From Comic Books to Graphic Novels Ways to Help Students Learn to Read

Nov 5th, 2019 | Category: Columns, Research in Education
By Lauren Wellen and Edgar Ramos


In 2018, the International Literacy Association (ILA) launched a new initiative, Children’s Rights to Read, which aimed at “ensuring every child has access to the education, opportunities, and resources needed to read” (O’Donnell, 2019, para. 1). With the Initiative, ten rights were identified that children have regarding reading. One of the rights that children have is the right to choose what they read. In order to teach subject material, educators mainly decide on what the students will be reading. For some students this works, and they can learn the content. But there are also students who find that what they are reading is not interesting, or it could even be too difficult for them to understand. The President of the Board of Directors of ILA and of this initiative, Bernadette Dwyer (cited in press release by O’Donnell, 2018, para. 7) stated, “Teaching children to read opens up a world of possibilities, builds their capacity for creative and critical thinking, expands their knowledge base and develops their ability to respond with empathy and compassion to others.” These are characteristics that students need to be successful in school. In order to understand why this initiative is important and how children can make choices in school to help them read, an examination of key well-known researchers who support literacy development are discussed in this article. 

Jeanne Chall (1983), educational psychologist, writer, and literacy researcher, described stages of reading development that start when an adult reads to the young child. These stages begin with Stage 0, which involves pre-reading from six months to six years of age, and they continue through to Stage 5, known as ‘Construction to Reconstruction—A World View,’ and this stage encompasses college students from age 18 and above. In a perfect world, Chall’s stages are effective as students advance through the stages, and the students follow a pattern of learning to read which evolves from having learning experiences that teach phonological awareness or the sounds of language, to learning the letter-sound relationship and decoding or phonics, which advances the student’s reading development to comprehension, fluency, vocabulary, and all aspects that are needed to be a good reader. But what happens if students do not follow these stages and begin to struggle with their reading and understanding? Could other factors impact the reason that students struggle?

Another researcher whose work is well known in the literacy world and who focuses on another aspect of learning to read is Shirley Brice Heath. Her book, Ways with Words (1983) summarizes her long-term research. From 1969 to 1978, Shirley Brice Heath, anthropologist and linguist, conducted a well-known study where she examined the language and practices of preschool children in two communities and how they learned to read and write. She explored the language in their homes and in their environments. She found that the language expectations of the schools and the environment were different from the values and expectations of what had happened in their homes. She argued that the “place of language in the cultural life of each social group is interdependent with the habits and values of behaving shared among members of that group” (p. 11). Family structures, religious groups, and concepts of childhood formed these values. From this study, educators have learned that culture and what occurs in the students’ home and community environments have an impact on students’ learning to read. 

While teachers are choosing what the students will read, they are also teaching to meet standards from the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015) known as the Common Core Standards, which replaced No Child Left Behind (2002). Teachers implement strategies to meet standards, and at the same time are educating students in the foundational aspects of literacy, along with other content areas in the curriculum. Incorporating both strategies and foundational basics of literacy has required teachers to work diligently to meet the learning needs of the students in their classrooms. Students arrive in classrooms with a diversity of experiences, knowledge, cultures, and learning styles. 

Between the years of 2000 and 2001, the greatest population to increase were Hispanics, which increased by 43%, over half of the increase in the United States (Ennis et al, as cited by Bredekamp, 2017). By knowing these statistics and looking at the ILA Children’s Rights to Read, educators can see that students with dual languages and learning challenges would benefit from reading a variety of texts to help them understand what they are learning. One type of book format that students with challenges in reading have discovered and actually read is called the graphic novel. So, why do graphic novels hook the students and motivate them to read?

According to Smith & Pole (2018), there has been a stigma with reading graphic formats, or comics, but this format has still persisted. In Ranker’s (2007) article about Using Comic Books as Read-Alouds, one reason that graphic novels encourage reading is that they rely on visual processing, which has gained a much more in-depth attention with the changing interest in pop culture, including superhero movies and video games. With graphic novels as a popular choice of format, this article will discuss its importance and use. Edgar, one of the authors, has learned to read through comic books and discusses the benefits of allowing students to select graphic novels as a way to gain valuable literacy skills as they choose what they read. 

Motivation to Read

Students who struggle are usually behind in their reading, and they lack motivation to succeed. Erik Erikson’s seminal work, Childhood and Society presented his Theory of Psychosocial Development. Erikson called the stages of personal and social development that individuals confront in major parts of their lives a ‘crisis’ (as cited by Bredekamp, 2017). In Stage 4, labeled as Industry versus Inferiority, Erikson stated that if students want to do the work, they will continue to work hard. This hard work he called Industry. If somewhere or somehow students lack the skills or have been told they cannot do the work, they are on the opposite side, in what Erikson called Inferiority. “When children’s accomplishments are not up to their standards, they develop a sense of inferiority” (Bredekamp, 2017, p. 110).

In Hedges & Gage’s (2014), study, The Relationship of Reading Motivation and Self-Efficacy to Reading Achievement, they examined the reading achievement of middle-grade suburban students. One of their conclusions was that reading self-efficacy is a critical area of how “a child perceives her or his reading performance to compare with the performance of classmates” (p. 472). According to Bandura (1994), “Self-efficacy beliefs determine how people feel, think, motivate themselves and behave” (p. 71). 

When Lauren was teaching the practicum course for the Master of Arts in Reading Program, each graduate student was assigned a small group of children through which to discover the students’ reading levels and learning deficiencies as they assessed, remediated, and found interventions that would lead to success. The first part of the assessments was to determine the students’ interest in reading topics with the assessment, Tell Me What You Like! (McKenna & Stahl, 2015). In addition, the graduate students were required to study how students self-perceive their feelings about reading by using the Elementary Reading Attitude Survey (McKenna & Kear, 1990). These two instruments helped the graduate students direct the children to the books of interest to them, while working on strategies and interventions to help them through their reading difficulties. 

For the graduate students this was the beginning of working with the students. Anstey & Bull (2006) have stated, 

The starting point is always the person’s personal literacy identity: the sum of the total of what he or she already knows and can do. Therefore, it is critical that teachers show students how to know and use their literacy identities. (p. 35)

Basically, literacy identity is what makes up the students’ life. It includes their social world, their cultural world, and their school-based world. Where these three intersect is the student’s literacy identity. Knowing this literacy identity helps teachers know how to meet the students’ learning needs. The graduate students were doing this search for children’s learning identity in the Practicum course. They learned about the students’ identities so that they could provide the best instruction considering the students’ interests.

One Learner’s Story

If Heath’s research provided information about how students learn to read from their environmental experiences, what happens at home can set the stage for future learning and reading in school. Bredekamp (2017) stated, “All children can come to appreciate books and find that reading is enjoyable, especially if they are exposed to books at an early age” (p. 400). While she is referring to books, this can apply to all types of reading formats. 

The following is a story of self-reflection, learning and excitement. It is a story of adapting, identity, and reading. A story of how Edgar learned to read, write, and speak English though comics. What follows is Edgar Ramos’ story.

Growing up on the south side of Chicago in the Pilsen/Little Village area, the use of English was not necessarily essential. The area is a predominately Latino neighborhood, with many families having immigrated to the United States from Mexico, my parents being no exception. While my parents spoke some English, Spanish was the predominately-spoken language at home. I recall my father always saying; “You learn English at school and Spanish at home.” Looking back, I learned English more so at home than the other way around. 

While I can begin to describe the entire the process and underlying psychological process that occurred in my journey toward English acquisition, the journey really begins with two exact moments in my life. The first was while living in Dolton, Georgia as a second grader, and the second was when I found comic books. 

In Georgia, I was enrolled in what was referred to as a bilingual program for students. The actual name of the program was the “children of migrant workers” program. Second grade in a new school and a new area was not easy. It brought with it its own trials and tribulations, not to mention emotional impacts. More importantly, it sparked in me what I call a life-changing experience. I recall coming home the last day of school with my report card and seeing the look in my parents’ eyes. The next thing I recall is my mother and my brother, who is four years older than I, speaking to my second-grade teacher. They were not happy and my mother spoke in the best way possible, trying to communicate her dismay in a language she had not mastered, while my brother was painstakingly trying to relay her message in English. She could not understand why. Why, had I failed second grade? I was not promoted to the next grade because it was assessed that I did not have the required English skills to pass into third grade. I was confused, ashamed, hurt, and angered. I couldn’t understand my emotions, my reasoning, or my confusion. I thought I was normal in the way I spoke English. I never knew my English was not good enough. But, then again, I had no point of comparison. 

I repeated the second grade in Georgia and, interestingly enough, I excelled the second time. I was generally at the top of my class when it came to assignments and my speediness of completing them. My second-grade teacher for this second experience was inspiring and motivating, always giving me time and encouragement. My memories of her are fond. 

We moved back to Chicago to an area similar to where we had previously lived. I was scared and mad, afraid that I would fail again. My parents didn’t have the mastery of the language to help or to foster a more thorough knowledge of the language, but they did provide a drive and motivation to learn it. I just needed a way to know how.

Early on upon our move back, I recall looking at the back of a cereal box. It had a special promotional offer of sending in box tops and, for a small shipping and handling fee, I would receive four of the five listed comics they offered. I was intrigued and excited. I had watched some of comics on television while I was growing up. In fact, my father had always watched them with me and would recognize them and talk about them with me. I wanted those comics. I wish I could say that I ordered them to learn to read, to help me understand, but they only pleased my curiosity visually and emotionally. They were an escape from my fear, an escape to a fantasy world where I could dream of being a superhero.

Needless to say, I ordered them, and a short six to eight weeks later they arrived at my home. I opened them up with the ravenous appetite of a starved person. I happened to pick one of the comics that intrigued me by its cover. It was Captain America and Captain Britain on the cover. I opened it and read it. I read it again. Over and over, I read it until I made sense of what it was saying. It was nothing short of amazing. It had pictures with the words. I could make sense of the story without always knowing what the words said. The pictures themselves told some of the story or made the story easier to follow. Just looking at the pictures, I had a small understanding of what was being conveyed. The words made it clearer. I would ask whomever I could, “What does this word mean?” I was hooked. I began to order more and more specifically Captain America comics. He inspired me with his level of heroism, his caring for others, and his dedication to a better world. He gave me hope. He had no true super powers, or should I say his powers were what I had seen as achievable. He was strong, but not super strong. He was smart, but not super smart. He was a leader, a master tactician. He was the closest to a real person whom I could dream of being. 

From this time forward, reading became fun and motivating, and I hungered for it. It created images in my mind of hope, dreams, and fantasy. It inspired creativity and motivation, and, ultimately, it just inspired me. Captain America not only laid the foundations of my reading and understanding English. He gave me identity of culture. I learned to be American. He fought for justice for all, equitable in his struggle for good. He followed orders, but broke rules only when there was an injustice to those who could not speak or fight for themselves. I was emotionally hooked on these comics. I learned to read!

How Edgar’s Story Relates to Schooling Today

Comic books have been around for many years. The very first comic book is ‘Histoire De Mr. Vieux Bois’ (1837) by Rodolphe Töpffer. Rodolphe Töpffer was a Swiss Cartoonist, and is credited as the creator of the first comic book. The book was later printed in English and was released in the United States in 1841–1842 with the title ‘The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck’ (Terrero, 2018). Fast-forwarding, Smith and Pole (2018) in their article for the International Literacy Association, What’s Going On in a Graphic Novel?, stated that in the 1950s in the United States, comic books were considered to cause juvenile delinquency, but the graphic format persisted. Smith and Pole continued,

The graphic novel is also one of the fastest growing book formats. … Graphic novels and comics are compared with picture books because both types of texts incorporate words and illustrations, a variety of genre, and a range of intended audiences. An obvious difference between picture books and graphic formats is the paneled layout and visual text features, such as speech or thought balloons found in graphic novels and comics. (p. 169) 

According to the National Coalition against Censorship, the American Library Association and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (Smith & Pole, 2018), “graphic novels are more sophisticated than comics and have a greater variety of content” (p. 169). They continued, “we were intrigued when the graphic novel El Deafo by Cece Bell (2014) appeared as a 2015 Newberry Honor Book” (p. 169). As a result, educators are beginning to make them a part of libraries and students are reading them for their content. 

The Value of Learning Visually from Graphic Novels

Visual integration and learning have long been researched and studied in various fields, from various perspectives. Researchers in the fields of psychology, literacy, linguistics and sociology, to name a few, have studied various aspects of visual processing (Yu, 2012). While understanding visual perception goes beyond the scope of this article, it must be noted that visual processing, visual, spatial, or fluid reasoning are not the same, nor can they be measured in the same ways. For the purposes of this article, visual perception will be understood as a combination of the aforementioned list. Yu (2012) defines it as 

… an ability to process and organize visual information; it plays a role in identifying and classifying information. Many physiological and psychological factors can have an impact on the depth of visual perception in terms of categorization and interpretation of meaning. (p. 292)

Visual processing is essentially the way to process visual data. It’s the way that people see the world, how it is categorized and identified into select areas of thought and practice. 

Psychologists have diagnostic tools to measure how well this can be completed with respect to visual, spatial, and fluid reasoning indices, and identify possible areas that may be impaired or deficient in various domains (Wechsler, 2008). Tools such as The Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, fifth edition (WAIS V) and its corresponding adolescent and child versions demonstrate the manner in which to assess for those abilities. Moreover, they demonstrate how processes interconnect with items such as memory, and how underlying disorders such as depression, anxiety, and/or Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) (Weschler, 2008) impact them. Information is impacted not only by our emotions (physiological responses to external stimuli) but how they are perceived (our interpretations of our emotions) (Schachter & Singer, 1962). Much research has demonstrated links between emotions and perceptions and their effects (Piaget & Inhelder, 2000; Perry, 2006). Simply put, how a person feels, whether sad, or happy, or nervous etc. impacts not only what is observed, but also what is understood. The ultimate result is a guide to responses of what is visually processed. Included with visual processing and perceptions are emotions and feelings, intelligence, culture, ethnicity, and personality and all their underlying complexities, and ultimately an understanding of what is seen and felt (Hillman, 1993, cited in Yu, 2012; Messaris, 1994; Piaget & Inhelder, 2000). Yus (2008) stated, 

Inference plays a more important role in the apprehension of visual information than it appears to play. Perception is not as automatic as it seems to be, but is always mediated by the person’s background knowledge, expectations and assumptions about the world (actual or possible) within which images are processed. (p. 5) 

The following is an example of a real case and how Edgar, a psychologist, would counsel and explain the case. 

Let’s assume there is a teen that is 13 years old. For the most part, the teen is an average-intelligence child but has the unfortunate situation of having been diagnosed with depression. So, the child has normal intelligence but is diagnostically depressed and attempting to read and retain the information. What can the problem be? If a person feels sad and thinks negatively about the world, similarly to depression, then the words in text and their context are processed under a negative lens. Understandably there is a much more complex neuropsychological process but as a point of understanding simply, if a person is sad and negative, what that person absorbs will be viewed and understood from that perspective. So, why would someone want to read when the world is bad? This is how it seemed me before discovering comics. This is how it seems to the depressed teen. There are cognitive effects that depression has on a person that can materialize into bad memories, poor concentration, and attention problems, which would normally prevent reading and doing the work.

Teachers have to find a way to help and motivate the student into learning and reading. Smith & Pole (2018) summarize their article,

Our research leads us to advocate for instruction in reading graphic formats so all students have access to the depth of meaning carried in the intersection of written language and graphics, as well as to encourage teachers who use graphic novels in their classroom to explore reading a graphic novel deeply and learn strategies that support comprehension in a multimodal format. (p. 176)

Basically, teachers must teach how graphic novels demonstrate the information visually. With this accomplished, students will comprehend what they are reading.

Benefits of Reading Graphic Novels for All Students

There are many benefits to reading graphic novels. One as mentioned is comprehension, but another, a key to encouraging reading and learning, is motivation. Motivated readers are defined as “engaged, curious, and anxious to talk about what they are reading. They are able to read from several texts at the same time, look forward to new challenges and value text choice and time to engage with print” (Marinak et al., 2010, p. 503). 

Kyle Redford’s (n.d.), article from Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity stated, 

Additionally, in class discussions, the graphic novel’s easy-to-read accessible format allows struggling readers into the world of classic literary references that would otherwise be accessible only to stronger readers. Graphic novels are a wonderful way to help dyslexic readers strengthen their vocabulary, build their reading confidence, and foster a love of story. (para. 4)

He also stated in the same article,

The brilliant thing about the graphic novel is the way they offer dyslexic readers several different cues to the story. If a reader gets snagged on the vocabulary or storyline of a graphic novel, illustrated pages offer contextual cues to help decipher meaning. But don’t be fooled; strong readers love the graphic novel as well. The attraction can be likely be explained by the enjoyable format. (para. 3)

Graphic novels not only help struggling readers, but good readers enjoy the illustrations and cues that help to understand the storyline.

Another benefit to having students read graphic novels is that it helps the students gain a broader vocabulary, to appreciate and enjoy reading. CeCe Bell (n.d.), the author of the graphic novel, El Deafo, stated in an article on struggling and reluctant reader in Reading Rockets, a national public initiative used
by educators, 

But there was like this sense of satisfaction for readers who maybe have a little bit of difficulty reading. Here are these pictures that help propel me through. It doesn’t take very long to get through a page. Suddenly you read a 220-page book, and you’ve never read a 220-page book in your life. It’s like this gateway to reading maybe things that are more difficult down the road… Graphic novels can introduce struggling readers to the world of classic literature. Classical Comics and Graphic Classics, for example, publish graphic novel versions of Dickens, Shakespeare, Twain, Alcott, and other great writers. (para. 5-7)

Bell is a deaf person, and she chose to write her semi-autobiography as a graphic novel, telling her story through a rabbit that shares how she balanced her life experiences. 

Graphic novels benefit all students. According to Fisher & Frey (2013), graphic novels help students gain valuable literacy skills, such as previewing content, summarizing information, visualizing, reviewing, and analyzing texts. As McTaggert indicated, “[Graphic novels] enable the struggling reader, motivate the reluctant one, and challenge the high-level learner” (as cited in Fisher & Frey, p. 32).


This article discovered the history of comics and how students read graphic novels, which in graphic format are similar to comics. The story of Edgar’s life and how he learned to read by reading comics proves the value of this reading format, especially for struggling readers. With the benefits that students can gain from reading graphic novels, all students should be encouraged to read them whether it is for learning or pleasure.

In a Graphic Novel Roundtable, presented by Jennifer Gonzales, a practitioner, there were four teachers who shared their thoughts about using graphic novels in the classroom. Dr. Michelle Falter, a professor at North Carolina State University, was one of the members of the roundtable. She summed up the main reasons for using graphic novels.

It is easier for students to relate to a text when they can see it. It captures student interest in this increasingly visual world, which then also increases student motivation and desire to keep reading because they can be successful at it, therefore promoting a positive association to reading. Finally, graphic novels are cross curricular; there are many connections that can be made across the curriculum in a variety of different subject matters. (Falter, as cited by Gonzales, 2016)

Regardless of whether students are reading from a book or from a digital copy, the ability to understand the content opens the door to what is being taught in the classroom. Graphic novels can be used in every discipline. By placing these materials in the hands of the students, it will provide them with the opportunities to analyze the information and become critical thinkers in the 21st century. LEJ


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Lauren Wellen, Ed.D., received her Doctor of Education degree from Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Illinois in Curriculum Instruction and Elementary Education. She is currently the Program Leader for the Masters and Doctoral courses in Early Childhood Education. She is a member of the Department of Literacy and Early Childhood and teaches literacy and early childhood courses to masters and doctoral students. She also serves as chair and member of various doctoral committees. Previously, she was an administrator and teacher at Concordia University Chicago’s Early Childhood Education Center and taught at Lutheran schools in Chicago, Illinois, and Texas. 

Edgar Ramos, Psy.D., received his doctorate in clinical psychology from the Illinois School of Professional Psychology, Chicago, Illinois. He is currently the Program Leader for the Master Arts in Psychology. He is a full-time member of the Department of Human Services, and teaches in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling, School Counseling, and Psychology programs. He is currently specializing in psychopharmacology en route to prescription privileges for licensed clinical psychologists. Previously he held many director positions in various settings for children and adolescents.