Wouldn't it be nice to say that gone are the days when the value of reading depended on what is being read? Where parents do not lament that their children should be reading 'real books' and teachers no longer suggest that students can borrow one 'proper book' and one comic? Sadly, we have not yet reached this literary utopia, despite the growing popularity of graphic literature and the academic support for it. Don't misunderstand me, there is a definite difference in the quality of literature out there and it I am all for the good stuff. But here I am talking about the differences in genre, not quality.
Any good educator is using a variety of teaching tools, no matter what the subject. To teach children fractions, we have students manipulating pie-shaped wholes into segments, cutting out and colouring in, looking at pizza slices in a whole new way (pardon the pun) and the list goes on. Just like teaching fractions, teaching literacy surely needs to embrace all possible resources, including the classics, picture books, popular series, non-fiction, and, just as importantly, graphic novels and comics.
A graphic novel uses the interplay of text and illustrations in a comic-strip format to tell a story. Instead of relying on just text to construct a narrative, it uses graphical elements such as panels, frames, speech/thought balloons, etc. in a sequential way to create and evoke a story in a reader’s mind - Penguin Books Australia
I recently undertook a series of lessons in the library with my year 4 and 5 students. There is always that group of students (mostly boys in this case) whose eyes glaze over when anything bookish is mentioned (difficult to avoid it in a library lesson!). However when they learned that this particular lesson was on the genre of graphic novels and their half-closed eyes widened. Suddenly the kids who never co-operated in class were able to tell the rest of us how to read Manga (back-to-front), the names of popular characters and were even requesting that we purchase the latest releases in the Amulet series. By the end of the lesson, at least half of the class were browsing the (sadly lacking but good enough for now) graphic novel section. I was thrilled! The students ranged from top readers to the ones who claimed each week that "nothing in here interests me". To me as a teacher, I had tapped into something we are constantly trying to do, get our kids reading.
There are the academically proven benefits of and uses for graphic novels. They can be used to motivate all different groups of students. Teen boys are notoriously difficult to engage with reading but seem to enjoy the graphic approach to narratives. (Surprisingly, when tested, females outperformed males in comprehending graphic versions of traditional texts, giving a fresh perspective on a genre traditionally associated with boys). Gifted students can be motivated to extend beyond their usual go-to text type and be challenged by the visual literacy needed when reading a graphic novel. Students who struggle with literacy altogether and those who speak English as an additional language can all be supported by fewer written words but more visual clues. Research tells us that the visual aspect of a graphic novel adaptation increases the level of comprehension of both boys and girls. Isn't that a good thing?
I was surprised to learn that the research tells us that students’ level of reading engagement was more important than socioeconomic background as a predictor of literary performance (Francis). If this is true, and the best thing teachers can do to improve literacy is engage students, then why aren't we using graphic novels more? It seems we are missing a trick. If teachers use graphic novels and comic books to spark students' attention (like moths to a flame) we can have them engaged them from the start. Imagine introducing Shakespeare's Hamlet, first as a graphic novel. Or introducing the structure of narrative by first reading The Purple Smurf. Or learning about disability by reading El Deafo, the story of a girl who is deaf and how she navigates her world.
For what it is worth I am from the "any reading is good reading" camp. If we can get students picking up a book, reading what they love, engaging in the curriculum and appreciating the mechanics of the written word, any word, then I say Graphic Novels: Treasure.
Cook, M. P. (2017). Now I “See”: The Impact of Graphic Novels on Reading Comprehension in High School English Classrooms, Literacy Research and Instruction, 56(1), 21-53, DOI: 10.1080/19388071.2016.1244869