Comics are not just for struggling readers: Language teachers’ views on comics as a teaching resource
“We are living in a golden age of cartoon art. Never before has graphic storytelling been so prominent or garnered such respect.” (Chute, 2014)
Comics have become a transmedia storytelling success with games, films, and animations based on comics being released across multiple media platforms in a co-ordinated manner by massive Superhero publishing and media companies like Marvel and DC comics. As a result, comics have become firmly established within mainstream western culture. However, within education, comics are seen by some teachers as only suitable for motivating struggling and reluctant readers or as a transitional medium towards word-based literacy. In this research which builds on the CIELL project, I have investigated the perceptions and beliefs of language teachers on the use of comics in teaching.
What is known about the educational role of comics in teaching?
Comics and graphic novels are often used in schools as one of a range of strategies to improve reading by motivating and engaging learners with dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties (Kormos, 2020). However, research literature suggests that they can be beneficial for a wide range of learners and not just for struggling and reluctant readers. While comics can motivate and engage reluctant and struggling readers (Eisner, 1994, Liu, 2004) other research suggests that they can also motivate readers of all ability levels (Carter, 2009; Källvant, 2015; Rapp, 2011). So, there is great educational potential in the use of comics in teaching for all learners, but what do teachers think about integrating them into their teaching.
What is known about teachers’ attitudes towards using comics in teaching?
In 1949, Hutchinson reported that schoolteachers believed comics were ‘not serious enough’ to be used in formal educational settings and they were concerned that parents might misunderstand their purpose, indeed, the teachers themselves thought that comics made learning ‘too easy’. More ‘traditional’ perspectives like this tend to include concerns about the content, influence, and educational value of comics (Dorrell, Curtis & Rampall, 1995; Jacobs, 2007).
In 2011/12, an American study uncovered more positive attitudes towards comics and found that teachers were making use of comics in class (Lapp, Wolsey, Fisher, and Frey, 2011/2012). While there was a willingness to use comics, teachers thought that there was a lack of instructional models, a lack of suitable graphic novels, and they expressed some discomfort in using comics in class. Crucially, while most had a positive attitude towards using comics, they particularly appreciated their value in supporting struggling readers.
In 2020, a similar British study found that secondary schoolteachers thought that comics were: for entertainment not education; for students that need extra support (i.e., lower ability students); and regarded them as a promising teaching approach without sufficient high-quality resources (Aleixo, Matkin and Kilby, 2020). Again, teachers’ said that they were suitable for learners who need additional support in learning to read.
What did I find out from language teachers?
Teachers participating in the FutureLearn MOOC “Dyslexia and Foreign Language Teaching” were invited to explore and comment on the Comics for Inclusive English Language Learning (CIELL) resources for language learning (https://ciell.eu) as an example of a technology-enhanced learning resource based on comics.
I analysed the comments and identified common themes using informed grounded theory (Themelis, Sime & Thornberg, 2022). Initially codes were used to label similar ideas, these codes were then grouped by similarity into categories and the categories organised into overarching themes.
Two main themes were discovered that capture the beliefs and perceptions of language teachers on the use of comics in teaching and learning languages:
- Multimodal comics help language learners;
- Comics are an inclusive resource suitable for all learners.
The first theme shows that teachers understand how comics contribute to the learning process as can be seen in the 17 codes and 7 categories I identified:
- Comics enable self-paced learning;
- Comics help learners to memorise words and phrases;
- Comics can be motivating, engaging, and fun for learners;
- Comics can develop learners’ writing and speaking, as well as reading;
- The deconstructed narrative within comics helps learners understand the structure of writing and provides a model for planning essays;
- Comics can help learners construct an understanding from the combination of words and visuals;
- Comics support multimodal learning.
The second theme reveals teachers’ views on which learners might benefit from learning with comics. I identified 15 codes which were gathered into 5 categories that make up this theme:
- Comics can help all learners not just those with dyslexia and other specific learning differences (SPLDs);
- Comics can motivate and engage all learners not just those with dyslexia and other SPLDs;
- The multimodality of comics makes the structure of writing more accessible for learners with dyslexia and other SPLDs;
- Comics (visuals) can help all learners to remember what they learn, not just those with dyslexia and other SPLDs;
- Comics provide a model of writing that can help all learners not just those with dyslexia and other SPLDs.
Unflattening thinking through multimodality
This study revealed that the teachers: understood the educational role of comics through their intrinsic multimodality which included text, audio narrations and beautiful illustrations; and perceived comics to be motivating and engaging for all learners including those with dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties.
Teaching resources are becoming increasingly multimodal and require not just word-based literacy but also visual literacy. The idea of multiple literacies is not new. Multiliteracies pedagogy proposed by The New London Group (1996) identified the need for critical framing in relation to multiple contexts such as the cultural, historical, political, and social context. Within the comics literature, Nick Sousanis in his book “Unflattening” (2015), argues that perception is a dynamic process of construction of understanding that includes evaluation of different perspectives. He cautions against narrow-mindedness or flat one-dimensional thinking and argues persuasively for what he calls ‘unflattening’ – the process of opening your mind to considering multiple perspectives.
To conclude, firstly, teachers understand that through multimodality, comics can play an educational role in unflattening thinking and promoting the consideration of multiple perspectives. Secondly, that this benefit is not restricted to supporting struggling and reluctant readers. Consequently, the recommendation for language teachers is to integrate comics, and technology-enhanced learning resources based on comics such as the CIELL App, into their teaching so that students learn to consider multiple perspectives as they navigate the increasing linguistic and cultural diversity in our society. Importantly, comics should be viewed as an inclusive resource that are not just for struggling and reluctant readers.
Carter, J. B. (2009). Going graphic. Educational Leadership, 66(6), 68-73.
Eisner, W. (1994). Comics and the new literacy: An Essay. Inks: Cartoon and Comic Art Studies, 1(2), 2-5.
Rapp, D. N. (2011). Comic books’ latest plot twist: Enhancing literacy instruction. Phi Delta Kappan, 93(4), 64-67.
Sousanis, N. (2015). Unflattening. Harvard University Press.
This research was funded by Lancaster University, UK (September 2022-August 2023). The contents of the blog are the sole responsibility of the author and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of Lancaster University.
Images from Zen Gardens by Eleni Tsampra, 2020, BY-NC-ND-4.0.
About the Author
Dr Julie-Ann Sime is an experienced online educator and researcher based in the Centre for Technology-Enhanced Learning, Educational Research Department, Lancaster University. She researches into technology-enhanced learning, with a particular interest in how educators design learning experiences and integrate innovative technologies and new practices into their teaching. This includes an interest in the social inclusion of students with dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties, ADHD and autism.
This work is licenced under creative commons BY-NC-ND 4.0