Graphic Novels Should Play a Bigger Part in Your Classroom. Here’s Why.

They really help our readers.

Graphic Novels in the Classroom

Ask educators their opinions on graphic novels in the classroom and you’ll get a range of responses. “They’re so engaging! They fit with our visual society!” “Not my favorite but…they get my kids to read.” “That junk isn’t real reading!” They’ve stirred up their share of controversy as they’ve taken a firm foothold in the educational mainstream and earned numerous entries on banned books lists.

If the ransacked state of the graphic novel sections in libraries is any indication, this medium isn’t going anywhere. We’ve cut through the hype and compiled a list of ways graphic novels can help your students:

They’re a goldmine for struggling readers.

In addition to enticing reluctant readers, graphic novels are particularly supportive for kids with specific reading challenges. The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity calls graphic novels “grand equalizers,” noting that struggling and strong readers alike can enjoy and discuss them on a level playing field. For dyslexic students, the illustrations provide context clues and the manageable format and length make it possible to feel accomplishment.

Graphic novels also support ELL readers. They (literally) illustrate figures of speech and cultural norms. They make vocabulary and content more accessible. There are even a growing number of popular titles that address themes particularly relevant to ELLs. Almost-wordless The Arrival by Shaun Tan makes the complex topic of immigration accessible to a wide range of language levels. Also check out Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani for upper elementary and middle school and The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir by Thi Bui and Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer: Undocumented Vignettes from a Pre-American Life by Alberto Ledesma for older readers.

They illustrate the reading and writing skills you need to teach.

You might have a dubious perception of Dav Pilkey and his counterparts, but if your early-elementary students need a crash course on effective use of basic punctuation, using a page from Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey as a mentor text isn’t a bad move. Ditto for using a page with speech bubbles from a text like Dragonbreath by Ursula Vernon to teach which words go inside quotation marks.

The succinct nature of comic book-style text and the visual support it provides are perfect for strategy modeling. They require readers to make inferences about each panel and to fill in information between panels. When you want to encourage precise written language, study how graphic novel authors pack meaning into very few words.

Graphic novels are also useful when teaching students to read with expression. Discuss how bold or differently sized text suggests emphasis, or how mood is evoked by the illustrations. Characters’ faces alone provide a wealth of information about the author’s intentions.

They provide an entry point for complex topics.

Graphic novels can serve as accessible bridges into challenging material. From “Fahrenheit 451” to “Anne of Green Gables,” graphic novel adaptations of classic works are hitting the shelves in quick succession. They make texts that students might think of as outdated and boring more appealing. You can use popular graphic novels to initiate discussions of themes you plan to explore in traditional texts:

For instance, an easy read of a fresh-feeling All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson can segue into discussion of a classic like S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders.” One teacher-researcher documented her success using graphic novels to introduce literary devices like “point of view, allusion, themes and morals, tone and mood, symbolism, and flashback and foreshadowing.” Take that, Common Core text exemplars.

Incorporating graphic novels into content area studies can boost student engagement and understanding. Try supplementing textbook chapters with vignettes from Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm. Offer graphic novel versions of traditional stories likeTrickster: Native American Tales by Matt Dembicki, a Graphic Collection or The Olympians Series by George O’Connor to complement social studies units.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, graphic novels are teaching tools for the 21st century. How do you use graphic novels in the classroom?

Lindsay Barrett

Posted by Lindsay Barrett

A former elementary teacher and reading nonprofit director, Lindsay now works as a literacy consultant and freelance writer while wrangling her three young children.