Graphic Novels and Bridging the Gap for English Language Learners
Natsuko K. Chow

Living in a strange country, surrounded by sounds of incomprehensible language is nerve-wracking for anyone. In order to adjust, one is required to master the language of the new environment, which can be a daunting task. One wish for both students and teachers of English as a Second Language is to make language learning a less threatening and frightening experience. To achieve that, comic books/graphic novels can be a practical addition to your ESL lesson plans, for everything from basic instruction to vocabulary development to cultural knowledge.

  •  Basic Instruction: Second language learning is very similar to learning your first language, especially for beginners. Typically, we all started reading with a picture book because pictures are more appealing than streams of unknown words. This is also true for ESL learners. By using comics, students are able to associate pictures with the action in a book thus helping them comprehend the meaning of the story and familiarize themselves with new words.
  •  Vocabulary Development: Comics also play a crucial role in expanding the student’s vocabulary. In fact, comics can introduce them to non-standard words and phrases which are not typically found in traditional text books. For example, comics tend to utilize daily language commonly used in conversation such as slang, idioms, onomatopoeia, abbreviations, etc. Mastering these aspects of the English language is important for assimilating into a new culture.
  • Cultural Knowledge: For an ESL student, understanding the culture is just as important – if not more so – than learning the language itself. In that case, comics are valuable because they can portray certain aspects of one’s culture. For instance, a comic book set in a typical American high school can represent traits unique to American teenagers. Intermediate to advanced students can use such comics to compare and contrast with their native cultures, stimulating discussion in the classroom.

English Language Learners (ELLs) are among the fastest growing population in our education system with students from various backgrounds coming from non-English speaking households. Traditionally, it can be difficult for ELLs to attach to the language because of not only the academic demands of learning English, but the social constructs and conversational demands required to speak fluently within American culture. Prose texts are not easily equipped to teach students the importance of idioms, facial expressions, and body language all associated with the English language and its use in American culture. However, the text-to-image literacy demanded by reading graphic novels provides students with the tools they need to understand the English level in a way that is not accessible by traditional texts.

Graphic novels explain figurative language. ELLs struggle with phrases such as "raining cats and dogs," "penny for your thoughts," or "go out on a limb" because they naturally expect these phrases to have literal meanings. Graphic novels have the ability to bridge the students' comprehension beyond just literal interpretation because it provides visual context for the phrase. Teacher Barbara Palmer and her colleagues go delve into the difficulty of idioms, metaphors, and other figures of speech for ELLs and how illustrated panels of graphic novels can provide helpful context in their article Bridging Two Worlds: Reading Comprehension, Figurative Language Instruction, and the English-Language Learner.

Not only do graphic novels give context to abstract concepts in language, they also provide complex age-appropriate stories for readers. One of the hazards of teaching English as a second language is not providing content appropriate to the educational level of the student due to the language barrier. However, graphic novels allow students to interpret and read complicated subjects while learning the language and picking up on social constructs. Media and Reader Services Librarian at Suffolk County Community College Dawn Wing discusses using Art Spiegelman's Maus to her English-Language Learners, and explains how the graphic novel engaged her students and extended their interests to learning about the Holocaust outside of the class.

Another important aspect of language that is expanded upon by using graphic novels is punctuation and emphasis. Coloring Colorado's - a national multimedia project that offers bilingual, research-based information, activities, and advice - Karen Ford goes into detail about ELLs and reading fluency in English stating that "as students practice reading English text accurately, automatically, and prosaically, they are gaining valuable information about the sounds and cadences of spoken English." Graphic novels use frequent punctuation and bolding of key words to demonstrate how things would be said aloud, providing the necessary tools to not only comprehend text but to practice their oral language development. 

The universality of comics should be taken into account as well, when considering using them for ESL purposes. Comics are widely read all over the world in many forms – the odds are good that your students have already read comics in their native language. Take advantage of this fact by having students bring in their own comics to translate into English. Moreover, if a translated edition is already available (either an English translation of a non-English comic book or a non-English translation of an American comic), they can compare and contrast both versions. This technique may be particularly beneficial in a one-on-one tutoring session or bilingual classroom where the students share the same native language.

Finally, graphic novels provide an insight into cultural norms that are not present in traditional prose. ELLs are not only subjected to the challenges of learning a new language, but to understanding the socio-cultural factors that affect the English language. Unlike traditional text, graphic novels have facial expressions, gestures, and provide body language along with speech, providing ELLs with a variety of abstract concepts to help them handle the wide range of social issues brought with living in a new culture. 

Comics and graphic novels are a unique experience in a student's education, providing them with not only the literary tools needed to succeed but also social and cultural concepts that may be lost in other literary formats. The opportunities present for ELLs are considerable in providing engaging visual support for students with age-appropriate story-telling. For a list of graphic novels that aide in the education of ELLs, see below.


Howtoons: Tools of Mass Construction

Published by: Image Comics
Written by: Saul Griffith, Ingrid Dragotta, Nick Dragotta
Illustrated by: Nick Dragotta
Format: Softcover, 6 x 9, 360 pages, Color, $17.99
Ages: 9-12
ISBN: 978-1-63215-101-8

Lurking in the corners of your garage, on the dusty shelves of hardware stores, and in your own trashcan are the tools and ingredients for creating your own adventures. Follow Celine and Tucker as they learn through play with over 50 DIY projects! Challenged to make something "other than trouble," this brother-and-sister pair use everyday objects to invent toys that readers can build. Combining comics and real-life science and engineering principlesHowtoons are designed to encourage kids to become active participants in the world around them.

Good Night, Planet

Published by: Image Comics
Written and Illustrated by: Liniers
Format: Hardcover, 6 x 9, 36 pages, Color, $12.95
Ages: 4+
ISBN: 9781943145201

Available in Spanish. What happens while you’re sleeping? Your toys go out to play! After a long day of jumping in the leaves and reading her favorite books, this little girl is worn out – but her favorite stuffed animal, Planet, is just getting started. Planet befriends a dog, gobbles a cookie, and takes a leap into the unknown. This tender, gorgeous tale by the internationally renowned cartoonist Liniers will reveal to early readers the wonders that exist at night, in secret, after they close their eyes.

American Born Chinese

Published by: Square Fish
Written and Illustrated by: Gene Luen Yang
Format: Softcover, 5 x 8, 240 pages, Color, $10.99
Ages: 12-17
ISBN: 9780312384487

Jin Wang starts at a new school where he's the only Chinese-American student. When a boy from Taiwan joins his class, Jin doesn't want to be associated with an FOB like him. Jin just wants to be an all-American boy, because he's in love with an all-American girl. Danny is an all-American boy: great at basketball, popular with the girls. But his obnoxious Chinese cousin Chin-Kee's annual visit is such a disaster that it ruins Danny's reputation at school, leaving him with no choice but to transfer somewhere he can start all over again. 

Booger Beard 

Published by: Oni Press
Written by: Vincent Navarrette
Illustrated by: Vincent Navarrette
Format: Hardcover, 6 x 9, 40 pages, Color, $12.99
Ages: 4-8
ISBN: 9781620102206

An imaginative tale of repulsive proportions! All Mijo wants is a delicious snack to settle his rumbling panza. However, an epic sneeze forces a snot rocket like you’ve never seen out of his nose and onto his face. His Ma-Mee wants him to clean it off before he eats, but how can Mijo wipe off such a masterpiece? He wants to keep his beard, no matter how gross. He just needs to convince Ma-Mee as well, and show her just how handy his booger beard can be!

Princeless Volume 1 Spanish Edition: Save Yourself

Published by: Action Lab Entertainment
Written by: Jeremy Whitley
Illustrated by: M Goodwin
Format: Softcover, 128 pages, Color, $14.99
Ages: 9-12
ISBN: 9781632292346
Release Date: 01/09/2018

Adrienne Ashe never wanted to be a princess. She hates fancy dinners, is uncomfortable in lavish dresses, and has never wanted to wait on someone else to save her. However, on the night of her 16th birthday her parents, the King and Queen, locked her away in a tower guarded by a dragon to await the rescue of some handsome prince. Now Adrienne has decided to take matters into her own hands! Come join the Eisner-nominated team of Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin for a tale of swashbuckling in the face of sexism. Princeless is the action adventure for the girl who's tired of waiting to be rescued and ready to save herself.