Bringing Pictures to Life: Teaching with Graphic Novels
Originally published December 2016
By Meagan Gillmore
Beverley Brenna knows what children like to read. She has written award-winning children’s books. She teaches prospective English teachers in the University of Saskatchewan’s education program. Before that, she was a classroom teacher—a reading specialist for several years. But she’s “regretful” she couldn’t offer her students a valuable tool: graphic novels.
“It’s hard to admit that maybe I missed out on a good resource,” says Brenna, who has researched how elementary students respond to graphic novels. She now teaches her students how to use them with their classes. Brenna calls them a “dark horse” that more educators are welcoming. They’re not just for literature, either. The graphic novel form is used to teach subjects ranging from science to history to world religions and current events.
But some teachers may not be convinced they’re a sure bet. They may have never read them. Or they may misunderstand the content. “I think graphic novels have a bad name, and I mean that literally,” says Brenna. The word “graphic” may cause some to assume the books are filled with violence or dark subject matter. This may be because graphic novels are sometimes confused with comic books, which often have darker themes. Other teachers doubt their literary value despite the awards many win. Brenna admits she was reluctant to use them. She’s not alone.
“I really believed that students needed to read Shakespeare, they needed to read a classic novel, and they needed to be able to analyze the quotations and write a thematic literary paper,” says Brianne MacLaren-Ross, a high school English teacher in the Greater Essex County District School Board in Ontario. She wondered if students wouldn’t take her seriously if she used graphic novels, or if parents would complain. She now uses graphic novels and comics regularly with students of all academic levels, and is researching using graphic literature as part of her PhD.
Graphic novels are often viewed solely as tools to engage reluctant readers or help students learn English. This makes sense. The pictures make it easier for students to interpret a story, says Brenna. Pictures replace passages that describe the setting and characters. Readers see characters pace across a frame in frustration. The movements provide insight into characters’ emotions, an especially beneficial tool when reading a Shakespearean soliloquy. This can help them better analyze these passages in written essays.
Graphic novels have fewer words, and the text is written in smaller chunks. This makes it easier for students who might struggle with tracking or following large sections of words to pay attention. Removing barriers in reading is important for students who are learning English. Graphic novel adaptations of classic novels or plays may make it easier for them to understand what their English-fluent classmates are reading. This builds their confidence and helps them read more advanced material.
“It’s like wearing a life jacket if you’re a swimmer and you’re not buoyant or skilled enough to swim on your own,” says Brenna. “With that life jacket, you can get to the back of the pool.” Brenna laughs at how some think making reading easier is bad. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” she says. “Shouldn’t reading be easy?”
The more students like reading, she says, the more they’ll read. Brenna recommends teachers bring in boxes of different graphic novels and let students pick which ones they want to read for independent reading time in class.
Students will naturally pick books at their level. “You’re kind of putting the food on the table and letting the kids sample and select,” says Brenna, who uses this method when teaching her undergraduates about using graphic novels.
But students need specific instruction to understand graphic novels. Like any form of literature, some things are unique to them, just like meters and rhyme schemes are common to poetry. In graphic novels, the narrator’s words are often written in rectangles at the top of a frame, different font sizes and styles show emotion and tone of voice. Teachers can approach using graphic novels to support classic literary works the same way they use the movie versions. The creators of the graphic novel are doing a similar thing as movie directors, explains MacLaren-Ross. They’re interpreting the original work.
Pictures may make the books easier in some ways, but that doesn’t mean students don’t need to think critically when reading them. Students need to know how to interpret visual information. Students grew up with the Internet and digital communication, so often teachers assume they naturally understand how to interpret these things, says MacLaren-Ross. But that’s not true—and it shows. “Students have a visual language that is not explicitly taught (in curriculum),” she says.
MacLaren-Ross teaches a class specifically for students who failed the provincial literacy test. They often struggle on the part of the test that requires them to interpret different visuals. Graphic novels and comic strips give students a way to practise doing this. “There’s a lot of things that are not explained (in graphic novels),” says MacLaren-Ross. A lot can happen in the gutters, the white spaces between frames. This can motivate discussions about what’s not shown in the story. Examining pictures can also help students understand more difficult subject matter, like war and racism.
“There’s a benefit in showing them history instead of just having them read about history,” says David Alexander Robertson, a novelist from Manitoba. He’s written several graphic novels about Indigenous history in Canada, and gives teachers workshops about how to use graphic novels in the classroom. It can be easier for students to understand what it was like for students at residential schools if they see a picture of a student sitting with urine-soaked sheets on their head, he said. They understand the pain of physical abuse better when they see a picture of it. Often, students are more likely to read longer texts about related subjects after reading the graphic novels, he said.
“If they’re ready to understand it, they’ll see it. And if they’re not, they won’t see it,” says Jessica Dee Humphreys. She’s the co-author of Child Soldier, an award-winning graphic non-fiction book that tells the story of a former child soldier in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She wanted the book to be an educational tool, even before she was asked to help create the teachers’ guide for it. But she wanted readers to have the chance to discuss topics other than child soldiers. The book includes small details to help spark students’ curiosity about multiple subjects. It mentions soccer balls made from banana peels and garbage bags, helping students understand how children play in countries where you can’t go to a store to purchase toys. The book hints at tragedies big and small—rape and soldiers killing the family dog. Students of different maturity levels will understand different things.
Some may call graphic novels a passing craze, but their ability to engage readers across ages and subject matters gives them value, says Robertson who has lectured about some of his novels in university classes. He often asks teachers what they think graphic novels and comic books are about. They usually respond by saying, “superheroes.” But when he asks them what they could be about, they say “anything.”
Meagan Gillmore is a freelance writer and editor in Toronto.