters from one location to another.
Musical/Rhythmic Learners learn best when using music or rhythmical patterns.
Comics inherently have rhythm through the repetition of panels or elements of
panels. Additionally, students can incorporate music into their comic story.
The benefits of using comics in the classroom are certainly great, both in increasing
literacy and in addressing the educational needs of differentiated learners. As
schools struggle to maintain enrolment and ensure that students are not left behind
in the learning process, teachers must adapt their classroom to the developing
needs of their students. This means utilizing different teaching methods and tools.
The application of Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences and the use of comics
and graphic novels can provide students with greater opportunities for success,
both in the classroom and beyond.
1 Newkirk, Thomas. "Media and Literacy: What's Good?". Educational Leadership,
September 2006.

Jennifer Haines (M.A., B.Ed.) has taught grades 7 to 12 at The Linden School in
Toronto, Ontario for the past 8 years. She also owns The Dragon, located in Guelph,
Ontario, which was named a finalist for the Will Eisner Spirit of Retailing this past
summer. Combining her knowledge of teaching with her knowledge of comics, she
also administers www.comicsintheclassroom.ca, a resource to help teachers select
graphic novels for their classrooms and libraries, through which she has successfully
tailored graphic novel programs for teachers and school boards throughout Ontario.