Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Teaching Literacy through Comics

I've spent the last few days working up a partial bibliography on this topic. I thought some folks might find it useful, so I'm posting it up here.
This collection of scholarly resources on the subject of teaching literacy through the use of comics is not intended to be definitive nor to include every possible article on the topic. These resources do, however, touch on a surprisingly broad array of questions and approaches, from the role of family in the teaching of reading to conscious arguments against the perception of comics as purely remedial writing, as well as complex notions of multimodal literacy and how comics excel in that particular mode.

Bitz, Michael. (2004). The Comic Book Project: Forging alternative pathways to literacy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 47 (7), 574-586.

Bitz’s wonderful project brought dozens of after-school instructors together with hundreds of students grade 5-8 with the aim of improving literacy by creating comic books. The instructor training, challenges, adaptation and results are well documented in both this article and a fully developed website: http://www.comicbookproject.org/. Bitz had some partner assistance from Dark Horse Comics, but his best resource was his many instructors, who experimented with many different approaches to art, writing, and planning during the month-long project. The Comic Book Project parallels my own much smaller project as part of the Cesar Chavez “Celebration through the Arts” program in California, 2002-2003, especially in the results: not only did the student literacy increase, but the topic of their comics was surprising: their preferred mode was a story of urban life and the depiction of challenges such as gang violence, drug culture, and family tension. Backed up with examples of what the students created, survey data, and more, the Comic Book Project is a must-read.

Davidson, Sol. Educational comics: A family tree. Imagetext, 4 (2). Retrieved August 3, 2009 from .

Not strictly speaking an article about the teaching of literacy through comics, Davidson’s work is instead an invaluable bibliography of educational and non-fiction comics. Some of these primary sources are exceedingly rare. Obviously, many will be of use to any instructor wishing to teach literacy while, at the same time, touching on social topics, science, or the arts.

Jacobs, Dale. (2007). More than words: Comics as a means of teaching multiple literacies. English Journal, 96 (3), 19-25.

Jacobs, Dale. (2007). Marveling at The Man Called Nova: Comics as sponsors of multimodal literacy. College Composition and Communication, 59 (2), 180-205.

Jacobs is the only author with more than one article on this list. Both of these are very accessible and useful; their points are related but distinct. In the first, far shorter, piece Jacobs uses a few pages of Polly and the Pirates to illustrate the notion of multiple literacies: linguistic, visual, audio, gestural and spatial. Further, multimodal literacy is increasingly the kind of literacy which students need, surrounded as they are by a multimedia age. Jacobs also argues that while we can admit comics are useful in remedial literacy instruction, to see them purely as a kind of simplified or debased literacy is both counter-productive and untrue. In Jacobs second, more conceptual essay, he unpacks multimodal literacies in more detail and traces the origin of the term to the New London Group. Jacobs examines the role of the literary sponsor – that is, the agency, group or individual who is pushing the literacy and who has, implicitly, something to gain from it. In this case, Marvel Comics taught a particular kind of multimodal literacy through its comics, a specific kind of literacy which prompted readers to buy more Marvel Comics. Jacobs uses examples to clarify that while all literacy has some kind of sponsor, that does not necessarily demean the value of the literacy or debase the literacy instruction. In any case, both these articles are quite useful and well-supported with textual evidence. The argument for using comics to teach multiple literacies in the classroom is persuasive.

Lenters, Kimberly. (2007) From storybooks to games, comics, bands and chapter books: A young boy’s appropriation of literacy practices. Canadian Journal of Education, 30 (1), 113-136.

This is a fascinating case study of one eight-year-old boy’s literacy practices and the role of his family and peers in the growth of that literacy. Comic books play a role, as “Max” chooses the anti-authority Captain Underpants comic and his parents decide to endorse, rather than refute, that choice. This leads to Max creating his own Tushyman comic derived from Underpants, and eventually his role as leader of a social circle of boys his age devoted to making comics. This process – which Lenters describes as Apprenticeship, Guided Participation, and Participatory Appropriation – seems to echo the experience of other instructors who have successfully used comics in the classroom and in after-school projects. Lenters also emphasizes a broad definition of literacy, along the lines of the multimodal literacies described by Jacobs and the New London Group.

Lin, Chia-Hat. (2005). Literacy instruction through communicative and visual arts. Teacher Librarian, 32 (5), 25-27.

Lin’s brief article touches on comic strips even more briefly. The emphasis is on the use of comics for elementary and middle school reading instruction, bolstered by the facts that they are economically accessible both in daily newspapers and online and also of great interest to children. Some classroom experiences using comics to teach reading in this context are discussed.

McVicker, Claudia J. (2007). Comic Strips as a Text Structure for Learning to Read. The Reading Teacher, 61 (1), 85-88.

McVicker is an enthusiastic proponent of using comic strips to teach elementary school grammar and as a remedial instruction tool for literacy in general. Like Lin, she notes the accessibility of comic strips, including such sites as www.garfield.com, which she used to create in-class puzzle games which prompted students to first assemble a strip in the proper sequence, then answer questions relating to vocabulary and prompting students to infer from the text they have reassembled. For those who wish to use comics to teach basic reading and grammar skills, McVicker is an excellent guide.

Ortiz, Robert W. and Laurie L. McCarty. (1997). “Daddy, read to me”: Fathers helping their young children learn to read. Reading Horizons, 38, 108-115.

I believe this may be the only non-peer reviewed article on this list. Nevertheless, the authors make a useful point about the willingness of fathers to read to their children, provided the text involved is interesting or is something the father feels is within his ability. Comic strips come up in this context, and the case is backed up by Lenter’s article on Max and his father’s role in the boy’s precocious and creative literacy. Again, the economical advantage and ubiquitous nature of comic strips contributes to their usefulness.

Ranker, Jason. (2008). Using comic books as read-alouds: Insights on reading instruction from an English as a Second Language classroom. The Reading Teacher, 61 (4), 296-305.

Demonstrating yet another approach to the use of comics in literacy instruction, Ranker discusses the role of comics in ESL classrooms, focusing on the classroom activities of a former student and current elementary instructor as she uses Spider-Man, Hulk, and Wild Girl in a class of largely Hispanic 1st graders. But in addition to using comics – both those mentioned and also comics made in class by instructor or students – to teach basic literacy, the comics are also used to educate on topics of story organization, of narration vs. dialogue, and to increase awareness of social issues such as gender roles and assumptions. The instructor’s struggle to find comic books with strong female role models is something any comics scholar can identify with. Another excellent example of comics being used to teach in unexpected fields and directions, simultaneous with literacy instruction.

Articles and Books of Possible Interest

Time being a limited thing, I have not had the chance to read these additional, very promising, resources. Several are cited by the articles discussed above, and touch on topics such as ESL instruction, multiple literacies, or the construction of comics in the classroom as a literacy-building exercise. I would also especially note Carter’s recent collection of scholarly essays on our topic and Greenberg’s very practical collection of grammar exercises using comic strips.

Cary, S. Going Graphic: Comics at Work in the Multilingual Classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 2004.

Carter, James Bucky, editor. Building Literacy Connections with Graphic Novels: Page by Page, Panel by Panel. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2007.

Crawford, Phillip. (2004). A novel approach: Using graphic novels to attract reluctant readers. Library Media Connection, 22 (5), 26-28.

Dorell, Larry. D., Curtis, Dan. B., & Rampal, Kuldip. R. (1995). Book-worms without books? Students reading comic books in the school house. The Journal of Popular Culture, 29, 223-234.

Goldstein, B.S. (1986). Looking at cartoons and comics in a new way. Journal of Reading, 29 (7), 657-661.

Greenberg, D. (2000). Comic-strip grammar: 40 reproducible cartoons with engaging practice exercises that make learning grammar fun. New York: Scholastic.

Haugaard, Kay. (1973). Comic books: Conduits to culture? The Reading Teacher, 27 (1), 54-44.

Koenke, Karl. (1981). The careful use of comic books. The Reading Teacher, 34 (5), 592-595.

Liu, J. (2004). Effects of comic strips on L2 learners’ reading comprehension. TESOL Quarterly 38, 225-253.

Morrison, T., Bryan, G. & Chilcoat, G. W. (2002) Using student-generated comic books in the classroom. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 45 (8), 758-767.

Norton, Bonny. (2003). The Motivating Power of Comic Books: Insights from Archie Comic Readers. The Reading Teacher 57 (2), 140-147.

Schwartz, G. Graphic Novels for Multiple Literacies. Reading Online. Retrieved October 5, 2006, from www.readingonline.org/newliteracies/lit_index.asp?HREF=jaal/11-02_column?index.html.

Versaci, Rocco. (2001). Howcomic books can change the way our students see literature: One teacher’s perspective. English Journal, 91 (2), 61-67.

Wright, G. & Sherman, R. (1999). Let’s create a comic strip. Reading Improvement, 36 (2), 66-72.

Yang, Gene. Comics in Education. 2003. Retrieved August 29, 2006 from http://www.humblecomics.com/comicsedu/index.html.


  1. Great list. I'll definitely look for some of them.

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  3. What a great list - thanks for compiling.