Graphic Novels as a Tool to Improve Literacy: 5 Facts

Date: October 7th, 2014
By:

Kelly Connelly

In the 1970s, the definition of literacy expanded to recognize the reality that students learn to construct meaning from a variety of text types, including visual images. Graphic novels—distinguished by their heavy use of imagery with text—are particularly useful in developing literacy skills among youth. Graphic novels have enjoyed increasing popularity in recent years and have become valuable tools for teachers in the classroom and for good reason.

Five Benefits to Using Graphic Novels as a Tool to Improve Literacy

1.   Including graphics with texts helps students encode information more readily, improving their reading comprehension.

(Photo by byronv2)

When images are used alongside text, students can more easily decipher the meaning of the text, as well as retain elements of the story. Often, students’ self-esteem can be brought down by low test scores in reading and writing, which can be a factor in deciding to drop out of school: “By providing students with tools to increase their reading and writing ability, teachers can promote student success” (Mannion, 2008)

2.   Vocabulary development among students with language and learning disabilities can be aided by the use of graphic novels.

Students who identify as having learning disabilities have self-reported that graphic novels motivated them to read and aided their comprehension. As part of a recent study, several students with learning disabilities at Avon High School in Indianapolis, IN, were asked to read graphic novels in their free time over the course of a year.  Of the 20 students in the study, 16 reported liking and reading the books, with many saying the pictures helped them better understand the text.

3.   Bringing youth culture, including graphic novels, into the classroom can motivate and engage youth.

Utilizing popular cultural elements of contemporary students demonstrates to the students that their lives and interests are respected by their teachers. This demonstration of respect can help students to be more receptive to other curriculum content. “We’re not talking about co-opting superficial trappings of youth,” says Nancy Frey, herself a teacher and author of Using Graphic Novels, Anime, and the Internet in an Urban High School. “What we are talking about is acknowledging to our students that we care about their interests and recognize the value of their contributions to the classroom community.”

4.   Graphic novels used for pleasure reading help improve literacy among second language learners and reluctant readers.

Pleasure reading is critical in the development of literacy among second language learners. According to Collen MacDonnell’s Making the Case for Pleasure Reading, many English learners (ELs) choose graphic novels for pleasure reading. Kay Hones, a high school librarian, has seen firsthand how otherwise reluctant readers have been drawn to graphic novels. “My students love graphic novels,” she says. “I display them near the periodicals and new books, grouping them with comics and drawing books, forming a magnet area for reluctant readers.”

5.   Graphic novels can be used to improve “traditional” literacy, as well as be valued as its own form of reading, with its own benefits.

Although the popularity of graphic novels—and the use of them as a learning tool—has been steadily increasing, there still remains a certain level of “snobbery” when it comes to the value of graphic novels as its own form of literature. Despite the endorsement by many librarians, many teachers have been reluctant to include graphic novels in their curricula, according to this article. However, the combination of traditional and visual literacies in which graphic novels have been shown to aid can “teach students new perspectives on better grasping plot, character, theme and other story elements through visual cues that aid comprehension.”

What are the youth you work or live with reading?  If they are reading graphic novels, what graphic novels seem to interest them most?
How do you work to incorporate youth culture into your programming or interactions with youth?

Healthy Teen Network is in the process of developing a graphic novel with award winning author/illustrator Jonathon Scott Fuqua. The graphic novel will explore important issues of bullying, self-esteem, and peer relationships. This week, we will launch a crowdfunding campaign on WeDidIt to support the distribution of the book—and a Teacher’s Guide—to Baltimore City Middle School age students this fall. We’ve set a goal to raise $10,000 in six weeks to make this happen and we’ll need your help. Can we count on you?

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About the Author

Healthy Teen Network Senior Marketing and Communications Manager Kelly Connelly, BA, is a graphic designer, photographer, and videographer, and she is experienced at developing skills-building workshops and programs, for professionals as well as youth.

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