Jun 27, 2016

Comic Books in Literacy Education

"and what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?" - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

I am a teacher and I have taught reading and reading skills to all ages, from infants to adults. These days I mostly work with students who are moving from pictures books and short books into chapter books, which is a huge transition that requires a lot of confidence-building and support. This article is about how I believe comic books can support this transition and continue to support growing readers.

One of the biggest obstacles I see when readers transition from picture books to chapter books (that hardly anyone talks about) is the loss of context. All those pictures and illustrations were not just fun, amusing and artistic, they provided a wealth of clues about what was going on in the story on that page, which allows the student to use more of their brain power to read instead of guessing about the story.

If Piglet puts the kettle on to make tea, then a child might not know what a kettle is, or what piglet puts the kettle on, or what a kettle is for, or what it looks like, or might have seen a kettle but never knew its name before, or know what a kettle is in another language but not English, and any number of missing pieces of information that are solved instantly with a simple picture. This is not just a learning opportunity, it does all the heavy lifting of providing context for the child, so they can focus on the important issues of sounding out the words, noticing punctuation and gaining confidence. The child is not constantly having to wonder what is going on in the story at the same time as learning how to read.

In this dramatic fast paced moment, it is nice to not have to stop and explain what a balcony is.

As children are being encouraged younger and younger to read chapter books, this vital scaffold is lost and children are more often reading large books with no real understanding about what is happening. I remember being asked to tutor an eight year old boy who was considered behind in reading because he was not confident at reading chapter books yet (which in my opinion is totally fine for an eight year old, but I could talk about that all day). I let him pick a book to try and he wanted to read Percy Jackson & The Olympians together, a very well regarded book series by Rick Riordan about a boy's adventures among Geek gods in a modern setting.

We were reading the book together for several weeks, and he was reading well for his age. But at one point we encountered a page that referenced a lot of Greek mythology (more than one creature appeared at once, like a medusa, centaur, faun, I forget specifically) and I asked the boy if he knew what any of them looked like or what they were. He said no, and so I began to ask him about more simple every day things that appeared in the book, and again he said that he did not know what they were. I admit I was quite embarrassed that we had been reading for quite some time without him having much clue about what was happening at all in the story!

He did seem to still be interested in what was happening though, and so I recommended to his parents that they get hold of the comic book version of the story (adapted by Robert Veditti and art by Attila Futaki), so that he could accumulate some context and understanding about the story before attacking it as a chapter book, again so that he could focus on building his skills as a reader instead of using all his focus to unpick or guess at what was happening page to page.

Another issue is dialogue; I remember as child reading chapter books, and when there were characters having a discussion I would often have to read the page over several times to get a decent understanding of who was talking, who they were talking to, who exactly was in and not in the room. Very basic information that we take for granted (and is still sometimes difficult even now depending on how good the writing is...) Once again pictures take away this need to guess and give the reader assurances about the situation which allow them to continue reading confidently.

My point is, I believe we need to appreciate more of what is lost when children are encouraged to move from picture books to chapter books, that pictures are not just for children, they serve a purpose when reading to all ages about contextualizing new information, ideas and situations. What good is telling a child that Superman is from another planet if they have no concept of what a planet is? What good is telling a child that Batman hangs out in a cave if they have never seen a cave before? When the Avengers arrive to save New York how many of them exactly are there? Who is Captain America yelling at right now?

When reading for fun, gaps in understanding and new ideas can be great, but when learning how to read, pictures can do a lot of the mental heavy lifting that can make reading exhausting or no fun at all. With comic books, children can be introduced to all kinds of amazing ideas and situations like time travel, space travel, morality, love, hate, life and death, that can be made understandable because they introduced with words and pictures together. Armed with this understanding, children (or any age of reader) can walk into chapter books more confident in their understanding about the world and more able to bring context to literature themselves. 


  1. Very true. When I was I kid I had weak eye muscles, and only learned to read in the third grade. Since my parents had been reading more heavy books to me, the kind of thing that is usually used to teach kids how to read was of no interest to me, but the kinds of stories I like were above me reading level. So I learned to read primarily through comic books.

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  3. Thanks very much for this. You made some pretty profound remarks in this article that I hadn't considered before, especially surrounding the role that illustrations play in context clues. Even as an adult who reads regularly, I am confronted by turns of phrase or vocabulary that evade me, especially when I read stories set in a culture that's foreign to my own, or when I read 19th century literature. E-reading and the easy access to "looking things up" on the internet certainly helps, but good illustrations would help me further. Sometimes still I just cannot effectively visualize what is being described. Great article!

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