Pow! Using Comic Books to Get Kids Reading
For decades, comic books were derided as gaudy, sub-literate threats to children's brain cells. Now, teachers, researchers, and librarians are taking a new look at comics and they like what they see: a way, in a culture now dominated by TV, video games, and the Internet, to get children reading.
It's not really a new concept. As far back as the 1940s, series such as "Classics Illustrated" and "Picture Stories From the Bible" were using comics as an educational tool. Today there are literacy and comics programs, such as the Comic Book Project, springing up all over the country. Sponsored by state officials and educators, these programs focus on the simple goal of promoting the reading habit.
Comic Books Can Motivate Your Kids
Educational journals such as The Reading Teacher now openly acknowledge what generations of comics fans already knew: "Comic books have had a motivating power in literacy development for children, especially young boys, since their introduction in the 1930s. This nontraditional type of literature -- often dismissed by educators as superficial and shallow -- is highly visual, contains complex literary elements, and lends itself to critical examination of moral, ethical, and social issues." (B. Norton, The Reading Teacher, #57, p. 140)
Because their format is equal parts pictures and text, comic books can hold a child's attention longer than blocks of print. The genre has also proven to be an excellent means of expanding a child's vocabulary by giving context to words the child wouldn't normally be exposed to. (Ironically, this is something generations of fans, who got their first exposure to words such as "Brobdingnagian" and "excelsior" from comics, were aware of long before experts stumbled on to it.)
Not surprisingly, librarians have found that increasing the availability of comics and "graphic novels" (the catch-all term for comics bound in book form) draws more children and teenagers into libraries. This represents a major shift in thinking. While the focus used to be on getting children to read the "right" material, the primary concern now is simply to get children reading, in the belief that:
- Comic books teach and bolster reading skills.
- Children are more likely to read something they enjoy.
- Children are more likely to continue reading once they learn to think of reading as enjoyable.
Other Avenues Open
Interestingly, the researchers and educators promoting literacy and comics programs have found that comics open up many other educational avenues. Almost always fiction, comics are useful for introducing concepts such as narrative structure and character development. At the same time, they appear to enhance the development of analytical skills and critical thought. They can also be conduits to the discussion of cultural and personal issues. Many comics readers end up wanting to create their own, making the genre a valuable tool for promoting not only literacy but art, writing, and self-expression.
Because some of today's comic books and graphic novels are written for adults, you'll want to check with a librarian or bookseller for appropriate content. But comic books, far from being the mind-destroying junk of popular myth, may be the boost in reading aptitude your children need -- especially if they resist reading or find it a struggle -- and can be a great way to open up their imaginations and promote creativity.
The lesson educators and parents are learning? When kids read what excites them, they read better and they read more.
A veteran freelance writer, Steven Grant has written articles, criticism, screenplays, novels for teens, and hundreds of comics books. He currently writes a weekly online column, Permanent Damage, and lives just outside of Las Vegas.