As education continues to emphasize standards and achievement, an innovative method of teaching reading and writing is catching steam. The new process? Many teachers are turning to comic books as a tool to develop reading skills as well as a deeper love for reading.
An Appropriate Supplement for Working with All Readers
Though the initial reaction to this suggested process is that educators are simply lowering their educational standards and reinforcing lazy reading habits, it is easy to see why comic books have the potential to help readers. Today’s students are much more visually inclined and the exposure to electronic toys, games, and the computer means those students are used to a multi-sensory approach. Simply stated, comic books and graphic novels enable students to engage in the learning process through multiple inputs.
Chris Wilson of The Graphic Classroom states, “When today’s readers are forced to read daunting amounts of words on a page, the goal can become finishing the book, not decoding the words and understanding the literature." With comics, Wilson notes that students “can take their time and explore the color, the tone, and the character’s mood. They can examine the hidden details in the background, see the setting, and gain insight into the comic as they explore how a panel or page is put together.
Much More than Reading about Traditional Super Heroes
Wilson is quick to point out that the idea of using comics is much more than the traditional notion of introducing students to a group of superheroes such as Spider-Man, the Hulk, and Wonder Woman. He also notes that comics should not replace classroom reading materials but instead, should supplement the current literature collection in a teacher’s classroom.
“Literature is good for all students, in all grade levels,” notes the author. “Comic literature, from my perspective, is simply one form of good literature. If a teacher applies the same criteria to comic literature as he or she does to traditional literature there should be no ‘watering down’ of the curriculum, content,
Wilson further debunks the viewpoint of lowering standards with a couple of key examples. “When thinking about comics as real literature, consider this; ‘Maus,’ a high quality, profound graphic novel about the Holocaust by Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Also, most people do not realize that when the 9-11 Commission released its 3-inch thick report, it realized that many Americans would not bother to read the voluminous document. Knowing full well that the report needed to be accessible to the general public, the commission also published the report in a graphic novel format.”
Comics Critical in Heterogeneous and UBD Classrooms
Wilson notes that "the duality of text and illustrations fosters a deep understanding by engaging students on multiple levels. Those students who struggle to read can use comics to help them understand concepts because they do not use all of their time decoding words. Students may spend some time decoding text, but they can also use the art to make sense of the big understanding and the deeper concepts embedded in the literature."
For those who view education as being about having a diverse classroom and allowing students to explore their world in their own way, comic literature appears to have a firm place. Teachers who focus on understanding by design can immediately see where the comic concept can serve as the perfect tool to bring about a desired educational outcome. In fact, imagine the culminating activity being a student constructed comic as a method for demonstrating understanding.
“As any good teacher will tell you, it takes a large bag of tricks to make a classroom great,” states Wilson. “Comic literature can be, and in my opinion should be, a part of the modern classroom; however, it is not meant to replace traditional literature.”
Editor's note: For a thorough look at the use of comics in the classroom, Open Education offered a four part series on the topic including a more thorough rationale for the concept, an interview with Chris Wilson of The Graphic Classroom, a discussion of the genre called Manga, and twelve recommendations to try in the classroom.