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

Part Five: Choosing the Right Comics

Why Students Are More Willing to Read Graphic Novels

There are a number of reasons why students that scoff at black and white text while fully engaging with comics, even if the actual word counts are comparable.  

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.

 

The Stories aren’t Three Times as Old as the Students

Comics are more relatable for the simple reason that they’re modern.  While there’s nothing wrong with the classics (UDON Entertainment actually publishes Classic comics in a Manga Format) a number of our students may have a hard time relating to the characters, time periods, diction, or any number of other things that act as roadblocks.

As the Modern Age of comics began less than forty years ago, most in-print collections that students are introduced to deal with contemporary issues, language, and style.

 

But I Want My Students to Love My Favourite Book…

You have a favourite book.  You probably have a top ten list of favourite books.  Now, if we’re being honest with each other, you probably have at least two top ten lists of favourite books.  One that is your academic list and one that is your honest list.  

When asked what my favourite books are, I’m probably not going to lead with Jurassic Park, and I might not even be willing to admit to Starship Troopers unless I really know the the person asking.  But they’re number two and one – respectively – on my honest list.

At parent’s night, when asked what my favourite novels are, I’m far more likely to tilt my chin up ever so slightly – as if preparing to take the perfect selfie – stroke my beard one, two, three times, and then respond with Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller, followed by the experimental epic House of Leaves (either the original Red or Blue edition – never the full colour), rounding things out with My Antonia.  

The only overlap between the two lists might be Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, or Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs in I’m speaking to Canadians.

 

The Thing about favourites…

Think about your lists – which of those books did you actually enjoy reading, and which of them do you only talk about having liked after the fact?  Did you only read them because you forced yourself to read them?

Starship Troopers was the type of book I couldn’t put down.  It’s one of the few books I’ve read multiple times.  It’s the one book that I read to my son when he was an infant, refusing to go to bed even though the clock clearly said it was 3:00am.  

On the other hand, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller was the type of book I forced myself to read, sloughing through each half chapter of disconnected narrative, trying to create meaning with the next half chapter told in second person where You is not you, but rather the protagonist You who often refers to You the reader You, rather than to the You that is they, the protagonist.

Both books are great.  I really do love them equally.  But I can tell you which one of the two I’d be more willing to put in front of a student.  We know that there are some books that are like dessert: a tasty treat sliding down as easy as ice cream on a summer’s day, no matter how full you are.  

And we know there are books like escargot and caviar – or even ginger beer and black liquorice – acquired tastes that you love once you’ve forced them down your throat for the first, second, or seventeenth time.

 

Force Feeding

As educators we are probably the type of person willing to slurp back that sixteeth snail, hoping that this will be the bite that finally makes us think, “hmm, that really is wonderful.  I finally understand why people enjoy these chewy mucusy mollusks!” but our students are far more honest, with far less to prove. They’d split that slug out as fast as they could, and yell all sorts of names at you for trying to force it upon them.  Or worse still, they’d just chew on it silently, unable to swallow, but also without a napkin in which to spit out the disastrous meal.

One type of student will proclaim loudly that they are not reading the book, because they don’t understand it.  The other will flip page after page, literally reading each an every word, but understanding nothing. And you’ll never know.  Because they’re just there silently chewing their snail, forever hoping for the napkin which will never come.

Students need to be offered books that they – not you – can relate to.  Even if you love the book you’ve assigned, how many of your friends feel the same way about it?  How many of your co-workers? What abour your mechanic, or your IT support worker, or the cashier at the grocery store you frequent?  They might have read it, they might not have hated it, but it probably didn’t change their word the same way it changed yours.

Now consider your students, at least ten years your junior.  Will they be able to connect in the same way you did? Sure The Catcher in the Rye is a great tale.  But, will your students really understand and relate to a rich white kid complaining about how hard life is, even though he has been given everything?

Comic books on the other hand offer students a glimpse of the present.  They show modern values for what they are. They offer real world examples of politics, biases, and contemporary concerns.  

Which of the two types of texts do you think will offer a more rewarding experience?  Which of those do you think will lead to a more engaged and engrossing class discussion that demonstrates the full range of your students’ literacy skills?

 

About Snails

Now, back to the snail metaphor.  Because it’s slimy and wonderful. You may be saying to yourself, if students have a difficult time reading (swallowing the snail) how will comics help when it’s the simple act of decoding that is the greatest barrier?  Well, with any terrible tasting meal, sometimes all you need is a little seasoning. Comic books are the salt of the fine dining French cuisine.

 

What’s Next?

You know, maybe it’s best we just drop that metaphor all together.  It has run away from itself a little to far – even though snails don’t run, they glide on their mucus-covered muscular foot.  All you really need to know is that…  Comic Books Help with Decoding.  That’s what we’ll be discussing next.

 

 

 


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

Part Five: Choosing the Right Comics

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.

 

An Introduction

Comic books?  In a classroom?  For decades the very idea was absurd.  In the now classic, Back 2 School episode of Boy Meets World English teacher, Jonathan Turner, fights the system by teaching issue 316 of The Uncanny X-Men in an attempt to introduce his students to complex themes in a way they could easily understand.  Fighting the power structure, Turner put his career on the line to demonstrate the value of comics in the classroom.

Over two decades later the show Girl Meets World reintroduced the same concept, this time with English teacher Harper Lee Burgess choosing to introduce her students to The Dark Knight Returns.  Once again the teacher (mirroring Batman, fighting for what’s right despite lacking power) had to pit herself against her principal (mirroring the Superman, possessing power but little knowledge about how to properly use it) to justify the value of comics in the classroom.  During the many years between the two episodes things have changed both in reality, and the fictional New York school board of the show.

Jonathan Turner had since become superintendent, having no problem taking the biased principal to task for threatening the new teacher.  Similarity many school boards are now looking to bring comics into the classroom, understanding their value.

 

Shifting Fears

Comic books have a home in most English book rooms, while also finding a home in a variety of other departments as well.  No longer is it the administrators that fight against these texts – they want to be seen on the cutting edge, able to relate to students, and increase literacy scores through the inclusion of relatable materials.  The fight isn’t getting comics into book rooms…  it’s getting them out of book rooms and into teachers’ classrooms.

Where there was once a top-down bias against the format, there is now fear of the unknown from teachers who are well entrenched in the way they were taught, and the way they have been teaching for years.  

Introducing something new requires retooling old lesson plans, reading new texts, considering new ways to approach ideas, and most horrifically of all – recreating their subject binders. Which is, of course, why I work digitally.  Adding a new digital file into a folder takes no time at all. There are no plastic sleeves to fight with, dividers to move, or 2.5 inch rings filled to bursting.

Binders tie people to old ways of teaching due to the difficulty in updating them, which is why when someone asks to see my course binders, my reply is always, “What binder?”

 

Don’t You Mean Graphic Novels?

There are teachers who will profess that they don’t teach comic books, while still handing out texts full of sequential art telling a narrative tale.  When questioned they will reply, “These are Graphic Novels.” as if there is a distinction between the two.

Some teachers will talk about the value to Maus, express the importance of Persepolis, justify their use of Louis Riel, all while diminishing the value of comic books.  There are still others who are willing to defend their use of Aya, V for Vendetta, and even skirt the concept of super heroes by using The Watchmen.  These teachers, too, are often quick to express that they are teaching Graphic Novels and not comic books.

Comic Books and Graphic Novels are the same thing.  There is no difference. As Scott McCloud said in his book Understanding Comics, “Comics are juxtaposed pictorial and other images in a deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”1.  Graphic Novel was nothing more than a term used to describe a collection of floppies (single issues).  These are also called Trade Paper Backs.

I’m not willing to fight this point too much.  If someone feels better about using the term Graphic Novel, and makes them more willing to bring them into their classroom, that’s fantastic.  It’s only when they start disparaging those who see the value of introducing their students to Spider-Man, The X-Men, Superman, or even Street Fighter because they’re just comics that I become upset.

 

Why Should We Use Them in Our Classrooms?

We know that students read at a higher level when they read familiar material2.  When exploring the concept of prejudice the student who is unwilling to dive into a 400 page novel written at the turn of the century may be far more willing to open up the Grant Morrison run of New X-Men.  While some teachers may place value on a student being able to read a long, dry, novel simply for the sake of reading it, hopefully there are more teachers who understand the real value of their lessons is teaching, reinforcing, and exploring cross-curricular literacy skills.

 

What’s Next?

The next parts in the What Binder series on using Comics in the classroom will look at Why Students are More Willing to Read Comics, as well as the specific ways in which Comic Books Help Our Students.  We will also explore What Comics Books are Suitable for Your Classroom while also looking at some of The Best Comic Publishers to Know.  

A follow up series will explore How to Use Comic Books in Your Classroom.


Footnotes

  1. Comics in Education – Gene Yang
  2. Three Myths About “Reading Levels” (Psychology Today)

 

 

 


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

Part Five: Choosing the Right Comics