My senior research is, as odd as this may seem, on comic books and comic book culture. A portion of my research has been done on the academic benefits of comic books and graphic novels as tools for enhancing literacy. Below is a synthesis I wrote on two articles I used in my research (I figured nobody wants to read some boring 20-page paper on comic books so I’ll post just the interesting pieces in smaller increments).
Comic books have the unique ability to enhance literacy in readers where other mediums cannot. Comic books can increase a child’s comprehension and understanding in the classroom. This medium can provide a more authentic understanding of real-world interactions as it depicts the relationship between word and image. Furthermore, the reading of comics can encourage a child to read for pleasure beyond the classroom setting.
The first article examined for this was “Comic Books’ Latest Plot Twist: Enhancing Literacy Instruction,” published in 2011 by David Rapp in Kappan magazine. Rapp addresses the necessity of broadening classroom materials to encourage reading and comprehension. He suggests comic books as they integrate text and visual information in building meaning and making connections. The language of comic books requires moving beyond the text and interpreting the images (Rapp 64). He states, “Reading comics requires substantial cognitive work that exemplifies the types of literacy skills necessary for comprehension,” (65), effectively emphasizing that the literacy skills children can develop through the reading of comic books and graphic novels can spur students to consider stories in a new way, including evaluation of cultural context over time, character development, historical events, political issues, and story innovations. Rapp suggests that the variety of topics and stories to be found in comics allows readers, regardless of demographics and personal interests, to find titles that will interest them.
The second article examined was, “Using Graphic Novels in the High School Classroom: Engaging Deaf Students with a New Genre”, published in a 2009 issue of the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. The article was written by two high school teachers of the Deaf and two university professors of education. The authors examined American Sign Language (ASL) as a visual language without a written component to whom the “speakers” have no oral comprehension when translated into written English: “Because of the visual nature of Deaf students’ learning, the idea of teaching literacy with graphic novels [is appealing]” (228). The nature of comic and graphic novel language, image and text, allows students to analyze how pictures communicate ideas, themes, and emotions, as well as the way color, light, shadow and lines can affect the mood of a story. Body language and facial expressions convey feelings not printed in text, and students are able to examine how realism or lack of affects the message of the story (230). Regarding ASL students as English-Second Language (ESL) learners, the authors address the challenge of second language acquisition. Many ESL students struggle in comprehension, but graphic novels can help readers understand print and decode meanings in literacy such as metaphors, similes, and other symbolism. Additionally, the content of stories can help students explore social issues including diversity, discrimination, national security and disease (232).
To further examine how comic books enhance literacy, the subject must be broken down into more specific points. In looking at the school environment, one can argue that comic books can increase a child’s comprehension and understanding in the classroom. Rapp addresses this point thoroughly in stating, “Literacy involves generating new ideas and interpreting of those materials. This necessitates the construction of inferences that help readers make connections across text elements, predicting what might happen next in a narrative, and enriching text contents based on personal experiences and thoughts” (65). He addresses this point further in discussing popular activities students can utilize in the classroom to understand literary classics:
The most popular classics in the Western literary canon have comic adaptations. Asking students to compare original texts with adaptations encourages them to evaluate multiple sources. This could include asking students to think about the kinds of decisions that writers and artists have made with respect to including and leaving out aspects of stories. Reading an original source and comparing its contents to subsequent adaptations can foster multiple interpretations and highlight aspects of plot or historical descriptions. (65)
Rapp also discusses the popularity of reading activities involving what happens to a character after a story ends. The most unique quality of the comic book medium is that comics present stories throughout time – characters continue in stories for decades, developing and maturing through the years. This presents an opportunity for students to “evaluate cultural context, story innovations, [and] character development” that other literature cannot (65). This medium can provide a more authentic understanding of real-world interactions as it depicts the relationship between word and image, which is the second point in emphasizing the usefulness of comic books as a literary tool. The authors who looked at comic books for Deaf students also noted the usefulness of comic books for this purpose:
Although much of the professional literature on graphic novels has focused on literary quality and motivation, the contribution to understanding of content cannot be ignored. Graphic novels help students explore such social issues as terrorism, AIDS, and discrimination. (Smetana 232)
The final point to address is that comics encourage a child to read for pleasure beyond the classroom setting. Facilitating comic books as a classroom tool encourages a lifelong love of reading for students. Not only do students develop comprehension skills, but these skills can be transferred beyond the written word to other areas of life (Rapp 65). “[Comics] focus on historical events, discuss political, cultural, and scientific issues, and offer beginner’s introductions to academic comics. Comics offer one way of engendering excitement and interest in reading” (Rapp 66). Smetana addressed this as well, discussing the lack of engagement within the classroom as far as facilitating discussion on readings, but the increase in students reading during free periods and forming “their own impromptu literature circles with students outside the class, discussing the books and making predictions” (234).
With sufficient evidence as stated above, it is difficult to argue against comic books as a literary tool. Comic books have the unique ability to enhance literacy in readers where other mediums, such as novels and film adaptations of books, cannot. Comic books can increase a child’s comprehension and understanding in the classroom, in addition to providing a more authentic understanding of the world. Children are more inclined to read for enjoyment beyond the classroom setting and engage in discussion that demonstrates their level of comprehension. This material is a useful tool that can be utilized by mainstream academic institutions as well as second language institutions of learning, such as Deaf classrooms and bilingual classrooms, to enhance literacy.
- Rapp, David N. “Comic Books’ Latest Plot Twist: Enhancing Literacy Instruction.” Kappan Dec. 2011: 64-67.
- Smetana, Linda, Darah Odelson, Heidi Burns, and Dana L. Grisham. “Using Graphic Novels in the High School Classroom: Engaging Deaf Students With a New Genre.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 53.3 (2009): 228-39.