Too graphic for classroom use?

Michael Lopez, a comic book fan, analyzes a Christian Science Monitor story on teachers using comic books and “graphic novels” like Art Spiegelman’s Maus “to engage struggling and reluctant adolescent readers.”

Adolescent readers face a host of complicated problems, ranging from general reluctance to pick up a book to aliteracy, an inability to fully grasp the meaning of words. Proponents suggest that comic books and graphic novels can help.

For the reluctant reader, they are absorbing. For the struggling reader or the reader still learning English, they offer accessibility: pictures for context, and possibly an alternate path into classroom discussions of higher-level texts. They expand vocabulary, and introduce the ideas of plot, pacing, and sequence.

But such arguments remain unconvincing to many other educators who firmly believe this form of pop culture has no place in the classroom.

“Once kids know how to read, there is no good reason to continue to use dumbed-down materials,” writes Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University, in an e-mail. “They should be able to read poems, novels, essays, books that inform them, enlighten them, broaden their horizons.”

Lopez thinks comic books can broaden readers’ horizons. But he also disagrees with the comic promoters.

The object of education isn’t just to “get someone to read anything.” It can be a useful first step, but the truth of the matter is that one will not get all one should out of comic books if one doesn’t know how to read in the first place.

Once the knowledge of putting together sounds and reading is in place, it’s time to start, you know, reading. And it’s not about finding something that “grabs” a child. It’s not about finding something that they like to read.

If we followed that recipe for child-rearing, dinner would be all ice cream and no vegetables.

He also says “visual learner” is eduspeak for a child who’s watched too much TV.

As Chris writes, Cartoon History of the Universe is a lot of fun. Maus is very moving. But you can’t read ’em if you can’t read.

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  1. Bluemount says:

    If a child is having difficulty reading or writing comic books are a poor solutions. Language is presented in groups of bubbles scatter throughout a colorful page. The message is you don’t need to understand what you’re reading, you can look at the pictures and guess. I like the idea of comic books in art or in some cases as social studies.

    Teaching children to communicate effectively to the world is a permanent mark critical to their future. English is an international language and likely to require stricter standards in the shrinking planet The only hope many children have of working with the public is they have teachers who speack English correctly and required correct communication from their students. The fact that education tends to make every thing it teaches a miserable experience, doesn’t mean they can’t ruin the comic book experience also.

  2. superdestroyer says:

    I think there are two problems with teaching kids to read. The first is that many kids and especially minority kids just are not exposed to reading materials. I worked by way through undergraduate as a delivery man and was always amazed the homes I would go in that kid not have any written material (no newspapers, magazines, or books). The second problems is that the schools use reading material that is almost guarantee that many students and most boys will not be interested in them. Ask adult above the age of 25 what they read in junior high and high school. I bet many of them read Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Wuthering Heights, and the Great Gatsby. The type of stories that will ensure that students lose interested in reading.

  3. Carefully chosen comic books and graphic novels are a great way to get kids to read. And some of the materials mentioned are anything but “dumbed down.” Maus is a stunning and frightening story of Art Speigleman’s parents survival of the holocaust. Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner’s Our Cancer Year is thought-provoking. Despite the stereotypes many people have about comics, the medium itself is no better or worse than words without pictures.

    Personally, I grew up reading comic books –and a great deal more. Comics made me comfortable with reading and led to other things. When my daughter was learning to read I gave her selected comics –Carl Barks Uncle Scrooge adventure stories, etc–and they led to other things for her too. By the end of 4th grade she tested at 12.9 in reading–that is, as a graduating senior in high school.

    Please don’t dismiss an entire communications media because of some narrow notions.

  4. mike from oregon says:

    The MAIN reason kids can’t read (IMHO) is that they weren’t taught; and I mean taught phonics. It is said that English is one of the hardest languages to learn (although I’m having a tough time with Spanish). Again, it is drill, wrote and memorize but once it’s down, the kid can read.

    About the only other thing that I can say is that once a kid learns to read, the next step is to find something that sparks the urge to read. While I’m not overly fond of using comic books to do this, I do recognize that it may work with a few kids, but probably NOT for the majority. However, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out if the kid is learning words and getting something out of the comic or just looking at pictures. If their vocabulary is improving and they can read other material (better and faster), then great the comic is working for that child. If you don’t see such an improvement, then they are just picture watching.

    Bottom line, it may work on a few kids, but usually it won’t. They need to learn the basics and they need to learn something that will spark the love of reading in them. One big thing to do is turn off the stupid tube (TV).

  5. Like any medium, it can be done well or poorly … and even if done well, can be taught well or poorly. Even if taught well, it doesn’t stand alone as the only tool.

    a terrific example of writing/drawing done well is a history trio,
    Cartoon History of the Universe: introduces difficult subject in considerable nuance … and exercises a pre-requisite reading skill. Better yet, it inspires kids to look more deeply (perhaps one day to original sources) Great literature it is not, although clever in spades, and teaching with it would require a range of other materials. I know an 8 year old who devoured it and came up with more interest which then exercised more more reading skills.

    You can see it here … (but would suggest ordering it through Joanne’s main page Amazaon link)

  6. Comics are a great way to learn phonics! When Batman and Robin fight those henchmen of the Penguin, those “Oomph!” and “Kerrrrrack!” noises teach the value of repeated consonants, onomonopoeia (and no, I am not sure that’s spelled correctly), and the studious use of violence.

    If I had to choose a comic or a televison show for my children, I usually pick the comic. That’s not employing all my choices, but sometimes I let a little junk into their lives.

  7. I csn see Maus for a high school history class (“Social Studies” is an abomination), because it will actually get read. It doesn’t belong in an English class, and not just because it’s a cartoon. I’m not familiar with the Cartoon History, but if it can get an 8 year old interested in learning more history, that’s great.

  8. Walter E. Wallis says:

    An English Xer, I used to envy the Zs their funny books.

  9. As both a comic fan and an avid reader, I can see both the upside and downside of trying to promote reading by using comic books. Yes, there are some excellent graphic novels out there (Watchman is another one that also comes to mind), but there’s also a lot of drek. There’s also the problem of inappropriate content — just recently in an issue of one of my favorites, Nightwing, the hero ends up being essentially raped (mostly implied, but still present). This is a supposedly “Comics Code” approved comic.

    A medium that I wish more educators would consider would be manga — Japanese comics, including a lot of characters that have been introduced to American audiences as cartoon characters. While I am not a fan, I do think these would be highly useful to get more boys interested in reading. When I was student teaching in high school last month, I noticed a lot of boys drawing their own manga-influenced sketches, and when I spoke to several about their starting a manga-club, there was a lot of enthusiasm. While the stories aren’t much different from their American counterparts, most manga is available in affordable book-like format, and some of them do have fairly sophisticated storylines.