Arts Integration

Using Comics to Encourage Literacy Development

Merging images with informational text is a creative way to help students develop their critical thinking and literacy skills.

February 22, 2024
Picture Partners / Alamy Stock Photo

As a teacher, I continue to explore opportunities for my students to engage with the written word and challenge themselves in reading. I’m also in a constant search for materials that build literacy muscles.

Engaging with informational text continues to be a challenge I tackle creatively and intentionally in the classroom, and growing with challenging texts is never-ending work. I recognize that some of the most difficult reading my students do is found in content area texts. Of course, my classes read lots of nonfiction through sources like Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week and other resources that are freely available, and I situate much of our reading in inquiry. In addition to recommended resources like this one, I draw upon a range of visual or multimodal texts and approaches. The comics medium has many possibilities, including creating engagement and close reading opportunities around informational text topics. 

Close Reading in Content Comics

One of my go-to approaches for helping students practice the work of examining nonfiction closely is using informational comics. The series Science Comics and History Comics are published by First Second (an imprint of Macmillan) and feature content area connections told in a combination of words and images. Critics of using multimedia approaches in the classroom might note that there are instances of graphic novels that have fewer words in them than many prose-focused works.

However, the images carry their own possibilities for meaning—and I’m all about helping my students get to analysis of the words based on their practice with the images. Students often draw upon a range of elements when exploring an image, including the placement of characters, the depiction of gestures and facial expressions, and the presence or absence of a clear setting. 

Paying close attention to the composition of a multimodal page can be a way of attuning focus to the decisions that authors make in prose-only work, as well. In a lesson structure using Science Comics, for example, I have shown a two-page spread on the screen as an opening conversation-builder in class (hint for teaching visual texts: Displaying a copy is extremely useful). I can then ask students open-ended questions about what they notice, what words stand out to them, and how the images relate to/add to the content. This is an exercise in building discussion around a text, but it’s also about homing in on particular images and elements of a page, along with words. 

My students have the opportunity to enjoy and appreciate what the comic offers, and this acts as a link in literacy to additional readings and work.

Merging Charts, Graphs, and Characters

In a recent reflection on the class, some of my students created a TikTok summary of our semester. One of them noted, “It’s Dr. D’s class. Of course he’s going to draw every character in every book we read.” The worlds of nonfiction and fiction are not so divided that creativity and narrative elements never appear in informational texts. In fact, informational comics frequently merge characters and research. While drawing and the arts is not always an approach that my students feel comfortable taking to process their analysis, I model multiple ways of interacting with content.

After we’ve practiced a graphic organizer approach with a few of our readings (and we do read a great deal in my class, even if the reading centers only around excerpts), my students have options to approach inquiry topics with image-based responses in slideshows, as well as their own illustrations in response to findings.

From my work in arts-based research, I’ve noticed how an idea or aspect of what I’m analyzing sometimes stands out more after a creative step back. Experience is complicated and so is research; when I’m teaching my students how to process and organize information, I recognize that this is an invisible process. Index cards and slide shows are a physical way to think about findings, and responding to these findings with artistic approaches can make the process memorable and engaging.

Of course, I have students who prefer writing-only approaches, and that is wonderful, as well. At the same time, I welcome and celebrate multimodal ways of processing ideas.

Crafting Nonfiction Ideas in Comics Form 

Finally, I use comics not only as reading materials, but also as mentor texts for composing both fiction and nonfiction. This could be a multimodal cultural memoir, which is an approach I take with some of my classes at the beginning of our study of world literature. It might also be a visual summary of an inquiry-based text, reworked into comics form. In order to do this work, students must do the following:

1. Read an informational text closely enough to remember the content.

2. Process the information to the degree that they can recite, adapt, and translate it to another form.

3. Engage in the planning and creating process in order to render content with words and images.

4. Polish and revise as they go in order to make sure that content is clear.

In comics, the engagement with a sequential set of ideas often leads to scripting, which then results in planning breakdowns for a page. The art is then created, with additions and substitutions from the artist. Following this approach of creating comics-based texts invites students to reread for natural purposes as they create and means that the inquiry-led activity can then lead to more engagement with the written word and representational thinking as students decide on the images they will use and how these images will be designed and arranged. It’s a complex process.

In addition to these ideas, I embrace the use of infographics  as both reading and composing practices, and I enjoy merging images with graphic organizers. As literacy educators, we have the opportunity to link with all the tools of communication that are at our disposal—and this can lead to work that reflects how ideas are shared in the age we live in. There is so much to explore as we help students flex their literacy muscles.

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  • English Language Arts

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