Build Empathy and Understanding by Pairing Comics With Novels

Teaching with comics facilitates improved comprehension and social-emotional competencies.

July 12, 2019

Comics and graphic novels are powerful forms of expression that can be an important part of every English language arts (ELA) teacher’s arsenal. They can serve as literary bridges to enhance not only ELA instruction but also self-awareness, empathy, and creativity. 

The art, whether vibrant or void of color, allows for a deeper comprehension of themes. The text, carefully chosen to work in tandem with the illustrations, creates a sense of connection and truth. 

To effectively instruct with graphic novels or comics, teachers need to make sure that students understand how the medium functions. Just as every word and aspect of grammar is purposeful in a traditional text, every part of the panel in a comic or graphic novel is used with intention. The placement of words, movement of lines, and chosen colors all have a purpose. Examining these details provides accessible channels for students to gain not only literary and artistic comprehension but also social-emotional skills.

Pair with Traditional Reads

Pairing comics with more traditional selections can deepen comprehension and understanding. This process, much like using a poem to enhance a concept found within a traditional prose text, allows for learning to be transferred. When selecting a comic or graphic novel, consider the purpose of teaching the traditional text. Search for common themes across a variety of media.

For example, after my sophomores read Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron,” we discussed the concept of identity and its connection to a healthy society. During our discussion, students talked about society’s needs, the “common good,” and looking out for others. I was struck by the absence of comments regarding the importance of the individual, so I introduced Stephen Collins’s graphic novel “The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil.”

The story is told using very few words coupled with a series of black-and-white illustrations. This pairing serves to aid both the plot and the philosophical commentary in a simple yet powerful way. At first glance, the society on the island appears to be orderly and without flaw, just like the protagonist, Dave. Soon, chaos erupts in the form of a gigantic beard, sprouting uncontrollably from Dave’s face. He is now feared, shunned, and questioned. Where is this fiendish beard coming from? What has he done to deserve such a punishment? This beard—something that is very different from the societal norm—is seen as evil.

Through the meticulous art and captivating narrative, the students came to see the imperfect nature of perfection and the power of individuality. They came to understand that individuality was not something to be hidden or lost but instead was something to be celebrated. The discussion moved to a place of real, meaningful dialogue—a place where the students pondered their own vital role in society as an individual.

Pairing “Harrison Bergeron” and “The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil” provided a variety of literary techniques for my students to examine and synthesize within a conceptual framework. Simply using one text, one style, or one medium is akin to proverbially teaching with one hand tied behind our back. Finding comics or graphic novels that highlight the same themes and concepts as traditional texts can open doors to conversations about topics that span disciplines such as self-awareness and empathy.

Offer Choice

At times, I bring in one comic or graphic novel that connects to the concept being discussed. Other times, students are given a few options to use in their studies. Choice gives students a chance to exercise decision-making while also providing different options for varied interests.

The characters of Spider-Man, the Black Panther, and Superman present different aspects of humanity for the students to explore. Examining characters in a variety of comics helps students to build empathy as well as to better understand their own values. For example, loyalty, as a concept, is multifaceted. Studying the loyalty to one’s country found within the Black Panther will often look different than studying the loyalty to one’s mission found within Batman. With this variety, the students’ understanding of the concept of loyalty is more comprehensive and nuanced.

Student choice is instrumental in fostering a culture of acceptance and validity. Giving students options of different artistic styles and character backgrounds allows for those students who “aren’t into comics” to find something to connect with and enjoy. The opportunity to choose their own comic or graphic novel also strengthens students’ social-emotional competencies of decision-making, evaluating, and self-motivation. 

Comics are just like any other type of reading: in order to help the hesitant student, you have to find the right fit. Encourage students to reflect on what types of reading they have enjoyed in the past. Consider the students’ interests and passions, and allow for their exploration and questioning.

As teachers, our goal is to reach students—to help children see the world around them in a way that allows for autonomy and inclusion. We want them not only to grow academically, but to thrive in understanding their own humanity and the world around them. Using comics or graphic novels in the ELA classroom can facilitate not only improved English Language Arts skills, but also important social-emotional competencies. 

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  • Literacy
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • English Language Arts
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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