Comics in the Classroom: Why Comics?

When I was in school, kids would slip comics inside their textbooks to read on the side. Comics were considered recreational reading at best, but usually adults saw them as mind-numbing tripe. You certainly would never have seen one used in instruction. Times have changed, and as comics and graphic novels become more accepted as a legitimate form of art and literature, they are making their way into classrooms. Many parents and teachers, however, still remember the stigma that comics had when they were young and are asking, “Why should kids read comics?”

Emerging research shows that comics and graphic novels are motivating, support struggling readers, enrich the skills of accomplished readers and are highly effective at teaching sometimes dull or dry material in subject areas such as science and social studies.

Josh Elder, founder and president of Reading With Pictures, sums up the strengths of comics as educational tools with his “Three E’s of Comics.”

  • Engagement: Comics impart meaning through the reader’s active engagement with written language and juxtaposed sequential images. Readers must actively make meaning from the interplay of text and images, as well as by filling in the gaps between panels.
  • Efficiency: The comic format conveys large amounts of information in a short time. This is especially effective for teaching content in the subject areas (math, science, social studies, etc.).
  • Effectiveness: Processing text and images together leads to better recall and transfer of learning. Neurological experiments have shown that we process text and images in different areas of the brain: known as the Dual-Coding Theory of Cognition. These experiments also indicate that pairing an image with text leads to increased memory retention for both. With comics, students not only learn the material faster, they learn it better.

Emergent, Beginning and Struggling Readers

Young children are just beginning to learn that concrete objects can be represented in different ways. For example, a dog is a furry animal that wags its tail and barks. It can be represented by a photograph of a dog, a stylized or “cartoon” illustration of a dog, or letters forming the word “dog.” Most children begin to make this transition from concrete to abstract through picture books, with a single illustration on each page. Sequential art (wordless comics) can take learning to the next level, asking kids to follow a sequence of illustrations that form a story.