A student reading a graphic novel
For Teachers

How Graphic Novels Help Students Develop Critical Skills

By Sarah Knutson October 23, 2018

When novels burst onto the literary scene in the 18th century with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, they presented something truly new: the idea that a common person and his pursuits could matter. This concept shattered the notion that books needed to focus on high-minded ideals and individuals of high social value. Nearly a quarter of the way into the 21st century, teachers and students find themselves in a familiar place with a new type of book, the graphic novel. Teachers and students alike often ask if graphic novels have a place in the classroom. Let’s examine their many benefits and how they can be used in your classroom.

Defining the graphic novel

Since graphic novels look similar in layout to comic books, those new to the genre may confuse the two. Generally speaking, comics are serial — issued over months, years, and often decades. Graphic novels, on the other hand, feature the same key components of a traditional novel: they are full-length (over 100 pages), follow a common narrative thread, and are meant to be read as a single story (or story within a finite series). While comic series can span generations of readers, graphic novels develop as other novels or novel series. In other words, graphic novels are a single narrative told through pictures and words. These novels, misnomered as a genre, can be about any topic and fall into any of the traditional genres.

Benefits of the graphic novel

While preschool and elementary teachers have long used illustrated texts with their students, the idea of bringing graphic novels into the upper grades gives educators pause.  Luckily, numerous sources indicate the myriad benefits of welcoming graphic novels into the classroom.

Developing visual literacy skills

First, graphic novels can teach visual literacy.  The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) published an article about developing visual literacy and pointed out that while traditional novels ask students to infer based on the text on the page, “To read a graphic novel, much less a wordless one, many essential literacy skills are required, including the ability to understand a sequence of events, interpret characters’ nonverbal gestures, discern the story’s plot, and make inferences.” Through graphic novels, students can develop inference and literacy skills that apply when interacting with photos, paintings, and other people.

Additionally, for dyslexic readers, those visual cues offer a lifeline. The multiple cues within a graphic novel, including the illustrations that readers can explore for context clues, and the emphasis (bold, italic, large font) throughout the text allow students to understand the material without relying solely on the text. Moving beyond words supports the specific learning needs of some students and builds a new set of skills in all readers.

Engaging reluctant readers and English Language Learners

Reluctant readers are often enticed by graphic novels. These visually stimulating stories create a gateway to a deeper understanding of a text. As cartoonist Judd Winick says, “Graphic novels allow the reluctant reader to slide into the story without as much of the heavy lifting as prose might require.” These readers can quickly begin to develop literacy skills such as general reading comprehension, inference, and building new vocabulary, as they leap into the narrative without struggling with the format of a traditional novel.  

In the primary grades, teachers happily hand over books filled with pictures. These new readers have similar needs to English Language Learners, but the latter often begin learning English later in life. If younger new readers learn through text and pictures, why not offer that same experience to secondary students through graphic novels?  Again, that “heavy lifting” of structures, protocols, and language is lightened through a story enhanced by images of the setting and characters. When educators lift the barrier of so much text, these students can easily fall into a story, develop a love of reading, or, at a minimum, begin to lose some of the reluctance.

Low-pressure reading — with no grade or mandatory text attached — can foster a love of reading as well as improve reading skills. Teachers can introduce other types of text with fewer pictures and more words while still encouraging students to read those graphic novels they have come to love. And the more these students read, the more they develop as readers.

Some great graphic novels for reluctant readers include James Patterson’s Middle School, the Worst Years of My Life, the first in a series about Rafe Khatchadorian, a boy who decides to make school more interesting by attempting to break every possible rule. This title is funny, engaging, and targets those who don’t identify as the “smart kids.” Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick, is another one that grabs readers, and Selznick also wrote the beautifully illustrated The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Selznick’s illustrated novels offer lovely artwork that draws in readers and leaves a great deal of room for conversation and inference. These books say much more with pictures than words ever could. Finally, Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels such as Drama and Smile share the middle school perspective on first crushes, braces, and fitting in, all while keeping readers engaged with the text through delightfully appealing, colorful images and funny dialogue. The best part? Rather than the traditional “High-Low” titles (high interest-low reading level) that attempt to appeal to reluctant readers, graphic novels look just like what other students are reading — the most avid readers also pick up graphic novels in droves.

How to use graphic novels in the classroom

Why and how to use graphic novels in the classroom varies by purpose and content area. In the English Language Arts environment, these texts can help students develop skills in the area of inference and the elements of storytelling. Additionally, numerous classic texts, such as those by Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare, have graphic novel versions that can help readers more readily access the content.

Science topics from dinosaurs to evolution and magnets to fractals exist in a graphic novel format. It can be a fun way to introduce or review key concepts. Powerful graphic novels connect to many social studies topics including the Holocaust and the Revolutionary War.

Building graphic novel knowledge

Graphic novels aren’t new to the literary scene or to classrooms, but they may feel new to some teachers. Resources for how to implement these novels effectively abound. If you want to dive even deeper into developing a rich knowledge of literacy strategies, consider Concordia University-Portland’s MEd in Curriculum & Instruction: Reading Interventionist. If you simply want more resources, check out NPR’s 100 Favorite Comics and Graphic Novels, and Common Sense Media‘s book reviews and helpful information for educators. Whatever the content, and whoever the student, graphic novels have a place in the classroom.

Additional resources

Sarah Knutson is a 7th- and 8th-grade English Language Arts teacher at River School in Napa, CA. She holds a BA in English from UC Berkeley, an MLIS from San Jose State University, and a teaching credential from UC Davis.

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