Literacy is a complicated concept. What literacy includes seems to widen and envelop more each year. We are required to read, interpret, and understand many different genres of communication. One thing is clear though–the more we read the more we understand.
Each year, I have had a number of students who claim to hate reading. These same students spend countless hours playing video games and reading comics – not realizing how much those two activities are actually contributing to their background knowledge, and directly/indirectly their ability as readers.
Comic books, or some refer to them as graphic novels, are an underrated resource for developing literacy. When is the last time you visited a comic book shop? I assure you there is more than meets the eye on the treasured shelves of these stores. In fact, I would argue that it might be the first place that parents take struggling readers. Why? I’ll give you five reasons why students should be reading comics to improve their reading skills.
1–Comics are high interest pieces. You don’t have to be an educator, or a salesman (which can be the same thing at times) to understand one of the basic axioms of life: when students enjoy something they are more likely to participate or to use the material. Comics get students invested in their reading–they care more about comprehension because they want to understand the storyline.
2–Comics incorporate so many elements of fiction in short pieces. Depending on whether you choose to read an individual issue, or the entire graphic novel, you may be exposed to deep character development, or a snippet of the change that a character will experience during a story arc. Speaking of story arcs, each individual issue has its own story arc that is part of the larger composite arc of the graphic novel. Students would repeatedly see the effect of conflict (internal and external), the influence of setting (time and place), and the development of theme.
3–Comics come in many different genres. You can find a comic to fit with just about any style of writing/storytelling that you can think of–science fiction, historical fiction, actual history–and within each of those (and many other) genres there are many sub genres. Suffice to say, you can most likely find something to fit the desire of just about any reader.
4–Comics are like the Twitter of novels. Limited space in each panel dictates that writers have to choose the best words to tell the story. There’s no room, literally, to pontificate or drag out the story. While illustrations in comics are equally important, the images mean less without the right words (or sometimes absence of words) to go with them. Comics serve as a model to young writers of how to be picky. Mark Twain once stated, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Comics exemplify Twain’s belief.
5–Comics also serve as a connection to history. I have been astonished by the amount of background knowledge that students gain from video games and comic books. From historical facts, geographical settings, to notable historical figures there are a number of facts that students learn from fiction. Comics also serve as preserved vessels of social commentary–a safe place for students to explore the complexities of social, political, and historical issues.
Need a fun way to end a school week? Take your kids to the library and the comic bookstore on a Friday or Saturday. You just might wind up being their favorite superhero.
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Creed Anthony is a veteran classroom teacher, longtime blogger and father of two. You can also find him at talesfromthepoopdeck.com.