Before becoming a teacher librarian, I thought that graphic novels and comic books were frivolous reading. I didn’t count them as legit reading material. I put them in the same category as magazines and fanfiction. Turns out, I was wrong.
This is a popular standpoint among educators. Many believe that graphic novels shouldn’t count toward reading goals or assignments that give students the freedom to pick their own literature. One of the reasons, as I understand, is that students don’t get anything out of graphic novels.
I had a forty-minute conversation with an English teacher my first year as a teacher librarian. It was a humbling conversation, because I learned that graphic novels could offer students the same things as a traditional novel can… and then some.
After that conversation, I allowed students to check out a graphic novel instead of a traditional one. This decision had some kickback from classroom teachers, claiming that graphic novels are no different than comic books and that students are not going to learn anything from them.
Here’s where these teachers were wrong.
The Difference Between Graphic Novels and Comic Books
Not that there’s anything wrong with comic books, but graphic novels are different. Comic books are broken up into several issues, which belong to one volume. Typically, a series has multiple volumes.
If a student were to check out one issue, I would suggest they check out a volume instead. Think of them as books in a series. Issues are chapters and volumes are books. There could be multiple volumes in a series.
Not many school libraries have comic books to offer students, but if mine did… I would ask that students check out volumes rather than issues. They would get more of the story that way.
The Literary Merit of Graphic Novels
Think about that struggling reader you have in class. You teach fifth grade English and she’s sitting at a second-grade reading level. She hates reading and refuses to read the texts you assign. She’s on the brink of failing your class because she’s not understanding the material, due to not reading the stories.
That girl was me. I was a struggling reader until middle school, and even then, I was far below the reading levels of my classmates. I didn’t read the text because I couldn’t understand it. My comprehension was horrible. I couldn’t remember what the last paragraph was talking about, so connecting plots, characters, settings, and then tying those elements to a theme… that wasn’t happening.
Graphic novels allow students that are struggling to skip the imagery, because the illustrator did that for you. The sentences and mini paragraphs seem much easier to read and grasp because they’re cut up into small pieces, surrounded by beautiful images. Students can also use these images to help them figure out context.
Graphic novels have plots, characters, settings, and themes. They have everything that a typical novel would. When struggling students are able to see the same elements you talk about in class, it helps them connect with the material you are teaching them. Giving a struggling student the ability to use a graphic novel is a great example of differentiation.
English as a Second Language
Not only do graphic novels help struggling students, but they also aid in teaching English. Due to the picture-text ratio that graphic novels present, students learning English as a second language will use the pictures to create context in a similar way that struggling students do.
Giving a graphic novel to someone who doesn’t speak English well is a great way to help them learn it without making them look stupid. This is harsh, but it’s important. There’s a meme somewhere that highlights the quote, “I’m smart in Spanish,” or something along those lines.
Kids that are learning English don’t want to look dumb in front of their peers, so don’t give them “baby books” to learn from. This will create behavior problems, I promise.
Motivate Reluctant Readers
What about those kids that are on reading level, but they hate reading? Those kids that will read one page of a book you recommend and then pretend to read the rest? I tell this to all of my kids: if you’re not a reader, you haven’t found your book yet.
Sometimes, those readers need graphic novels to start them off. Many young adult books are being turned into graphic novels or manga. See if that reluctant reader will pick up a graphic novel version of Maximum Ride. If he or she likes the first one, see if they want to read the second one in traditional novel form. If not, don’t push. They may eventually.
Even if they don’t… at least they’re reading, which is something they weren’t doing before.
In conclusion, graphic novels “scaffold students for whom reading and writing are difficult, foster visual literacy, support English language learners, motive ‘reluctant readers,’ and provide a stepping stone that leads student to transact with more traditional… forms of literature” (Conners). Hopefully, this post gave you some insight on how graphic novels can be beneficial in your classroom.
Sources Used and Additional Reading
Connors, Sean P. “‘The Best of Both Worlds’: Rethinking the Literary Merit of Graphic Novels.” The ALAN Review, vol. 37, no. 3, Jan. 2010, doi:10.21061/alan.v37i3.a.9.
A list of 30 graphic novels for young adults to help you get started. https://www.epicreads.com/blog/ya-graphic-novels/
This is a list of young adult graphic novels from the ALA (American Library Association). They assemble a list of new novels each year, so it’s always current! http://www.ala.org/yalsa/great-graphic-novels