What Can Students Learn from Graphic Novels?

By Allison Wedell Schumacher

What Can Students Learn from Graphic Novels?My grandma and grandpa’s house in Oberlin, Ohio, was the stuff of childhood dreams: a nearly endless backyard leading down to a creek, a screened-in porch with a hammock so the bugs couldn’t get to you while you read, huge trees to climb. But believe it or not, my favorite part of that house was a rickety Ping-Pong table in the dark, dank basement. I would’ve avoided that basement like the plague, except that Grandma had been a fifth-grade teacher, and that table was where her classroom library came to live after she retired. It was a bookworm’s paradise.

But there was something that table didn’t have—something that wasn’t even allowed in that house: comic books. Grandpa, a lifelong educator himself, didn’t think comics were “real” books, and described them as “junk.” My mother and her brother were never allowed to have them.

Grandpa’s housewide comic book ban was in the 1950s, and the attitude toward comic books (and their more robust younger siblings, graphic novels) has only recently started to change among parents and educators. Cassandra Pelham Fulton, senior editor at Graphix, observes: “When I started working in publishing 12 years ago, it seemed to be a constant refrain that graphic novels weren’t ‘real books’ and that some teachers and parents felt they weren’t to be taken seriously, or should only be regarded as a ‘treat’ following the completion of ‘real’ reading.” Sort of like dessert for your brain.

But attitudes toward graphic novels are changing in part because educators and parents are starting to realize that there are some things graphic novels can do that traditional books can’t. Fulton and her colleagues at Graphix have received many letters from delighted adults who say that their kids didn’t read books at all until they came across graphic novels, and “now they read many graphic novels over and over again, and are excited about reading!”

Graphic novels’ advantages go beyond encouraging reluctant readers, though. Fulton often hears about dyslexic readers who couldn’t gain confidence in their reading until they had pictures to go along with the words and provide context. Likewise with English language learners, says Fulton: “We also hear about students who are learning English and have seen rapid improvement after starting to read graphic novels.”

Amy Ray, a mom in Minnesota, corroborates this use of graphic novels: “With fewer words grouped together, they help with some of the dyslexia issues for one of my children, because in normal novels, a page full of words became overwhelming. Graphic novels made it easier for him to follow—his brain wouldn’t skip words as easily.” Ian Cox, a dad of three in Georgia, has a son with nystagmus (a condition in which the eyes make repetitive, uncontrolled movements). “His nystagmus made reading difficult, but the pictures kept his interest,” explains Cox. “He still prefers books with at least some illustration, but now he seeks them out on his own.”

Graphic novels are also incredibly useful for teaching social-emotional skills. In order to develop empathy skills, one first has to be able to recognize emotions in others. A good illustrator can draw subtleties in a human face that convey the emotion a character is feeling at the time so readers can garner clues about a character’s emotional state from the character’s words, face, and body language—and not even realize they’re doing it. “You’re really transported to the character’s experience in a way that’s harder to achieve when you’re just dealing with prose. When I sit in on comics presentations at schools, I often hear kids mention the facial expressions or body language of the characters,” says Fulton.

Graphic novels sometimes deal with different subject matter than traditional books do—subjects that fall more naturally within the realm of social-emotional learning. Cassidy Summer, a lifelong comic book devotee in Washington state, observes: “Since the 70s, comics have addressed issues like drugs and bullying (among others) in an easy-to-use format. If you teach kids without telling them they are learning, it can be enormously effective on so many levels.”

That teaching can be as explicit or implicit as you want. For example, Fulton details an exercise that graphic novelist Raina Telgemeier sometimes does with kids. Telgemeier, who is the author of the New York Times best-selling graphic novel Smile (which was Fulton’s first graphic novel editor credit), will ask kids for an emotion, then guide them in drawing the facial expression that corresponds with that emotion. “Once, a kid suggested ‘galvanized,’ which stumped everyone for a bit,” recalls Fulton. “But then Raina and the kids figured out what it might look like together. The kids loved it, and I’ll never forget seeing the delight on their faces.”

When I watch my 11-year-old daughter lose herself for hours at a time in graphic novels (something she does with far more frequency than with traditional literature), I often think of how much has changed in four generations in my family. I’m transported back to the Ping-Pong table in that damp, musty basement, my 11-year-old self pawing through stacks of paperbacks and trying to decide which to read next. I can’t help but wonder what Grandpa would think of his great-granddaughter’s choice of reading material. But seeing how much she and her peers gain from comics and graphic novels, I think he might just come around to my point of view.

Allison Wedell SchumacherAllison Wedell Schumacher is a freelance writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on child abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, fitness, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at babycenter.com, MomsRising.org, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.

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