Comics in the Classroom Part 2: A Gateway to a Love of Reading

In Part 1 of this blog series I talked about why comics might be particularly easy to read, due to their closer relation to the inner workings of the mind. This time I want to take that idea a little further and look at the process whereby reluctant readers can become enthusiastic readers, and enthusiastic readers become absolute reading obsessives through comics.

Comics offer readers a lower bar to entry. Obviously, pictures are more immediately understandable than words, being accessible to any level of reading ability. But also, as discussed in Part 1, comics are closer to the intuitive inner workings of the brain. All of this requires less mental processing and allows the reader to enter into the story more fully and personally, and so makes it that much easier to get lost in the story. For beginning or reluctant readers this can be especially important, as they may never have experienced that magic before.

Image from Penny and Benny in the Big No-No! by Geoffrey Hayes

From Benny and Penny in the Big No-No! by Geoffrey Hayes

That said, comics have their own reading challenges which can stretch more confident readers. Comics have their own grammar - the sequencing and layout of text and image on the page, the language of motion lines, sound effects and other comics-specific visual storytelling, the interplay of image and text, which may convey different meanings and even connect the dots of what happened between one panel and the next. These are all reading skills that must be learned. It's not uncommon to find older readers, who may well be extremely literate with text, baffled at the grammatical challenges of an advanced comics page.

Image from Swan by Ariyoshi Kyouko

Image from Swan by Ariyoshi Kyouko

Learning to read the specific language of comics also helps with reading prose; for example, reinforcing left-to-right reading direction (or vice versa, in some other languages!). Reading the text first and then going back and studying the pictures encourages kids to re-read, going back over a passage to cement their understanding. Visual clues from the images support the text and allow kids to get used to guessing the meaning of words from context, which in itself is a skill that boosts literacy. (I love using big words in my comics - I find there's something both funny and delightful about using the exact right word. And I find I can get away with a lot more because it's a comic, and I know the image context will help kids who haven't encountered that word before).

Image from Corpse Talk by Adam Murphy

Image from Corpse Talk by Adam Murphy

For reluctant readers, comics open up a range of stories. Kids whose reading age is younger than their chronological age can be deeply aware of that fact and will often decide that they don't care about reading, rather than deal with the shame of being "behind". Reading primers at the correct reading age may compound this problem. My wife Lisa (who you'll be hearing more from in future posts!) used comics extensively with many students with reading difficulties as part of her work as an English and Special Needs teacher. She found that students experienced a massive boost in self-esteem: they were reading stories they were interested in and found age-appropriate, and they were actually able to understand what was going on. Suddenly an activity they were "no good" at became one they were great at!

Of course, once kids have the comics-reading bug, it's a short step to getting the comics-writing bug as well. Next time I'll be looking at activities for kids that use both reading and writing to encourage literacy.

You can now read part 3 of this series, where Adam talks about how comics can be used in the classroom, or check out the whole series by clicking on the 'comics for literacy with Adam Murphy' blog tag.

Check out our lists of comics and graphic novels for some fantastic reading recommendations.

We have some a fantastic resource from Metaphrog on creating comics in the classroom coming up on the site very soon - subscribe to our schools newsletters to be kept up to date.

We also have a fascinating Authors Live event on Thursday 6 October with the creators of Alpha, a rich and moving graphic novel about the journey of a refugee. It's free to register to watch this event - sign up here!

Adam Murphy

Adam Murphy is a Glasgow-based comics artist. A regular contributor to The Phoenix weekly comics magazine, he is the creator of Corpse Talk, the comic-book chat show in which he interviews the dead famous from history, and Lost Tales in which he re-discovers and re-interprets forgotten folktales from around the world. Corpse Talk Season 1 and Season 2, and Lost Tales (released August 4th 2016) are published by David Fickling Books.