Comics in the Classroom: Creating Independent Readers

Note: Steve Bissette and I are teaching a course in contemporary comics history (Survey of the Drawn Story II, as it’s properly known).  Our students are required to submit an essay, in blog form, on an aspect of contemporary comics history.  They are restricted to the period of 1969 – present.

Today’s essay is by Beth Hetland.  Enjoy!

-Robyn Chapman

Comics in the Classroom: Reading is the Best!

by Beth Hetland

So here we are at The Center for Cartoon Studies, churning out comics monthly, weekly, and sometimes even daily. Aside from becoming famous, what are we going to do with this vast output? Where can we take the comics medium? How can comics impact society? How can we use our powers for good? Fear not blog-reader, I have some suggestions.

Currently in the United States there are over 8 million children from grades 4-12 who do not read at grade level.  The majority of public school systems work with a curriculum whose goal is to have independent readers by the third grade. The drop off between emerging readers and skilled readers who can comprehend and analyze complex text is astronomical.  There are three main obstacles that children struggle with on the path to becoming a skilled reader.  They are: a difficulty understanding alphabetic principles, failure to transfer comprehension skills of spoken language to reading, and absence of motivation to read or a failure to develop an appreciation of the rewards of reading.  Now the first two I think are definitely challenges that the school systems have under control as far as teaching children techniques and methods to conquer those principles; but to convey to a child the importance and pleasure in reading or to keep them motivated to continue to read? This is where I believe comics in literary education programs could really soar.

Starting in elementary school, children are already learning to associate images with words to put together how to tell a story.  After all comics are, at their most basic, pictorial storytelling. Utilizing comics in a classroom of emerging readers can really connect with them on several different levels. The children will be learning new ways for storytelling and narrative to work cohesively with imagery.  Not only that, but when you teach children to read with a variety of books, odds are they will find something they really like. One of the most disappointing things when I moved from picture books to chapter books was the lack of pictures.  Some of the young reader chapter books will use a chapter heading or page as an illustration but it was never, never enough. I think that’s a common place for children to stop feeling motivated to read.  They don’t have the images that they were originally drawn to and they’re expected to struggle their way through text only pages. If the story isn’t interesting, kids are going to put that book down. Comics could be that saving grace for the child who finds picture books too easy but chapter books too challenging or uninteresting.  The best part about comics for a reader in that limbo is that comics will continue to become more challenging while keeping the images.  The narrative devices will always continue to fluctuate and grow from genre to genre, that way there is no plateau of literary growth for the reader.

Children learn to read through a variety of devices.  For example to learn the word ‘dog’ a parent or teacher would show a picture of a dog, say ‘dog’ and point to the word ‘dog.’ But think if they were introduced to the concept of dog through a photograph of a dog, a stylized or “cartoon” illustration of a dog and letters forming the word ‘dog.’ Most children begin to make this transition from concrete to abstract through picture books, with a single illustration on each page. Comics can take learning to the next level, asking kids to follow a sequence of illustrations that form a story. A book like Owly (by Andy Runton) provides an opportunity for young children to “read” the pictures in order and follow the story. They will get to verbalize the story, which reinforces the concept that ink on a page can be translated into ideas and words. In addition, the characters “speak” in symbols, providing another opportunity for children to make the connection between abstract images and language.

Before a child is ready to read text, comics can give them practice in understanding the information on a printed on a page.  They will gain the same basic skills that will help them when they make the leap to chapter books; tracking left to right and top to bottom, interpreting symbols, and following the sequence of events in a story. Sequential art provides plenty of opportunity for connecting the story to the child’s own experiences, predicting what will happen, inferring what happens between panels, and summarizing, just as they would do with a chapter book. The advantage of comics is that children don’t need to be able to decode text to learn and practice comprehension skills.

It makes my heart feel pretty warm and fuzzy to read all these articles that are arguing the same literate point for comics. And, to top it off, those articles are posted, researched and shared by teachers! As soon as the district administrators get their acts together and see all these advantages of comics in the classroom I think that the literacy of so many schools will just rocket off the charts, ZIFF!

 – Beth Hetland


3 responses to “Comics in the Classroom: Creating Independent Readers

  1. I really enjoyed this post.

    My parents practically raised me on comic books. However, I grew up with a lot of kids who were forbidden to read comics.

    Many of these people don’t read anything now that they are adults, comics or otherwise. This is only anecdotal evidence, but I think the point is relevant.

    Also scary: I spent the fall traveling around the province of Saskatchewan in a van with a bunch of artists, teaching workshops to kids in small towns. Sometimes I would be in a room of Grade 4s who had never read a comic in their life.

    Yikes. What’s happening to today’s youth? Grumble Grumble, in my day, gol durn it…

  2. This was a really entertaining post, and it is based on a solid premise. If I remember correctly, “comics” (or comic-like curricula, created specifically for the classroom) were used to teach us reading and sequential thinking in kindergarten.

    I don’t think many people know that comics come at different reading levels. My mother, who is a middle school English teacher, was surprised to find many comic-book adaptions of books her students struggled with every year (most notably Beowulf. Epic poetry is a really great way to make a bunch of thirteen year olds hate reading). She’s thinking of using them as a more entertaining form of spark-notes for her classroom.

  3. please send me cartoon pictures with student

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