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Comic Books as Models for Literacy Instruction

BY Melissa Barbee
 | Aug 12, 2015

ThinkstockPhotos-76686319_300pxAs teachers, if we can motivate our students to read, we have won half the battle. If we can turn them into lifelong readers, victory is ours! In the arena of motivating readers, comic books have a noticeable advantage over other forms of text.

Comic books as motivators

Kids find comic books interesting. For starters, the visual appeal grabs the attention of young readers. Enticing covers plastered with colorful artwork are enough to make anyone look twice. Then there are the characters. Most students are very familiar with the characters whose faces are depicted on the covers of comic books. Students already have connections to these characters and storylines through televisions shows, movies, and video games. Why not meet children where they are? If we want them to fall in love with reading, we need to start with what is familiar to them and build upon it.

Comic books for budding readers

Emerging readers are intimidated by a great deal of text. The task of reading a chapter book can seem too daunting for their consideration. Comic books, on the other hand, do not pose such a threat. The pages of a comic book are peppered with small chunks of text. Comic books serve as great stepping-stones to longer, more complex texts. In a comic book, readers are provided with details without the use of a lot of words.

Comic books as a comprehension aid

Comic book illustrations are not only motivating to the reluctant reader, but also instrumental in promoting comprehension. The sequential artwork is helpful for readers and nonreaders alike. I have used comic strips when teaching sequencing by cutting apart the panels and asking students to arrange them in sequential order. This is a fun activity for students, and it requires several high-level thinking skills. In a comic book, the illustrations are just as important to comprehension as the words. Students must use the details in the text and illustrations to arrange the comic panels in sequence.

When reading a comic book, students must read between the lines. This is a wonderful manner in which to teach students to draw inferences and synthesize information. Inferencing can be an abstract skill for young students. Comic books can give meaning to the use of this cognitive strategy. When students understand the purpose behind a strategy, they have more motivation to use the strategy independently in a variety of text situations. 

Comic books require readers to visualize. The action-packed writing styles of many comic writers cause readers to create vivid story-pictures in their mind. Class discussions about the art of visualization may stem from comic book text. Comic books cause readers to visualize without realizing they are using a cognitive strategy.

When reading a comic book, students must interact with both text and images, and they do so out of authentic interest in the text, not because the teacher is necessitating the process. This application of cognitive strategies is true reading. Students are self-motivated to comprehend text.

Comic books as a writing aid

Comic books contain basic story elements such as setting, characters, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Each panel in comic book writing represents a paragraph. Narrative sentences are representative of topic sentences. The details appear in both the words of the characters and the pictures. Students may use these guidelines to create comic panels of their own. With the addition of details, these panels may be turned into detailed narrative paragraphs.

Why not use comic books to teach students how to use quotations marks? Each speech bubble represents a character’s dialogue, so students can be taught to use quotation marks correctly by rewriting the dialogue in story format. That beats a worksheet any day of the week!

Comic books and content area reading

A variety of comic books is now readily available. Comics are not limited to the traditional superhero characters that generally come to mind. Many classics have been rewritten in a comic book format. Several authors have taken historical and other content-rich information and reworked it into a comic book format that is as instructionally sound as it is appealing to children.

Comic books and vocabulary

Members of the general public do not consider comic books to be tools for vocabulary development. I beg to differ. My husband has a working vocabulary that has always amazed me. When I encounter a new word, I most assuredly can turn to him for a definition. What’s his secret? He attributes his expansive vocabulary to comic books. He grew up on them! Comic books offer vocabulary instruction in a high-interest context. Students learn new terms through word usage in addition to illustrative support.

Comic books may be the underdog of the literacy world, but a lot of instructional value can be gleaned from these short, powerful texts. The motivational quality of comic books constitutes an enticing appeal to reluctant readers that may serve to hook them on reading. If we can get students to read and enjoy reading, strategy instruction will become both meaningful and effective.

Melissa Barbee headshotMelissa Barbee is a new ILA member, having joined in the spring of 2015. She has 17 years of classroom experience. She has taught at Piedmont Elementary School in Dandridge, TN, for the entire stint of her career, and she has experience in both first and third grades. She is currently a doctoral student at Carson-Newman University pursuing a degree in Curriculum and Instruction Leadership.

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