With the release of movies like "Watchmen" and "The Dark Knight"—both adopted from graphic novels—book-lovers are heading to the comic shelves in greater numbers. The rise in popularity of the graphic novel has elevated its status to that of an accepted literary medium—one that is finding its way into the classroom.
Educators who teach with the texts say the balance of words and images offers unique instructional advantages, especially for students who struggle with vocabulary and comprehension. And yet, the graphic novel remains controversial; skeptics view it as inappropriate reading material or even harmful to deep reading skills.
We recently talked to a high school English teacher who uses graphic novels to find out how they work in his classroom. Greg Van Nest teaches at Indian Hills High School, in Oakland, NJ, and is a member of the National Writing Project. He lectured at this year's Graphica in Education Conference about using graphic novels to improve reading and visual literacy.
Why do you use graphic novels in your classroom? What prompted you to begin using them?
I began using graphic novels last year with my struggling seniors. I had a difficult group of seniors who were very much not interested in school, and my supervisor suggested I might use them to build interest and motivation to read.
I found that the students were, in fact, motivated by the graphic texts, and I designed a project where students worked with both Gareth Hinds’ graphic version of Beowulf and selections from the poet Seamus Heaney’s version. It was a successful unit and the students had the opportunity to explore multiple types of literacy, investigating the ways in which print and image work together to create meaning.
Is there research-based evidence that graphic novels improve literacy?
Some. Most of the research related to graphic novels that I’ve read falls into the areas of multiple literacies. Text in our world is quickly becoming much more complex. Text and graphics are used together in all media, especially via the Internet. As an English Language Arts teacher, I am charged with helping my students understand increasingly complicated texts, not just simple print texts. Most states include visual literacy in their standards for English teachers, and graphic novels are one more tool to help us teach to these literacies.
One of the most important components of reading comprehension is visualization. Does teaching with graphic novels detract from this skill? Do you find that students begin to rely on the illustrations?
I find that, if taught well, graphic novels can enhance students’ abilities to visualize, especially when you begin breaking down the elements on the page. We work through a variety of assignments to look at both the text and the images, asking questions like: How do the text and images work together to create meaning? How can you represent text via images only? How can you move from images to text?
Graphic novels provide a way to think about and talk about the process of creating meaning, which is part of why visualization is so important to comprehension. Some argue that graphic texts limit a students’ ability to visualize, which may be true, but would only be a problem if all of the texts used were graphic texts. Instead, a combination of visual and graphic texts can actually teach the process of visualization.
What is your response to people who claim that graphic novels are not serious literature and shouldn’t be taught in school?
There’s room for all types of teaching. I don’t advocate abandoning traditional texts and replacing them with graphic texts. Instead, I believe that using graphic novels can help teach concepts about traditional texts, much like well-designed lessons about film can help teach reading skills. Books like John Golden’s Reading in the Dark illustrate the variety of ways that film can be used to help teach reading skills. I’d love to someday write a book like his, only focusing on graphic novels instead of film.
How should teachers choose a graphic novel to teach? Which ones in particular would you recommend to teachers interested in using them for the first time?
It really depends on what the teachers’ goals are. There really are two paths to go with: Choose a graphic novel and study it as its own text, or choose a graphic novel that is based on a print text. There are many of each kind of graphic novels. As I mentioned, for my seniors I used Gareth Hinds' Beowulf and paired it with readings from Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf. This pairing worked especially well. In the future, I’m going to work to use graphic novels to teach specific reading and writing skills, and I will probably go with a text that is only available in graphic format.
I’d recommend that teachers interested in using graphic novels approach this like they would any other text: Identify their goals and then look for a text to help them meet their goal.
Have you been able to build class or student projects around graphic novels? If so, what kinds?
Compiled by Greg Van Nest, the following is a list of articles to help teachers select appropriate graphic novels for the classroom.
Arnold, Andrew. “Seeding Your Graphic Literature Library.” World Literature Today 81.2 (Mar.-Apr. 2007): 29-31.
Behler, Anne. “Getting Started with Graphic Novels: A Guide for the Beginner.” Reference & User Services Quarterly 46.2 (Winter 2006): 16-21.
Bucher, Katherine, and M. Lee Manning. “Bringing Graphic Novels into a School’s Curriculum.” The Clearing House 78.2 (Nov.-Dec. 2004): 67-72.
Christensen, Lila L. “Graphi Global Conflict: Graphic Novels in the High School Social Studies Classroom.” The Social Studies 97.6 (Nov.-Dec. 2006): 227-230.
Schwarz, Gretchen E. “Graphic Novels for Multiple Literacies.” Journal of Adult and Adolescent Literacy 46.3 (Nov. 2002): 262-265.
Yes, absolutely. For my Beowulf unit, I have students do a variety of activities. What’s very interesting about Hinds' Beowulf is that he uses the narration from the poem and combines it with images through most of the text, but there are portions of the text that are told only through images. This allows us to work at a few different levels.
First, we look at Heaney's version of a scene, working to create meaning just from the text. Next, we compare those selections to the graphic novel, looking at the text that Hinds includes and the images he created. Later, we move on to the image-only sections and students create the narrative from the pictures, working to decode the images and then write the narrative in the style of the original epic poem. Throughout our study, we work with the images and text to help create meaning; it’s an interesting project, and the students enjoy it.
Once we complete that project, we move on to The Odyssey. We use a variety of selections from the print version of Homer's text and then I have students create a graphic novel, with groups of students working on each scene. We use software on our MacBooks called Comic Life, but there are other free programs available online to create graphic novels or comic books, such as Comiqs, MakeBeliefsComix, Pixton, ToonDoo, and Toonlet.
Creating their own graphic versions of The Odyssey allows students to work with the text in new ways, but reinforces reading skills. In order to create graphic versions of the text, students must be able to read and annotate the text, select what text will be included as narration and dialogue, visualize scenes, and figure out how to represent character and action through images. Doing this helps their reading skills and also helps them think about compositional skills.