Comics in Education: The Case for Comics in Classrooms – Refuting the Naysayers

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

Anastasia Betts by Anastasia Betts

The Case for Comics in Classrooms: Refuting the Naysayers

I read an article recently that dredged up some unpleasant feelings for me. Well alright, it actually made me mad, but I’m trying to be professional here. After ranting a bit to my family, my daughter pointed out that the article was written two years ago, and that things have surely changed in that amount of time. But I asked myself, “have they really?” I’m not so sure.

The article, “Wondering (Worrying) About Graphic Novels”, was written by Bill Ferriter, a 6th grade language arts teacher, and teacher of the year for his region. In his article (in which his tone is quite condescending), Ferriter “worries” about the growing use of comics in the classroom, and the ways in which such use surely must be preventing students from having the quality learning experiences they deserve.

I hesitated before writing this response, because I didn’t want to give his article any more attention than necessary. But its two weeks later, I’m still incensed, and this topic is too important to let such ignorant opinions run rampant ‘round the Internet. That and, I know there are a LOT of teachers and librarians out there still hanging on to these same misinformed (even if naive) points of view. So, let the debunking begin…

Comics do all of the “imagining” for students.

It’s true that comics do contain pictures. A LOT of them. But to say that pictures take the opportunity to imagine away from the reader is completely false. I would venture to guess that good comics require more imagination on the part of the reader. The reader must not only read and interpret the images presented in the panels, but they must further imagine the action taking place between the panels. Unlike prose, which contain necessarily frequent amounts of exposition, quality comics leave much up to the imagination of the reader where inference is a critical skill. The reader has to work relentlessly to interpret the images, and infer information from the ways in which the images and text work together to communicate a message.

Furthermore, there are a multitude of comics out there that have as much, or even more text than many prose-only books that our students are reading – not to mention more rare vocabulary. Consider the following…


Excerpt from The Teen Titans: The Judas Contract by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez

“The Judas Contract” story arc from The Teen Titans, by Marv Wolfman… nearly every page of that arc is literally covered with text, with a reading level at times superseding that of most high school texts. Another example: The new “Death of the Family” Batman story arc has over 690 pages with word counts ranging from between 50 to 250 per page. Even if we estimated the average words-per-page count for the series to be 150 words per page, that’s still over 100,000 words all totaled. That’s more words than: To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, Slaughter House Five, Lord of the Flies, and many, many other classics as well.

And that’s just addressing the sheer quantities of words present in Comics. Nevermind the fact that research has shown comics to have more rare vocabulary words in them than even most adult books – outmatched only by Scientific Abstracts, Newspapers, and popular trade magazines (Selected Statistics for Major Sources of Spoken and Written Language, Rare Words per 1000. University of Oregon).

With text that prolific and challenging, why are the images even an issue? The images provide the comprehension support needed to ensure that students can do the work of imagining everything that is going on in that world. Moving on…

Comics don’t require thinking.

In many ways, comics require more thinking than mere prose. A quality comic contains text and images seamlessly interwoven. More thinking is involved, because the reader must actually “study” the complement of words and images to make meaning. This is why so many students will return to a favorite comic again and again – because they are gaining new information each time, information they missed in the last go round. It is a multilayered experience that allows for continued enjoyment and “aha’s” throughout repeated readings.

Comics are often figurative and metaphorical. Not only must the reader employ keen observational skills to comprehend the literal representation of the images and words, but the reader must reflect on their figurative meanings as well. I recall in a recent reading of the No Fear Shakespeare’s Hamlet graphic novel with a student, encountering an opportunity to teach about metaphor. In a series of panels showing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern inquiring of Hamlet, the artist Neil Babra chooses to show them as puppets, whose strings are being manipulated by King Claudius. The student and I had an extensive discussion about this artistic choice and what it communicates to the reader. We talked about metaphor, and how it can be used to help us achieve a deeper understanding of characters and their motives. The rigor of this discussion was a direct result of using the graphic novel, rather than just the text version of the play alone.


Blankets by Craig Thompson

Another great novel for teaching literary elements is Blankets by Craig Thompson. I’ve used the opening sequences to teach tone and mood, and visual metaphors abound throughout. The panel where the angry father punishes Craig’s little brother by putting him in “the cubby” is particularly terrifying, especially with the gaping mouth full of menacing teeth standing in for the cot.

I’ve used Bone by Jeff Smith to teach almost all the elements of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. I’ve used The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho to teach allegory – the graphic novel version adapted by Daniel Sampere is much more accessible than the novel itself. I’ve used Calvin and Hobbes to teach tone (i.e. write this series of panels in a… nostalgic… sarcastic… playful… bitter… tone). I’ve used The Incredible Change-Bots by Jeffrey Brown to teach parody and satire. I’ve used wordless panels of Owly by Andy Runton for a myriad of things, from dialogue writing, to oral language development, to descriptive language generation, to writing action, and so much more.

These are just a few examples…. I could fill an entire article with examples like this.

Comics are good for reading-challenged kids, but not for more sophisticated readers.

I have to admit, Ferriter’s implication that comics are only good for struggling readers probably made me the most angry. What is he really saying here? Oh those picture books are fine for those kinds of students, but certainly not for everyone. It’s completely insulting.

I’ve had every kind of student imaginable – including those for whom reading text was torture. Because of their multilayered nature, comics and graphic novels provided an entry point through which any student could explore literature, literary themes, and elements. It leveled the playing field in my classroom, by enabling ALL students– whether struggling or high gifted, to engage with the text at increasingly deeper levels. It allowed me to move beyond teaching mere comprehension, to the higher cognition levels of: analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. As a result, the rigor of my classes was pushed in such a way as to meet the needs of even my most advanced students, while not leaving others behind.

Comics will prevent kids from reading “real” literature.

This is absolutely false. It is true that some readers of comics may always prefer to read comics to prose-only literature. But it is equally true that some readers of comics will gravitate to other forms of literature just as easily as any thing else.


Batman: Death of the Family by Scott Snyder, et al.

The NCTE Council Chronicle article, “Using Comics and Graphic Novels in the Classroom”, included the following quote from John Lowe, the Sequential Arts Chair at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia:

“I started reading comics, and then I got into other types of fiction and literature. I stopped reading comics a little later, but I don’t think I would have made the leap [to literature] if it weren’t for comics.” In his case, Lowe says, he literally went from reading “Batman to Faulkner.”

I’ve been privileged to witness this phenomenon over and over again with my own students – students who may have gravitated toward simple comics and graphic novels at first, then as they gained more confidence in their reading abilities, branching out to more challenging texts. To be clear, those challenging texts included both prose-only as well as more sophisticated comics and graphic novels.

Which brings me to a very important point. Not all comics are created equal…

Comics are content shallow, the “literary equivalent of Jersey Shore”.

It is true that some comics are definitely the “literary equivalent of Jersey Shore.” But the same is true for a lot of prose-only books as well. Selecting strong literature for the classroom and for use as lesson content is the responsibility of the teacher and/or librarian. Let me say that again, it’s the responsibility of the teacher. If you have crappy, low quality literature in your classroom, that’s your choice. Do not blame an entire category of literature for your own inability to seek out, identify, and procure quality literature for your classroom, lessons, or library. That may sound harsh, but it’s true. I’ve met too many teachers who want to blame the “tool” when their lessons go awry. That’s like the builder blaming the hammer for poor construction. The teachers that Ferriter quotes in his article, and I would also include Ferriter himself in this, clearly are not experienced enough with comics or graphic novels to make an informed judgment.

Which is why I find the next two points particularly alarming…

One – this guy was selected as a teacher of the year for his region, and two – the article he wrote got picked up by ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) – a national organization dedicated to leadership in education. If people or organizations in positions of educational leadership are touting such misinformed and dare I say ignorant opinions as Ferriter, or even if people are just listening to such blather, we have a much longer way to go than we thought.

And in the end, that’s why I wrote this article. But my voice alone means nothing. Now it’s your turn.

For your homework: Comment with your opinions below, and LIGHT UP TWITTER with your support for comics in the classroom! #READCOMICS #COMICSWORK #COMICSINCLASSROOMS #TEACHCOMICS

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 February 25, 2013, in Comics in Education and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Great post, and I make a strong case FOR comics/GN in my 2010 book, including an annotated bibliography of key pieces promoting the use of both:

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