Comic books are an often misunderstood form of literature despised by teachers and parents alike despite their children's unwavering love of the form. This article will determine what a comic book and a graphic novel are, provide some of the statistics for literacy in Canada, examine myths about the educational devalue of comic books and provide alternative value, and show how comic books can be incorporated into a classroom setting to help meet education outcomes.
What are Comic Books and Graphic Novels?
According to a definition supplied by comic book company DC Comics a comic book is a "unique art form and literary medium" that dates back to the 1800's originating in its current form from America (D.C. Comics Website 2010). A series of pictures accompany text that acts as a narrative, caption, or dialog and sometimes acts as a counterpoint (Grainger, 2004). Originally printed as newspaper strips the strips were then collected into a series of books with longer story lines. Soon after newspaper comics original comic stories began to appear and reprint (Dowd, Douglas Bevan, Hignite, & Todd 2006). A graphic novel is very similar though are usually bound and in a stronger format than what comic books are made of. They use the same methods and materials as regular books and are sold in book stores (Chris, Couch, Stephen &Weiner 2004).
For the purpose of this paper the term comic book will be reserved for single issue magazine style published comics, and graphic novels will be reserved for large, bound, story driven books.
According to the 2007 Pan-Canadian assessment on reading, 13 year-old girls outscored 13 year old boys by 23 points in literacy. This is a long time trend supported by these assessments (Council of Ministry of Education, Canada, 2007). Similarly the PISA assessment also found that girls outscored boys (Human Resources and Social Development Canada, 2006). These studies and others also show that boys report not enjoying reading as much as their female counterparts, and that while girls continue interest in reading with lifespan development boys decrease. The girls in the studies read frequently for pleasure while the boys did not (Gambell & D. Hunter 2000).
Researchers recognize that lack of interest in reading leads to a lack of reading. Children who do not enjoy reading are exposed to less words and thus struggle with fluency and comprehension (A.W. Alexander , T. Conway , C.A. Rashotte , J.K. Torgesen, & R.K. Wagner 1997). It's not hard to predict the problems students will face when a lack of interest in reading is present.
Why is there a lack of interest with boys in reading? Several articles suggest that boys do not enjoy reading as much as their female counterparts because their interests are not well represented in the classroom or their school libraries (K.R. St. Jarre 2008). One book and three journal articles discovered through means of surveying that boys were likelier to enjoy how-to manuals, informational booklets, and science (Canada Council on Learning 2010) while another article suggests boys prefer fantasy, adventure stories, scary stories, hobby books, and books that are considered "gross" (P. Jones & D. Cartwright Fiorelli et al 2003).
There is a wealth of studies that show boys prefer visual media to the standard forms available for reading in the classroom (M. Asselin 2003) and comic books are often suggested for this interest but both comic books and the books boys are interested in listed here are often quickly judged as inappropriate and dismissed(P. Jones & D. Cartwright Fiorelli 2003).
Myths and Reality
A strong myth perpetuated in the literary world is that the visual aspect of a comic book means they are of a lower level and suited to young children (Krashen 1993). Professor of Library and Information Sciences in Illinois Dr. Carol Tilly reports to noted science magazine Science Daily that
"... comics are just as sophisticated as other forms of literature, and children benefit from reading them at least as much as they do from reading other types of books..."
(Science Daily 2009). In their article What's in the Picture Geoff and Fenwick determine that comics foster many useful language and literacy skills. They report that reading comics can help develop two types of literacy. The first type -visual literacy- allows readers to assign meaning to images and visual data and understanding what goes into creating am image (Geoff & Fenwick 1998). While the second type- comic literacy- also includes this development but in addition develops the readers ability to understand a sequence of events or images to "...interpret character's non verbal gestures..." and to discern a story's plot and make assumptions (Layga 2006). Comic books also allow for the development of making connections between the text and personal experience, understanding and using foreshadowing, and tracking left to right for writing and reading (Edmunds 2006).
Similarly Bruce Mackinnon world renown editorial cartoonist of the Chronicle Herald in Halifax Nova Scotia explains that comics will draw the attention of readers because they are not a wall of text that the eye skips over. Through comics Mackinnon explains a powerful message can be received (Mackinnon 2010). While Jeff MacLeod a social science professor of Mount Saint Vincent University who is also an oil painter insists that the medium is the message (MacLeod 2010).
Another myth about comic books is that reading them will replace reading usual text based books. Research however shows that the boys who do read comic books also read more text based materials and overall enjoy reading more in comparison to boys who do not read comics (Ujiie & S. Krashen 1996). Many professionals agree that reading comic books provides an opportunity to explore other genres and can be a gateway to other books (Krashen 1993).
A reality of comic books is that not only are they useful to readers who are typically developing but they are useful for readers who are starting out or are struggling. Less text makes comics easier for beginners and focuses on visual clues. (L Starr 2004) . For new readers they also teach the basic principles of storytelling such as beginning, middle, and end, character development, setting, and climax (Grant 2010). This also helps readers who are struggling or who are reading in a language that is not their native one with contextual clues (Hallenback 1976). It can be specifically helpful for children with dyslexia, struggling with the proper use of punctuation and capitalization, and context comprehension. Research also suggests that all types of readers are equally attracted to comic books (Pustz 1999).
Comics in the Classroom
Comics can be used to cover many outcomes in the classroom. From most language art and art outcomes comics can also cover social studies, science, health, and technology. Educators are beginning to recognize the opportunities they have in comic books.
The Rothamsted Research Lab publishes comic books called Science Stories that cover a variety of historical and practical aspects about science. The comics can be viewed online and are accompanied by specifications for teaching grade levels, age appropriate activities, and planning tools. The website also posts podcasts on a regular basis and offers and opportunity to contact them (Paula 2010). This is an excellent tool for not only cross curricular activities but fostering an interest in science as well.
The Comic Book Project is a program that originated in NYC and is an arts based literacy and learning initiative developed by a researcher to help children further develop their skills by writing and publishing their own comic book. The website features examples of student work, their publications, information on participating in the project, as well as press releases (Center for Educational Pathways 2010).
A very interesting resource available to teachers is the Kids Love Comics website that was the brainchild of professionals in the comic book industry from around the world. The organization is non-profit and aims to create interest in comics and raise awareness about using comics as an educational tool. Teachers can use this website to help them plan around comics and also to get comics for their classroom (Kids Love Comics 2010).
Similarly Canadian-born Comics in the Classroom does all of these things as well as educating teachers about types of comics and their grade levels, provides information on designing a unit plan, and even provides many comics and graphic novels at discount class room prices. On their website you can view examples of units done by other teachers across Canada and there is also an opportunity for feedback (The Dragon 2010).
If a teacher can't get hold of tangible comics there are also many free webcomics online. Webcomics are comics that are updated on a page by page basis generally from once a week to five times a week. Many can be found by doing a simple websearch or checking in on a website that compiles lists of webcomics online. A good example of a finished webcomic is Inverloch by Sarah Ellerton. Not only is this webcomic online for free you can order copies of the book if you'd like. This is a fantasy comic suitable for ages 13 and up and under each page are anecdotes from the author on the comic making process. (Ellerton 2010).
In conclusion comic books are an untapped resource that many professionals and parents do not know much about. People are often hesitant to use comic books or allow their child to read them thanks to the many myths. Research disproves these myths and offers compelling data on the value of using comics in the classroom. There are many websites that offer tutorials on how to do a lesson on a comic book or using a comic book and there are even websites that offer free comic books as a resource. Comic books are generally inexpensive and many comic book stores like Strange Adventures in Halifax Nova Scotia offer free backlogged comic books year round and free new comic books on May 30th Free Comic Book Day.
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