Comics Can Grow Reading Skills and Habits

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When I hear about someone (student or not; child or adult) who does not read, either because they have no interest in learning to read, or because they have difficulty, I recommend that they try reading comic books or graphic novels.  That difficulty, by the way, could either be with literacy in general, or it could be specifically for a second language.

If you didn't know, graphic novels are self-contained stories, typically longer than the average comic issue.  Comic books are serialized stories, like TV shows; each issue (episode) is short, while the series can be long.

Comic books and graphic novels (we'll just collectively call them 'comics' from here on out) have advantages that picture books, chapter books, and novels don't have.  As much as I love prose, I can see why it's daunting for those still learning to read.  Comics can both provide motivation and aid in reading comprehension.  If you haven't considered comics before, here's why you should give them a shot.

Comics Stories are Intriguing

First of all, there's an appeal to comics.  The best-selling comics are superhero stories, which have gained more attention this past decade thanks to the rise of superhero movies.  Millions of people have seen those movies, and even the kids who haven't often get merchandise (book bags, action figures, T-shirts, etc.) based on those heroes.  So if they're already interested in these characters, shouldn't their comics be where we direct them?

But it's not all about superheroes.  Plenty of popular shows - mostly but not exclusively kids' shows - have comic book spin-offs.  Find out what shows they love, then find out if there's a related comic.  Beyond that, there are tons of original characters and stories in their own comics.  They range from humor to fantasy to teen drama.  Personally, my favorite genre in the comics medium is crime fiction.

Whatever genre they're into, I promise there's a comic out there that fits.

The Comics Format is Appealing

Seeing a page full of words can be intimidating for someone who can't read that language terribly well.  But when pictures fill up more of the page?  Yeah, that's great!  The words on the page are in smaller groups than in prose, rarely more than a couple sentences together.  This bite-sized format is a lot more manageable.  A learner may not want to read a paragraph, but they could be convinced to read a word balloon.

A panel is a block (usually rectangular) that holds a single image as well as word balloons, thought balloons, and narrative pieces.  There are multiple panels on a single comics page.  The space between the panels is where the real action happens - that's where imagination comes in.

And then there's the visual aspect, of course.  Good comics look good.  Who wouldn't want to look at a beautifully-drawn scene or a cool action sequence?  Frankly, the visual components of the best comics are still better than the best visual effects in movies.  And people get to hold comics in their hands, moving through what they see at whatever pace they choose, or just staying on the page to pour over every detail.

The pacing is another advantage.  In prose, learners typically feel like the speed is dictated by the difficulty of the words.  There's not any reason to read slower than your skills allow, and if you're reading slower than your classmate, you might feel embarrassed.  But comics are meant to be read slowly.  Take your time with each panel, because it's not just about the words you read.  It's about what you feel.  It's about the way your mind fills in the gaps between images.  If you're a slow reader, good, because fast readers are missing out.

Pictures Help Comprehension

The visual aspect not only looks cool, but it can also help students read.  Unlike picture books in which you typically have images depicting a scene, images in comics depict every action within that scene.  In fact, you can often take out the words and still have a good understanding of what's happening.  Simply by seeing an image, a reader develops an expectation on what they're about to read.  Or taken in the reverse order, an image can reinforce what they've just read.  Pictures cement a reader's understanding of the text.  And if there were any words they didn't know, they're still likely to grasp the meaning of the sentence(s) based on what they see.

 
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Improve Reading thru Frequent Exposure

Native speakers learn to read through frequent exposure, especially when a word's pronunciation and written form are expressed at the same time.  ESL learners can learn the same way.  Encourage them to look at written words more often, not to immediately pronounce or identify them, but just to pair the written form with the sound or meaning.  Actual reading will follow later.

 

What about for the younger crowd?  A small child might want a story read to them at night.  Like with picture books, they can follow along with the images as the parents read the words.  But eventually they should try to read on their own.  Each picture helps them recall what they heard time and time before, and comics have a higher picture-to-word ratio than chapter books and even higher-level picture books.  And finally, people grow out of picture books, because those are for little kids; but you never have to grow out of comics.

Comics can also help people read aloud.  Too often with prose does a student read in a monotone voice, no matter whether the character is shouting or whispering.  Readers can sound bored (most likely, they're just trying to get through the text without too many mistakes) even during exciting scenes.  But a reader is more likely to but emotion into their voice when they see with their own eyes the actions and facial expressions of the characters.

Where to Start

If you'd like to recommend some comics to your students (which you probably should), here are some tips on where to start.

First of all many comic book series are quite long.  Some of the classics have been running for decades, so pulling any issue off the shelf is like reading a random chapter late in a novel; the reader doesn't have a frame of reference for the story.  You'll need to start at the beginning, but it's probably best to choose a mini-series (a story that doesn't go on forever but has an actual end) or a graphic novel (which is a single, self-contained story).  These won't be the most popular ones like Archie or Batman or The Amazing Spider-Man, but there are plenty out there of even higher quality and engagement levels.

Anyway, here are some of my recommendations if you don't know where to start.

Before you recommend anything, please read through some descriptions of these comics to ensure they meet the appropriate cultural standards and reinforce your ethical standards.  And of course, there's plenty more series and graphic novels out there, so feel free to explore!

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