21st century literacy with graphic novels

Reading is reading

We read books, newspapers, magazines, billboards, signs, notices, bills, websites, blogs, social media posts et cetera. When we read all those things, consciously or unconsciously we’re developing and using multiple literacy skills. Thanks to the internet and social media, we’re also increasingly relying on visual literacy and multimodal texts.

Comics have long suffered a stigma that is unfortunately frequently reiterated by teachers, parents and librarians. A child is reading a comic or wants to borrow one and a well-meaning grown up says, ‘Pick a real book. Do some reading.’ Every time this happens enormous damage is done, with children being turned away from reading the books that pique their interest.

A comic – a graphic novel – is sequential art. But what is the harm in that? Reading is reading and it is a well-known fact that children who read for fun and find pleasure in reading become lifelong readers. So let’s fight the stigma and discuss some of the literacy superpowers that can be gained by reading comics.

The power of comics

Comics come in all shapes, forms and genres. It is all too common for people to think of superheroes on hearing the word ‘comics’. However, the most popular and best-selling comics for young readers today are Raina Telgemeier’s humorous and heart-warming slice-of-life graphic novels, where she shares some of her life struggles, and Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man. As an English teacher noted, among all the fun and silliness of Dog Man: Lord of the Fleas, one page featured the words ‘shun’, ‘redundancy’, ‘eschew’, ‘reiteration’ and ‘recapitulation’.

We know that comics are attractive to children. They appeal to them because of their visuals; however, we also understand that comics are multimodal texts where the reader needs to use multiple literacies to make meaning. Think about the Dog Man words mentioned earlier. These are very high-level, but the power of comics makes them easier to understand as readers can infer meaning from the images.

It is this perfect blend of the written word and visual narrative – with the added bonus that readers are in complete control of the experience – that makes comics incredibly rich and complex texts. Novels offer no visuals. Movies offer visuals but no words and a viewer has no control over the pace of viewing. With comics, words and visuals complement and enrich each other. Even better, readers are in complete control of what they focus their attention on and how quickly or slowly they decode and read the text.

Multiple-literacy superpowers

Borrowing and adapting the New London Group’s multiliteracy model from 1996, five literacies that readers have to use when reading comics are:

  • linguistic (written language)
  • visual (mood through colours, shading, composition et cetera)
  • gestural (body and facial language)
  • spatial (panels, layout …)
  • symbolic (icons, balloons, visual representations and emanata).

In order to make meaning, the reader has to look at all of these elements, decode and interpret them, and then combine them all to make meaning. It may be argued that by combining all of these elements, the reader is working much harder than when reading a book or watching a movie. Best of all, studies have shown that readers benefit from greater information retention because they have to decode so many different elements using multiple literacies. This is why graphic novels are increasingly being used in classrooms, including in tertiary education.

Additionally, comics model some excellent literacy practices for readers, such as:

  • precise, concise and rich language (Jaffe 2014)
  • visuals supporting and strengthening memory recall with higher neural connections (Jaffe 2014)
  • a higher incidence of median words and rare words than junior fiction, comparable to adult fiction (Center of Teaching and Learning)
  • learning complex non-verbal communication (Kullberg 2018; Jaffe 2014).

Comics demand the writer to be concise. They don’t have long paragraphs and the constraints of the page demand that narration and dialogue are kept to a minimum. No word can be wasted, which forces the writer to be incredibly precise with the written word. This models excellent writing and offers rich vocabulary because every word matters.

Comics also offer a rich visual narrative with a multitude of tools for the artist to create meaning, for instance the shape of the panels, the colouring, the lines, the number of panels on the page, the shape of the speech balloons and emanata. They’re all elements the reader decodes to infer meaning. This is a complex task because often the visuals act as metaphors or contradict the text, forcing the reader to decode and establish their relationships.

In summary, comics are an excellent resource for educators because they engage struggling readers with a visual allure. They encourage reading because they don’t seem as daunting as a whole book filled with words. Comics help early readers to decode text with visual elements providing clues to support the reader. More importantly, comics extend the reading for advanced readers with the interaction of the written and visual narratives adding complex layers of meaning.

There are some great reasons for reading comics and graphic novels and they’re incredibly popular right now. Young readers are devouring Dav Pilkey, Raina Telgemeier and Aaron Blabey’s works (among many others). In fact, Pilkey’s Dog Man was the third best selling book in the US last year, despite coming out in July, and Raina Telgemeier’s Guts was in the top 15 despite coming out in October. Australian Aaron Blabey’s Bad Guys books have been in the NYT Best Seller list for more than a year.

Hollywood and TV studios are adapting an enormous number of comics for the screen, but best of all, some of the most amazing, personal, independent and diverse titles being published right now are coming out as graphic novels. School curriculums are placing increasing emphasis on visual literacy and there is no doubt that the old stigma must be cast into the dustbin of history by librarians and teachers. The time to embrace the rich variety and depth that graphic novels have to offer is now!

This article originally appeared on SCIS’ Connections Magazine, Issue 115, Term 4 2020. https://www.scisdata.com/connections/issue-115/21st-century-literacy-with-graphic-novels/  

The King

It was a cold morning of December and black clouds hovered in the sky, the threat of a storm coming.

The king hadn’t slept all night. Instead, he stared out of the window for the whole night with empty eyes, as if waiting for something that would most likely never come.

His eyes moved to the sky and recognised the threat of a furious storm coming. He had been a peasant, a farmer, most of his life, always looking to the sky and praying to the gods for good weather to come.

“Days long gone…” he said to himself but there was no one to hear him.

Turning his back to the window, as if the morning had shed light to a view he didn’t want to see, he walked away to the darkness in the centre of his hall.

Silence filled the air, a heavy silence that posed no threat but there was a weight to it, as if the silence knew the burden he carried in his heart.

His eyes moved all around the hall. The big tapestries on the wall, the swords and axes, the jewels and the paintings, all the gold and wealth overwhelmed him once again.

His eyes turned to the throne that lay high in the room where the light gave way to shadows, as the memories hit him again.

The time when Koldar had ruled the lands, when hope was nowhere to be seen, when fire and destruction were the everyday bread.

The days when he stood against that evil, against the doom, and people followed him with sudden hope in their eyes.

The days when he had risen as a warlord and had led armies.

The days when he was respected, when he had become a hero, when he had led the war of the peasants against the corrupt masters.

“…and now, what have I become?” he whispered softly as he flopped on the throne, not daring to break the silence surrounding, afraid somebody could hear his words.

(fragment of The Dark Throne, believed to be based on Artanor nar Bruem, King of Galador; writer unknown)

I wanted to travel

I wanted to travel

to see your faces

to feel your embrace

and I caught your scent

stepped on the sand

braved the roaring waves

Leaving the winter cold

immersed in your warmth

the summer breeze

the hustle and bustle

the familiar old streets

of my vanished youth

I packed all I needed

my heart, my soul, my will…

to be with you one more time

years without your caress

the comfort of your smile

your breath of joy and life

It’s cold in Mordialloc

the wind cuts to the bone

and you fill my thoughts

my friends, my blood

my other home 

Breaking the news

 We sit at the table for breakfast with a good spread of fresh fruit and cereals. The football season, or soccer as they call it in this country, was meant to start at the end of March but the pandemic put everything on hold.

The little man has missed a lot of things during the lockdown, his friends, Taekwondo, visits to the library, watching movies in the big screen… but when everything started to reopen it was football that was most in his mind.

Training in the dark, in the cold, for weeks, he has been so focused to be ready for the first game that I don’t know how to break it to him. I’ve noticed that he’s been eating less sweets and has been asking for healthier foods. He has also been asking to watch videos of Messi, so he can observe and learn from the best. Only nine years old and so committed!

A smile blossoms in his face as he gazes at me lost in my thoughts. He’s in such good spirit, how can I break the news? But really, I can’t wait any longer. It’s Thursday and his first football game was meant to be this Saturday.

He senses something’s on my mind. “When you come back from work, we can play Exploding Kittens,” he says.

I smile. If it was up to him we’d be playing Pokemon but he knows I like Exploding Kittens much more.

“Sure,” I respond and decide to just let it out. “The football season has been cancelled. We’re on lock down again.”

A shadow appears in his forehead, his eyes darken for an instant.

“That’s a shame,” he says containing his emotions.

“I know, you were so looking forward to it.”

“It’s okay dad,” he says as his eyes brighten up and the shadow vanishes from his forehead. “We all need to do all we can to stop this Covid thing.”

Nine years old and sometimes, it seems like he’s taking it all in better than myself. I haven’t slept well worrying about what a second lock down means and the effects it will have on so many people.

We embrace, giving energy to each other.

“When you come back from work, can we play football in the park?” he asks.

“Of course,” I reply.

If innocence is a crime II

If dreaming, aiming of a better tomorrow

Treading the path of hope and utopia

Is a crime we must bury and burrow

If freedom is a risk to be contained

Legislated against, fought and curtailed

For the right to hate and discriminate

If money is to be prioritised and elevated

No matter the human consequence

The sickness and death it has cultivated

If the earth is to be raped and plundered

Single mindedly ignoring the devastation

Extracted, polluted and sundered

If racism and sexism are to be elevated

Once again to the halls of power

With impunity lust and hate never sated

If innocence is the crime of our days

Aiming for human rights and justice

Equality and solidarity, lost in a maze

Let us not pretend there’s a place for us