Comics in Education: Wordless Comics – Stories for All Ages

Guest-columnist Anastasia Betts of Graphic Novels 101 looks at the use of comics in the classroom, and shares her experience as an educator helping teachers embrace sequential art as a teaching tool.

Anastasia Betts by Anastasia Betts

Wordless Comics: Stories for All Ages
By Anastasia Betts

I had the privilege this past San Diego Comic Con of visiting the Top Shelf table (as I seem to do every year). Top Shelf is a great producer of books that work well in classrooms, not the least of which is the Owly series by Andy Runton. I enjoyed a brief conversation with Andy himself, and told him how much I appreciate his work on the Owly series. I shared how important the genre of wordless comics is to developing the literacy skills of emergent readers – a fact I am quite sure he is already aware.

Though it may seem counter-intuitive, using wordless comics in the classroom is a great way to boost the literacy skills of your students. The Owly series is a fantastic tool for working with younger students, and there are a variety of activities teachers (or parents) can engage youngsters in that will exercise their ‘reading muscle’. Just the simple act of retelling the story in their own words provides students with an opportunity to exercise and develop their oral language skills, descriptive language, as well as both concrete and inferential comprehension. You can download an entire activity guide for working with the Owly series at the Teaching with Owly website as well.

Owly by Andy Runton

It makes sense that a great little series like Owly would be beneficial in early childhood and early elementary classrooms. However, using wordless comics and picture books can actually help develop literacy skills, no matter the age of the reader. The fact is, reading stories that are told entirely through visuals alone requires a much more critical eye, and a keen sense of interpretation. We must not only “read” the visual, but we must bring our own backgrounds, and personal histories to the experience.

Reading visuals differs from reading text in its infinite capacity for extension and discussion. Consider another great visual text, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. This visual text, complex and sophisticated, offers a classroom the meaty substance for rigorous discussions on what the author/artist intended with an image or a series of images. Like the consideration of fine art, interpretations may be focused or boundless, depending on the nature of the visuals. Such discussions are rich and inviting, and require the participant to think critically about their own interpretations. To comprehend such texts, the reader must not only analyze the artistic sequences, but must bring his or her own set of life experiences to bear to make sense of the story. In The Arrival, Tan tells the story of a traveler who arrives in a strange and far-off land, an immigrant to a new world. Through discussion, students are able to stretch beyond retelling the story contained in the images, while having an opportunity to experience and reflect on their own “journeys.” Whether we are immigrants or not, we are all on journeys, some planned, some unexpected – and it is our personal journeys that help us to each uniquely understand the journey of the main character of The Arrival.

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

Wordless (visual) storytelling is certainly not a new phenomenon. I’m sure many of us might consider cave paintings, ancient hieroglyphs, or even the Bayeux Tapestry precursors to the modern visual texts. Visual storytelling has been part of humanity it seems, since the very beginning. One visual storytelling genre that was lost and then rediscovered is that of the wood cut novels. This genre flourished at the start of the 20th century, but then disappeared for time. Gratefully, some of the best graphic wood cut novels of that era have been rediscovered and republished for contemporary readers.

Wood cut novels offer some sophisticated and complex visual reading that can spark rigorous discussion in your secondary or even adult classrooms. Take a moment to check out the recent release of, Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri and Laurence Hyd. The artwork is striking and stark, but even more engaging are the stories that focus in on the various trials of humanity. Written just after the first World War, these artists (as well as the rest of the world) used their art and storytelling to make sense of the horrors the world had so recently experienced.

There are so many great wordless texts for the interested reader. You can find lists on as well as from any Google search. Here is another quick list of wordless graphic novels with some of my favorites. For those of you that are thinking of using wordless comics or graphic novels in your classrooms, I’ve included some practical teaching ideas to make the most of this versatile genre:

Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels, edited by George A. Walker

Build Oral Language Skills:
Invite readers to tell/retell what is happening in the story, frame by frame. Encourage them to describe everything they notice using descriptive and sensory details. Use guiding questions to help them find more words to describe what they see. For example, what do you think the character is seeing, thinking, feeling, smelling, hearing, etc. in this frame?

Build literal and inferential comprehension skills:
In addition to retelling stories frame by frame, encourage readers to explain what they think is happening between frames (in the “gutter”). This not only builds their oral language skills, but it also provides them with an opportunity to practice making inferences. Most visual texts make frequent use of symbolism and metaphor. Invite students to discuss what such symbols and metaphors may mean, and why the artist/author may have chosen to include them.

Teach Narrative Elements:
For young or early readers, focus on sequence: beginning, middle, and end. Use oral retelling as an opportunity for the readers to practice incorporating sequencing vocabulary such as “first, next, last…”

For older readers, focus in on character development and motivation. Invite the readers to consider questions such as: How does the author communicate to the reader about this character? What is the connection between how the character is drawn, and what the author/artist wants you to infer about that character?

For more sophisticated readers, there are innumerable opportunities to focus in on more complex literary elements such as foreshadowing, symbolism, suspense, rising action, climax, falling action… and much much more. Wordless novels are perfect for teaching these elements, no matter the ability level of your students. All of these elements are included visually in the story, and are in many cases easier to identify than in text-only books.

Build writing skills:
After practicing oral retelling, describing, and summarizing, try having students write their versions of the story. Invite them to write captions for each frame, or imaginary dialogue between the characters. Or, provide students with several of the frames, leaving out the last frame, and invite them to create an “ending” frame with text.

No matter the age of the reader, wordless comics and graphic novels have something valuable to offer. So as my mother always used to say (and yours probably did too…) – “Try it! You might like it.”

For homework: Read Art Spiegelmans brief review of the wood cut work of Lynd Ward.

Anastasia Betts is a former teacher, administrator, and UCLA literacy coach from California. She has delivered professional development courses, workshops, and seminars on using comics in the classroom, including participating on Comics in Education panels at Comic Con International: San Diego. Anastasia currently runs an independent curriculum development company called Curriculum Essentials, Inc as well as the website Graphic Novels 101. You can follow her on Facebook at Graphic Novels 101: Using Visual Texts in the 21st Century.

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About Corey Blake

Corey Blake does things on the Internet, and sometimes even in real life.

Posted on August 24, 2012, in Columns, Comics in Education and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I’d like to recommend the wordless, but complex comic story of “Dr. Brillenschnitzels wonderous funeral” ( It was originally created without words and can be used as an advanced training of fantasy teaching. There are some german thoughts which where added later and can be viewed or autotranslated by clicking the headlines.

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