How Comics Can Reach Reluctant Readers

Many educators have begun to realize something that long-time comic book readers have always known: comics are valuable.

As a learning tool, the comic book can reach an entire segment of students who may not want to read. Most of the time, these students may have the capacity to read and understand text, they just lack the motivation. However, these reluctant and struggling readers can be swayed with the use of dynamic, colorful, and engaging comic books.

Recently, comics and graphic novels have garnered much attention from educators for their viability as an educational tool. The consensus among most teachers who have used comics in the classroom is that they motivate those students who are unmotivated to read “traditional” books. More often than not, reluctant readers are intimidated by the amount of text found in traditional books. Additionally, these students may be quite capable of reading each word, but are unable to comprehend the themes, plots, or characterization in the story. This leads to frustration on the student’s part and, ultimately, turns him or her off from further reading.

Fortunately, comics provide ways for these same students to break through their preconceived notions of reading.

The most prevalent factor affecting reluctant readers is a lack of motivation to read. Comic books, though, are not generally perceived by children as “real books;” consequently, they are less intimidating or threatening. With their bright colors and familiar characters, comics are more appealing than traditional text – the comic represents something different and exciting without sacrificing plot, vocabulary, and other important components of reading comprehension.

For those readers whose reluctance stems from an ongoing struggle to decode text or comprehend stories, they may be unable to visualize in their minds. For such readers, comics are ideal — by their very nature, comics use the combination of visuals and text to tell a complete story, thereby increasing a student’s visual literacy and acting as an assistive device. Far from being easier to read, though, comics are actually just as challenging as traditional text: the student is engaging in higher-level reading skills because he or she must be able understand the sequencing of each panel while following the text and art at the same time. As Brenda Pennella, a fifth grade teacher from Williamsport, PA, put it:

“With graphic novels, the scaffolding necessary to build solid readers is in the architecture of the genre. The illustrations not only support the text, they are a part of the text. Students are given context clues within the subtle and sometime not so subtle expressions, symbols and actions of the characters within the story. Vocabulary is also supported within the illustrations and text. The framework or grid layout of this art form lends itself perfectly to the predicting strategies needed to reach higher-level understanding in reading comprehension.”*

The most important dynamic of using comics to reach reluctant readers is the possibility of creating regular readers. If lack of motivation factors significantly into lower reading scores, giving students something to look forward to will only encourage further reading. In a sense, the comic book serves as a gateway to reading other types of books. Recommending the use of comic books and graphic novels in the classroom is by no means to suggest replacing traditional text; comics can, rather, serve as a supplement to traditional lesson plans.

Using comic books in your classroom and in your school’s media center will not solve all of your students’ ills. But for reluctant readers in particular, they can be a door to a world of reading they might otherwise never have entered.

* Penella, Brenda. “Graphic Novels: The POW!-er in the classroom!” (9/04)