Comic books have long been contraband in the classroom. These colorful stories are most often thought of as a distraction hidden behind the math book for slacking students. However, modern graphic novels have emerged as an effective teaching tool that can help improve literacy, explain complex concepts, and get students excited about reading. Many are beginning to view them as literature.
Today, many American students are spending significantly more time consuming visual media than books. A 2007 National Endowment for the Arts study on reading found that the average American between the ages of 15 and 24 spends only seven minutes a day reading compared to as much as two and a half hours each day watching television. Many students in this range never read for pleasure, and the number of proficient readers is dropping in this age range, according to the NEA. Graphic novels are a more visual medium than traditional text and can entice greater readership among high school and college students who are drawn to TV.
When children read at home, they do better in both reading and math testing, according to past research from the Educational Testing Services, the company that administers the GRE and other exams. Additionally, ETS found that the variety of reading materials in the home correlates to higher reading proficiency.
Although often grouped together, a graphic novel is not the same as a comic book. Unlike the Sunday comic stripes or short serialized superhero stories, graphic novels contain all of the aspects of any school-assigned book: a beginning, a middle, an end, conflict, character development, resolution, and many other literary characteristics. However, graphic novels often use panels and images to also tell the story.
“The most significant difference from a comic is that the graphic novel’s text is both written and visual,” English teacher Cat Turner explained to the National Council of Teachers of English. “Every part of each frame plays a role in the interpretation of the text, and hence, graphic novels actually demand sophisticated readers.”
This more diverse and complex style of storytelling may be especially beneficial to students who struggle with large sections of text. The combinations of short lines of text and images throughout may deliver the same information to a student as a lengthy paragraph, but feel more palatable.
Due to space limitations in a panel on on the page, graphic novels also showcase efficient writing, mirroring a habit that readers can practice themselves. The unique combination of image and text can also improve comprehension and even vocabulary, as students have more context to derive their clues from. The School Library Journal noted one example of graphic novels in the classroom where an educator gave half the class Hamlet as the traditional text and the rest the graphic novelization. Those who read the graphic novel spent almost one fewer hour reading and scored higher on a comprehension quiz later.
Some educators argue that reading through images can be just as important as learning to read through text, particularly with the proliferation of visual media. Graphic novels also provide nontraditional learners an opportunity to get excited about reading and thrive via the mixed medium.
“Graphic novels can be a way in for students who are difficult to reach through traditional texts,” educational publisher Scholastic explained. “Even those deemed poor readers willingly and enthusiastically gravitate toward these books. Readers who are not interested in reading or who, despite being capable of reading, prefer gaming or watching media, can be pulled into a story by the visual elements of graphic novels.”
One of the major criticism over graphic novels is the depiction of violent, graphic, racy, or scandalous images. Some of the most famous graphic novels, such as the Watchmen and Persepolis, feature scenes or stories of serious violence.
However, advocates of graphic novels argue that the issue is often not with the content but the presentation. As SLJ noted, the problem may be what researcher Steven Cary calls the “naked buns” effect. This is a paradox where the text of the phrase “naked buns” is not perceived as offensive or indecent while the illustration of the phrase would be. It is the image not the concept that can lead to controversy.
In the past, the graphic memoir Fun Home has faced controversy when it was assigned as reading for college students due to its depiction of sex. Fellow autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis has also been protested when assigned to middle school students because of a scene involving torture. Following the “naked buns” argument, this content may only be seen as more offensive than traditional novels because of its illustration of the concepts versus its discussion of them.
However, many books that have been banned or censored throughout history in U.S. are now looked at as literary masterpieces and assigned regularly, such as The Canterbury Tales , The Grapes of Wrath , and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn .
Graphic novels can provide students with a number of reading benefits because of their unique style and presentation, but this also makes it more difficult for educators to incorporate these works into their curriculum.
Shelley Hong Xu, associate professor in the department of teacher education at California State University, Long Beach, recommended that teachers start slow and learn more about graphic novels in general, according to the NCTE. Xu advocates for educators to spend time reading a graphic novel and noting their own comprehension skills.
“I think that every preservice and inservice teacher needs to experience this activity in order to better understand literacy knowledge and skills that students use with reading comics and graphic novels,” Xu said.
Teachers should also learn about the genre of graphic novels and what their students are most interested in learning or what their experience with the genre is. There are a number of graphic novels that are directly focused on historic events and may act as teaching tools on their own, but there are many others that would be meritless in the classroom.
Teachers who want to incorporate graphic novels into the curriculum should also expect some pushback from parents and administrators, Xu argued. Educators should explain how these texts can help students reach their education goals, improve reading comprehension, and provide other benefits. Students may be less likely to push back about the inclusion of graphic novels in class, but educators should be prepared to coach students on how to read graphic novels and deal with other difficulties that may arise.
Although graphic novels are unlikely to cure modern reading issues in the classroom, their unique style of storytelling and more exciting visual medium can help address specific pain points by attracting a wider variety of readers, leading to more consistent recreational reading and creating healthy reading habits.