“I hate reading!”
Many years ago I was tutoring a third-grade boy with learning differences who was having significant trouble completing his outside reading homework. Yes, the actual act of reading was difficult for him, but his reluctance to merely sit down and read was even harder to overcome. Reading had only bad associations, so why would he have any interest in the books he was given?
Now I have been a comic book and graphic novel lover for many years, so when I was picking up a graphic novel, I made the spur-of-the-moment decision to grab an age-appropriate Star Wars graphic novel. I knew my student already loved the Star Wars movies — would he be willing to read about something he enjoyed?
When I presented the comic to him, he was excited that it was about Star Wars but still dubious about reading it by himself. I think we were both shocked by how much he enjoyed the book, and during the weeks to come he ended up devouring issue after issue at a pace faster than I ever would have believed was possible.
This story illustrates the power that graphic novels and comic books can have for struggling readers. Reviewer Jay Stringer captures this phenomena in his post Dyslexia and Comics where he describes how comics and graphic novels were instrumental in helping him learn to read and enjoy literature:
Dyslexics like myself can’t learn anything without a narrative to hold on to. Why am I being given this information? What does it do? What is it relevant to? What similar thing should I store it next to in my head?
The books I was being given to read at school were no help. Oh, hey, there’s a picture of a dog. And a squiggle next to it that probably means “dog.” So what? Nothing’s happening here, there’s no information for me to file away, and if I do store it, where do I put it? What is it relevant to?
A comic book trains your brain. It works the right muscles and, if you’re struggling, they can teach you to read. You see images for context, you see the words that go with them, and your mind learns to fill in the blanks. You learn to build the narrative as you go.
As a child, I suddenly got it. I had a structure, a guide for processing the information I was taking in, and where to store it. I had a reason to keep moving through the pages.
There are still many teachers and parents who are resistant to the idea of graphic novels and comics. Do they even count as “real reading?” When reading for pleasure, it’s important that a student is consistently reading; any strategy that makes the task more enjoyable will help students associate reading with pleasure and not with “schoolwork.” Graphic novels and comics can be a great tool in your arsenal to help reluctant readers enjoy books.
If you’re looking for recommendations, the publisher Diamond Comics offers resources as well as lesson plans for graphic novels suitable for all grade levels. Also, The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity has a listing of top Graphic Novels that Welcome Everyone Into the Reading Conversation.
As Springer says: “If you know someone who is a struggling reader, give them a comic. Give them the best comic in your collection. You might change their life.”
Let us know in the comments how you have had success using comics and graphic novels with your students!
- Elizabeth Ross, M.A., SMARTS Media Manager