Education Opinion

Making Room for Graphic Novels

By Donalyn Miller — August 27, 2011 5 min read
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In a recent online discussion, several teachers expressed concerns about their students reading graphic novels, claiming that students don’t have to think when reading graphic novels and that these texts lack the rigor of traditional texts. I admit that I did not see graphic novels as valid reading for a long time. Although my husband and I devoured Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking Sandman series and the Pulitzer-winning Maus books, I couldn’t see the connection between these adult graphic novels and the texts I wanted my students to read. Researching the topic, I stumbled across Terry Thompson’s informative book, Adventures in Graphica a few years ago and received an education in the value of using this medium in my classroom. I now consider graphic novels a valuable addition to my classroom library and my reading instruction. Talking with teachers around the country, I know that many of you feel the same trepidation about using graphic novels with your students, so for the first time, I have invited a guest writer to this blog. Terry Thompson graciously agreed to share his research-based reasons for using graphic novels in the classroom and I am grateful for his expertise and insight.

When I wrote Adventures in Graphica just four years ago, it seemed comics and graphic novels were nothing more than a passing interest for most teachers.

Obviously, times have changed. I mean, look around - graphic novels are everywhere. From movies and television to traditional novels and even Broadway, it’s hard to believe they ever weren’t a dominant part of our culture. And they aren’t just sweeping the entertainment industry. They’ve exploded on the educational scene as well.

In the past four years, we’ve seen an increasing number of graphic novels reviewed alongside traditional texts in our most trusted professional publications, and they currently represent the fastest growing section of most libraries and bookstores. More teachers than ever before are taking advantage of them, and our national and state literacy organizations offer more presentations each year devoted to integrating the medium into our instruction. It seems graphic novels are here to stay - and if they haven’t yet, it’s only a matter of time before they make their way into your classrooms and libraries.

This sudden influx of graphic novels paired with their nontraditional format may have you wondering where they fit in and what to do with them now that your kids are reading them. If so, you’ll be glad to know that the graphic novel is a valid form of literature that correlates perfectly with the strong teaching and learning that’s already happening in your classroom.

The instructional potential in graphic novels is most evident in the way they motivate readers, scaffold meaning, and adapt easily to a variety of learning situations and settings. Taken individually, any of these three factors might be enough to make educators sit up and take notice, but it’s the intersection of these strengths that make the medium a perfect choice to support literacy instruction.

Motivation - Evidenced by increased library traffic, long check out wait lists, and a phenomenally growing popularity, graphic novels grab readers’ attentions and drive them to read more.

  • Engaging graphics make the text more accessible and support readers in the act of making meaning
  • Since readership in other countries is high compared to the U.S., the medium may offer cultural significance to a variety of English language learners
  • Popular themes with current topics invite readers to keep reading
  • Connections to entertainment trends and the quality of the graphic design appeal to some of our most disinterested readers
  • The medium’s unconventional nature attracts readers who feel disenfranchised
  • The innovative style and delivery entice readers who are indifferent to other media or genres

Scaffolding-- Inherent in their design is the way graphic novels merge text with visible representations of meaning that scaffold students as they navigate through the pages. Since the text and the pictures are interdependent, their effects become synergistic.

  • Comprehension strategies such as inferring, summarizing, and synthesis are accentuated through supportive graphics and design features
  • Creative teams intentionally design panels and pages to guide readers in determining importance
  • Even though graphic support may require less visualization, readers are immersed in experiences that fill their mental stores with what strong mental images can look like
  • Fluency is represented visibly through word art, speech bubbles, thought bubbles, and facial expressions
  • Picture support frees readers to practice a particular instructional focus such as plot, characterization, and theme
  • English language learners find illustrative support for unusual idioms and colloquial phrases that often confuse them in traditional texts
  • Embedded graphics can offer symbolic representations of concepts from content areas such as history, government, and science
  • Readers take on new vocabulary words they might otherwise skip, because their meanings are often illustrated alongside their written form

Versatility - Teachers often ask me how to use graphic novels instructionally, wondering if there’s some special trick to it. There really isn’t. The simple truth is that you can apply graphic novels to any situation where you’d normally use traditional texts.

They’re perfect for whole group, small group, or individual settings. Graphic novels lend themselves easily to content area instruction. They easily adapt to genre studies and strategy lessons. Truly, the possibilities are endless. Graphic novels are extremely versatile and weave seamlessly into just about any instruction plan. They also offer the added bonuses of increased motivation and visual scaffolding.

Hesitant teachers worry that the engaging quality in graphic novels could backfire on them. They wonder if these visible representations of meaning could turn into a crutch that makes thinking obsolete. They’re afraid that if we give kids graphic novels, they won’t want to read anything else. But there’s no evidence to support these concerns. In fact, research suggests the medium can actually facilitate heavier reading of traditional texts and that students who enjoy graphic novels score just as well in tests of reading skills as their peers who don’t.

So, go ahead. Explore some titles. Get acquainted with this powerful medium, and clear a space on your bookshelves. Make some room in your instruction for graphic novels. You’ll be glad you did.

And so will your readers.

Find award-winning and noteworthy graphic novels for your students by visiting the Young Adult Library Services Association’s annual “Great Graphic Novels for Teens” lists and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s Graphic Novels page.

The opinions expressed in The Book Whisperer are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.