I have not always been a reader and lover of comics; it took my fifth grade students to show me their power. Before I started doing research with comics and graphic novels, I taught fifth grade. I had a classroom library with a moderate selection of books for my students to borrow and it was my graphic novel set of the Bone series by Jeff Smith that I had to keep repairing every year because students borrowed them repeatedly. Seeing the student engagement with these books led me to the research and teaching I do now.
Recently, I had the opportunity to work closely with a librarian who had invited a comic artist, Nathan Hale (author of the Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series), into her school. For her and the teachers she worked with, this invitation felt bold, and even a bit intimidating. During my time working and researching in this school, I heard the staff wonder how to use comics effectively, how to address Common Core Standards with them, and even how to read comics. Just like myself and many other educators, many of these teachers did not enter into this adventure already reading and loving comics (Connors 2013; Rice 2012). They also knew that other teachers, parents, maybe even students, would ask why they were using comics in class; educators wanted and needed data to support what they were trying to do.
I had the pleasure of getting to spend the year with these educators, co-planning, co-teaching, and supporting them throughout a school year where these resources were actively invited into the library, classrooms, and curriculum. I found that using comics and graphic novels in school settings not only supports teachers, librarians, and students in their teaching and learning, but also challenges them to look beyond their everyday practices.
What the Research Says
Current research demands that classrooms read and write in multiple modes. This includes print and images—including color, line, spatial arrangement…the list continues (Connors 2011; Kress 2003; New London Group 1996). Comics and graphic novels take full advantage of such multiple modes. Because of this, they challenge readers and strengthen critical reading skills (Connors 2013; McCloud 1993, 2006). Comics and graphic novels engage readers, making them active participants in the reading process (McCloud 1993; Dallacqua 2012). They also support students as they build their reading and language skills (Chase, Hye, Son, Steiner 2014) and aid in visualizing complex literary understandings, such as point of view, theme, and mood (Dallacqua 2012; Monnin 2010).
There are clear connections between what research has found and what teachers must accomplish. Along with requiring teachers to include a range of texts, including graphic novels, the Common Core outlines the skills students need to develop, such as being able to visually respond and present ideas effectively. The comic medium “can also address the Common Core’s conceptualization of text complexity. Reading comics and graphic novels requires considering multiple levels of meaning, structural and graphic conventions, and new and/or multiple perspectives, all of which are part of text complexity, as outlined by the Common Core.” (Dallacqua 2016). Teachers and students have so much to accomplish in so little time. Thankfully, using a medium like comics and graphic novels can support that work.
Introducing Comics and Graphic Novels
Thinking about time.Introducing comics into a classroom can be a daunting task. For this reason, start slowly. When I introduce a graphic novel, whether it is to a group of fifth graders, university students, or educators, I begin by breaking down a single page. We look at the whole page of one graphic novel, then consider the panels and frames, dialogue bubbles, gutter, and other visual details individually.
By examining each piece of a page individually, readers are guided through a slower reading process and take note of layers that are part of the graphic novel. For each piece, we consider questions such as:
Page: How is the entire page set up? Is there a clear mood? Look at the lines, colors, and shapes.…Are your eyes drawn to anything? What information do you get from the text? From the Images? Both?
Panel & Frame: How many panels are there? How quickly is time passing? What do they contain? What is outside of them? Why?
Dialogue Bubbles: What do we know about tone of voice? The passing of time? What do you notice about font choices? The lines of the bubbles?
Gutter: Does anything fall into the gutter? If so, why? What is happening in that space?
Other visual details: What else do you notice? Does anything stand out to you now, after analyzing this page?
Up to thirty minutes can be spent analyzing a single page with a group. While this isn’t a realistic way to read an entire graphic novel, by starting with detailed and slow analysis, readers approach the books more slowly, paying close attention to detail and artistic choices.
Comics and graphic novels across content areas.
Often, comics and graphic novels are used as “fun” and “light” reading; however, comics can be very complex texts to support teaching and learning of content. For example, I used Shaun Tan’s The Arrival to introduce the concept of flashback, because it was displayed so beautifully in Tan’s book. A seventh grade team included Shannon, Dean, and Nathan Hale’s Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack in their curriculum. Their goal was to compare and contrast versions of fairy tales, as well as determine themes and main ideas, citing and DRAWING evidence as they read and worked. Instead of asking students to reflect or make notes on lined paper or filling words into guided notes, I provided large blank spaces for students to write and draw. In this way, students are free to respond to the content in multiple ways that reflect what and how they are reading.
Work with comics and graphic novels extends beyond the ELA classroom. Have your seventh-grade science class read Agnieszka Biskup’s The Powerful World of Energy with Max Axiom, paying attention to visual details as scientists and use the comics to establish lab stations, so that students engage in hands-on experiments according to the concepts outlined in the Max Axiom books. For social studies, read The Black Death from the World History Ink series. As they read, have students engage in deep analysis, which should be modeled for them when the comic is introduced. Students can locate visual evidence that will help them describe the plague, its time period, and impacts. Each of these units align with each subjects’ given curriculum and support the standards. Further, students are engaging in critical analysis, asking complex questions about what they are seeing and reading and how each text was constructed. Students may then go on to construct their own comics and art in each of these classes.
Comics and graphic novels have a reputation for being books read silently and independently (Sanders 2013), but I have also found great value in collaborative reading (Dallacqua 2016). Collective reading and analysis provide opportunities for students to support one another. Reading and discussing together bolsters student reading, regardless of previous experiences. Reading comics and graphic novels collaboratively also helps students to notice details they wouldn’t have otherwise. This way of reading adds to the slowing down that was modeled in introductory lessons and students value getting different perspectives. As one seventh grader said of our reading format, “I love group work…two minds are better than one. And eight minds are, like, awesome!”
I have organized for collaborative reading in a number of ways. First, I consider the text. If it is a longer graphic novel, like the March series or El Deafo, I may invite students to read some parts together and others independently. Or, we may re-read parts collectively after reading the text individually. I arrange seating in a way that makes it easy for students to group up and talk. I then offer reading choices. I have used a readers’ theater style, and I’ve had students read aloud, switching readers every page or so. I also encourage groups to make a choice about page analysis. Some groups choose to linger over each page as they go, not only reading aloud, but also discussing the details of the pieces as they go through the text for the first time. Other groups may choose to focus on reading the entire book or section first, then re-read the comic more slowly, taking time to discuss visual and other details. I remind students there isn’t a wrong way to read a comic page, as long as they are taking their time. As students read, I provide guiding questions. Often these are an extension of the initial questions used when introducing a text. But, I always give time and space for students to not only write, but draw, their observations. Visual note-taking is a great way for students to wrestle with abstract concepts in a text, like theme and symbolism (Dallacqua, Kersten, and Rhoades 2014).
As students read comics together, they realize there isn’t just one answer or one way to do analysis. Comics and graphic novels are complex, and there are many ways to interpret what is being read and seen. As one seventh grader shared with me, “I just feel like you can get more accomplished with two people than you can with one, especially in the graphic novel…I think ‘cause of the pictures.” Comics invite collaborative reading and open up possibilities for interpretation. In a space where individualized, single-answer assessment rules, comics and graphic novel work provides opportunities for students to collaborate.
It All Comes Back to the Library Space
Throughout the school year, this work began and extended back into the library. The library was a space where books were introduced to both teachers and students. The librarian introduced me to graphic novels like Giants Beware! and Barry Deutch’s Hereville series. I introduced graphic novel analysis to teachers in the library. The librarian booktalked new graphic novels and made recommendations. Even more, the library became the place where students came to continue conversations and work with comics and graphic novels. Initially, I began working with a small group of students in the library, asking them questions about what they were reading. We discovered, though, that young readers had a lot to say about comics and graphic novels. Students asked, repeatedly, to meet in the library over lunch to talk, share books, draw, and exchange work.
To address this need, the librarian did a number of things. First, she said “Yes!” when students asked to come to the library at lunch to talk about their books. She carved out a space for them to sit, read, draw, and talk. When it came time to decorate hallways, she invited students to do the art work and construction in the library. As students continued to use the library, not just to check out books and do research, but to have discussions and create their own work, the librarian created special library passes, making it easier for students to get there during lunch. The following year, as students continued to request library time, the librarian carved out a “make-a-space” area with art supplies, puzzles, and other materials that would serve students’ wants and needs. By including books students were interested in and being a space for students to read, talk, and work (not only for schoolwork but also for their own personal reading, writing, discussing, and creating), the library (and the classrooms the library and librarian supported) operated as a student-centered space.
There are many ways to invite comics and graphic novels into your library, classroom, and reading spaces, and many reasons to do it too! These texts support literary skills and challenge ways of reading, thinking, and operating. Doing this work can be daunting—and exciting. Start by slowing down, consider how these texts will support your curriculum, and encourage collaboration!
Special thanks to Kelly Silwani, the AMAZING librarian who made much of this work possible.
Connors, Sean P. “Toward a Shared Vocabulary for Visual Analysis: An Analytic Toolkit for Deconstructing the Visual Design of Graphic Novels.” Journal of Visual Literacy 31, no. 1 (2011): 71-92.
Connors, Sean P. “Weaving Multimodal Meaning in a Graphic Novel Reading Group.” Visual Communication 12, no. 1 (2013): 27-53.
Dallacqua, Ashley K. Exploring Literary Devices in Graphic Novels. Language Arts 89, no. 6, (2012): 367-380.
Dallacqua, Ashley K. “’These Books Give Me Life:’” Considering What Happens When Comics and Graphic Novels Are Welcomed into a School Space. PhD diss., Ohio State University, 2016.
Kress, Gunther. Literacy in the New Media Age. Routledge, 2003.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. HarperPerennial, 1993.
McCloud, Scott. Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels. Harper, 2006.
Monnin, Katie. Teaching Graphic Novels: Practical Strategies for the Secondary ELA Classroom. Maupin House, 2010.
The New London Group. “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures.” The Harvard Review 66, no. 1 (1996)” 60-92.
Rice, Mary. "Using Graphic Texts in Secondary Classrooms: A Tale of Endurance." English Journal 101, no. 5 (2012): 37-43.