Comic Books Help Our Students With Decoding

Decoding is the process of making meaning from text.  You’re doing it right now.  Where some might see nonsensical shapes, you see letters – or perhaps you just see the words.  In your mind you give these shapes meaning.  Some do so by subvocalizing, while others translate the text directly into internalized meaning and understanding.  Our students do not all have this ability, and must be taught skills to aid in the decoding process.  By combining visuals with their text, comic books are an excellent tool that help our students decode meaning.

This is part of and ongoing series on Comics in the Classroom.  When teachers looks to introduce Key Literacy Skills to their students, they often overlook the most powerful tool in reaching their students – Comic Books.  This multi-part series explores why comics should be used in your classroom, as well as what books are best suited for your classroom.  All articles in this series can be Read Here.

 

Our Students All Have the Ability to Succeed

We know that all our students have the ability to consider complex ideas and express them to us.  They do this every day, when they describe the events of their weekends, why they’re mad at their best friend, the inexcusable unjust action of their parents’ taking away their cell phone, or a – possibly fictitious – series of events that led to their homework being incomplete by deadline.  However, when we put a piece of writing in front of our students and ask them to infer why the protagonist chose to engage the antagonist before they were prepared, or when we request that they make a text-to-self connection with the antagonist in order to better understand their decisions, they may spend an entire period producing nothing.

Some teachers are quick to conclude that the student just doesn’t have what it takes, complaining in their staff room that the child is obviously misplaced in their level.  Despite the mountains of evidence that show the student connects with the lyrics of their favourite song, and can make an educated guess as to what the outcome of their unfinished assignment will be, some teachers decide to take the path of least resistance.  They assure themselves that the problem lies with the student rather than with the teaching.

 

Why Students Find it Difficult to Succeed

The reason why many students find it difficult to demonstrate their literacy skills when responding to teacher-assigned texts is often due to the fact that they have trouble decoding the text itself.  While some comic books offer complex concepts at a lower reading level, there are some – like UDON Entertainment’s Manga Classics – that use the same language that is present in the original novels.

Why then might a student have an easier time understanding Jane Eyre or the unabridged The Jungle Book in comic format, even though the text is still as complex as in their original prose?

 

Learning their Language

Imagine that you are learning a new language.  Picture yourself sitting at your favourite desk, your kitchen table, curled up on your sofa in front of a roaring fire, or even lying barefoot on a dock gently rocking with each passing wave.  You have a notebook in front of you, and a pencil in your hand. You’re ready to start diving into French, or Japanese, or Maori, or Basic Conversational Ojibway. Now, picture the things that surround you to aid in your studies.

Do you have a four hundred page book with black text on cream coloured pages, with nothing else to aid you?  Or do you – perhaps – have a full coloured text book chunked into specific sections with pictures to aid you along the way?  Is it possible that you might have your laptop, or television so that you can watch videos that have actors speaking a sentence aloud, before acting out a short skit that visualizes what they explained?  Now, if you don’t fancy bringing technology down to the lake, you might realize that you can easily replace those videos with a few comic strips that do the same thing – they show parallel actions that complement the written text.

 

The Importance of Visuals

And why are these visuals so important when learning something new?  Because, though we are unfamiliar with the words, we can use our prior knowledge to help us make meaning from the pictures.  By doing this, we attribute meaning to the words, so that the next time we see them we can associate them with the visuals, look for connections, and attain mastery of language.

For our students understanding:

“Mother! Mother! Give me sunshine on the roof”
“No, my little pearl.  You must gather your own sunshine.  I have none to give you.”
The Scarlet Letter, UDON Entertainment (110-111)

can be just as complicated as when we try to understand:

Densha wa doko desu ka?
(Where is the Train – Japanese)

In each example, having pictures accompanying the text can help the readers make meaning, and learn from their readings.

When given the opportunity to use visuals to understand the meaning of the texts they are reading, students are able to fully decode their texts, enabling them to demonstrate their literacy skills for whatever follow-up tasks and projects you assign.

 

What’s Next?

Having looked at why comics should be used in the classroom as well as why students are more willing to read comics we will next look at which comic book publishers you should be aware of for your classroom needs.

 


Part One: Comics in the Classroom

Part Two: Students Will Read Comics

Part Three: Comics Help with Decoding

Part Four: Publishers to Be Aware Of

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