Graphic Novels in the Literature Class

  • 02 January, 2013

Happy New Year. It's tood to be back and good to have you back.

  Last week, I read a fascinating article in the Chicago Tribune about the place of graphic novels in the high school literature curriculum (“Comics in the Curriculum”, December 27, 2012).

  Let’s start with me and my prejudices.

  I loved comics as a kid (particularly Superman), but never had much use for them as a teacher. Their reading levels can be pretty low, though estimating readabilities of comics is hazardous since the pictures carry a lot of the meaning; even if the vocabulary or sentence structure is challenging, students may be able to get by without actually reading. If kids can answer the questions without reading, it is going to interfere with learning to read.

  Comics can be pretty limited in how much text they offer, too; graphic artists don’t want too much information in those dialogue and thought balloons.

  Given that, I usually avoided the funnies as a teacher, have advised districts not to replace their physics texts with comics, and have given states (e.g., Maryland) a hard time when they pushed to make comics a big part of their state reading curriculum.

  While I get that “graphic novels” come from the comic book, they tend to be more extensive, sophisticated than past comics, and they have their own “visual literacy” demands that can be worth mastering. No, the modern graphic novel cannot be as easily dismissed from the curriculum or classroom as Archie and Jughead. Maus won a Pulitzer Prize for good reason. Finding a role for the graphic novel makes sense.

  Back to the Tribune article: 

  I was very impressed with the first anecdote. Reporter Diane Rado told of an honors English class in Chicago’s suburbs that was reading a fine and demanding piece of literature, “In Cold Blood,” alongside a graphic novel, “Capote in Kansas.”

  I love that example; smart teacher. First, this effort wasn’t aimed at the low kids; these were top students. Second, they probably weren’t reading any less since they were reading both the original literature and a graphic explanation of how that book came into existence.

  Those who champion close reading are rolling their eyes about now. The idea of close reading is that you figure out a selection without the support of external aids and outside information. This pairing of books certainly is not close reading.

  And, yet, a combination of books (graphic or not) does have a place in the curriculum. Close reading is not the only way to read. I often follow up a reading by looking at the criticism that followed. 

  Where I hit the brakes was when I got to the final anecdote, this one about some research conducted by a couple of English teachers. In it, they had students reading either Beowulf, the epic poem, or Beowulf, the graphic novel. They found that the students who read the poem took about six hours to figure it out, while the graphic novel readers only needed about two. At the end, the groups performed similarly on a multiple-choice test (about a 6% difference in favor of the poem).

  The teachers’ conclusion: It wasn't worth the extra time and effort to read the poem. 

  I respectfully disagree.

  They might be right, but I suspect that the Angelina Jolie’s movie version would require even less student effort, and who knows, maybe their multiple-choice scores would still be acceptable.

  I think we are in trouble when we decide that the purpose of reading literature is to gain the plot “facts,” and that it is the outcome rather than the journey that matters. Each time, students take on a difficult intellectual challenge successfully, they are better armed for future challenges.

  If I were teaching freshman English at the local college, I would much prefer having students who'd  spent the six hours with Beowulf and figured it out, rather than the ones who needed only two hours with the comic.

  I don’t think the hard part of the Common Core is going to be informational text or close reading. The hard part will be guiding kids through those extra four hours of reading, especially when they don’t want to. It’s been easier to use graphic or video versions and to tell ourselves that students of this generation need such approaches and that their “knowledge” of the texts will be the same. 

  I don’t think it is the same. 

  There are definitely graphic novels that are worth studying on their own. And there are graphic novels well worth reading in concert with other books. But the idea shouldn't be to lower the intellectual demands on students or to cater to their tastes over their needs. 

  I've written often in this space about the need to ramp up text difficulty. But in doing that we need to be sure not to overdo it. In contradiction to past theories of how someone learns to read effectively, I have put forth the idea that students probably benefit more from working with a range of difficulty levels (much as athletes train at varying intensities and distances). Graphic novels could play a valuable role in providing students with a more nuanced mix of reading experiences than we have striven to provide in the past, but elbowing aside more demanding texts (for the specific reason that they are more demanding texts) needs to be declared seriously out of fashion. 

  Rigor is the new black.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Mike in Elgin Jun 19, 2017 11:34 PM


Here’s another use for a “graphic novel” approach in the classroom:

During a ten-year study of elementary-age ADHD students who struggled with organizational, time management, and planning (OTMP) skills, researchers and clinicians at the NYU Child Study Center found that many students with OTMP deficits suffer from low self-esteem, after years of being reprimanded – by teachers and parents – for their organizational failures.

To deal with this issue, the students taking part in the study were taught to think of their OTMP problems as the result of “brain glitches”, personified as a set of mischievous characters who enjoyed watching students fail. Among these “glitches” were the Memory Eraser, the Stuff Stealer, the Time Bandit, and the Plan Bulldozer. The researchers found that not only did this depiction help students to de-personalize their OTMP failings, but helped engage the students and motivate them to work on their skills in this area.

Naturally, the “glitch” concept lends itself admirably to a comic book treatment. Indeed, the NYU results have been developed into an OTMP skills curriculum that makes effective use of colorful graphics to portray not only the glitches, but antidote characters – called “guides” – who counteract the glitches’ pranks.

Besides the low self-esteem issue specific to students in this particular group, the engagement value of graphic novels (and other visual media) to today’s kids is pretty clear, and anything we can do to increase student engagement should be considered. The National Dropout Prevention Center reports that 51.2% of high school dropouts cite -- as one reason for their dropping out -- that they simply “did not like school”.

I’m certainly all for rigor – in reading and elsewhere. I’ve long felt that the greatest hindrance to student success in Chicago’s schools is neither poverty nor violence, but low expectations. But if rigor is the new black, perhaps adding a dash of color wouldn’t hurt.

Maddie Witter Jun 19, 2017 11:35 PM


Thanks for your insights!

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Graphic Novels in the Literature Class


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He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.