The Case for Comics in the Classroom

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By Josh Elder

The conventional wisdom had always held that comics – or graphic novels if you prefer the more modern parlance – were the “bad” kind of reading. The kind that would rot tender, adolescent brains swifter than a zombie bite. Only groundbreaking cognitive research and an ever-growing mountain of anecdotal evidence on the educational efficacy of comics is making comic converts out of even the harshest critics. These parents, teachers and librarians are seeing firsthand how comics can be a ladder to literacy and learning for students of all ages, interests and level of achievement.

They’re seeing firsthand what I like to call the 3 Es of comics in the classroom:

Engagement

Text imparts meaning through the reader’s active engagement with written language. A comic imparts meaning through the reader’s active engagement with written language AND juxtaposed sequential images. It takes whole sentences, paragraphs sometimes even entire chapters to truly “get into” a good book. A good comic draws you in from the moment you lay eyes on that first panel. In his book Understanding Comics, my educational guru Scott McCloud defines comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence.” The key term there being juxtaposed. And for there to be juxtaposition, there must also be a space between. A gap that McCloud calls the gutter. Allow me to illustrate with this simple 3-panel comic strip.

It’s a simple story, yet more complicated than one might think. Let’s look at Panel 1 again. Dad has his arm cocked, ready to throw. Now in Panel 2, the ball is already in the air. Dad threw the ball, but you never saw it leave his hand. Or rather you did see it leave his hand, you just saw it happen in your mind’s eye rather than on the screen. The comic edited the narrative into a highlight reel of sorts, consigning all the extraneous information to the gutter and giving you just enough information to infer all the things it didn’t actually show you. You have to put your mind in the gutter and read between the lines of each and every panel of even the simplest comic, or the comic simply won’t get read.

Yet if comics require readers to fill in the gaps and put more work than usual into the reading process, why have comics proven so effective at reaching otherwise reluctant readers and students with learning impairments like autism and dyslexia? The answer is that it just doesn’t feel like work to read a comic. Comics are more viscerally appealing and more immediately engaging than prose. Comics are, in a word, fun. And as a wise woman once said, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

Efficiency

For this one we’re going to conduct an experiment. I’m going to show you the three-panel comic strip again and below it will be text that describes exactly the same scene. Read the story in both formats and see how long each takes you. Get ready. Get set. Read!

It takes a typical reader 1-2 seconds to read the comic strip, but more like 10-20 to read the text. The same narrative information – the same data – presented in two different formats, but the comic was an order of magnitude more efficient at communicating that data. Every day there’s more to know. More History, obviously, but more Art and Literature, more Science, more Math, more everything. Our knowledge base is growing at an exponential rate, but our school days aren’t getting any longer.

Teachers complain about shortening attention spans, but what if we could turn that into a feature rather than a bug? What if we could accelerate our teaching methods to keep up with their learning curve? What if comics could help us do that?

Effectiveness

Not that increasing efficiency matters if the students forget what they’ve read as soon as they’re done reading it. Thankfully for my thesis, neurological experiments have shown that we process text and images in different areas of the brain. Known as the dual-coding theory of cognition, the experiments also indicate that pairing an image with text leads to increased memory retention for both. With comics, you not only learn the material faster, you’re also going to learn it better.

In the end, comics are nothing but words and pictures. And you can do anything – you can teach anything – with words and pictures.

About the author: Josh Elder is an award-winning graphic novelist, nationally syndicated cartoonist and the founder of Reading With Pictures, an educational non-profit that promotes literacy and the visual arts through the use of comics in the classroom. You can find him online at www.readingwithpictures.org.

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