Picture Books and Graphic Novels: A Healthy Addition to Any Reading Diet
I remember that as a child my parents were constantly urging us to read. Read books, magazines, packaging, road signs, captions and cartoons, whatever. Anything with print was fair game. I was lucky because they were able to make reading a challenging game. Mom once said she would not be surprised if I read the inside of the toilet tissue roll. I replied, ‘but mom, there is nothing printed on the cardboard roll.’ She laughed, but you looked and would have. She was right. Now my job is to instill that reading curiosity into these kids.
As a teacher of, what our state calls, at risk teens, I face the problem of woefully unprepared students. Students to whom reading is a chore to be avoided at all costs. These students arrive in my eleventh grade classroom with only the basic reading skills of a fifth or sixth grader. Now I am faced with the same problem so many teachers encounter with the realization that their students simply cannot read and comprehend the materials that must be mastered. They simply don’t want to and will use any ploy to circumvent a teacher’s attempt at class oriented reading exercises. So,What can we do?
Obviously, we must teach these children to read well enough to be able to grasp the materials put before them. We can’t leave it up to the reading teacher who has more students than he or she can probably deal with effectively. But if we are concentrating on teaching reading, what about the content area materials. Integrating the content with reading instruction is often a herculean task. After all, how much reading do we have in a math class. Catch 22.
Many teachers will tell you that they are not reading teachers, and rightly so. In most states additional coursework and certificates are required to be qualified as a reading teacher. But, even without this qualification teachers must be willing and able to identify reading problems in students and ready to help those students reach their potential. More and more states are requiring all teachers to take additional coursework to insure they are able to address this problem.
I have been deeply entrenched in this problem for some time now and I have learned that graphic novels, or picture books, when used in conjunction with other materials, can increase the student’s comprehension and promote a feeling of success that in turn allows the student the opportunity to be successful in the classroom.
When a child comes to my class with limited reading skills, I utilize companion materials that fall into the graphic novel category. For example. One of the first books we read in my Language Arts class is H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. As I watched several struggling students faces I knew they would not even attempt to open the book. I was fortunate to be able to find a graphic novel version of this classic, one of the reasons I chose it actually, and I handed out a copy to each student. Suddenly these students faces changed as they began to flip through the book. A few even questioned. “You mean we get to read a comic book?”
Actually the students didn’t realize that these graphic versions actually presented a more challenging reading experience, as do most graphic novels, but by changing the perception of the material, and providing an alternative, I was giving these students a chance for success that many had not experienced for some time. The condition attached to this book was that it was not a replacement for the original novel, but a study aid. They still had to read the novel, but the graphic version would help them with some of the more difficult parts. Of course, my ‘good readers’ bemoaned this and I had to assure them that it was a choice and that grading would equalized for all.
Additionally, class discussions, use of visual technology and other tools were also incorporated, but the greatest success apparently came from the incorporation of these picture books. If you think about it, your first experiences with reading probably was with illustrated books, picture books, and later comic books.
This concept can be applied to the math and sciences as well with a little imagination. Teachers who have good computer skills may find that they can create materials that align with their subject areas and provide a similar graphical version of the lessons. For example. I use a story about a maintenance man who is faced with the task of figuring out how much material he needs to renovate the school stadium. Through the use of pictures with captions, students are suddenly working out the word problems using more advance math concepts or algebra and geometry when they were having difficulty with simple fractions previously.
As I progress through the year students ask if they can do reports and other projects using graphic novels. I have developed some guidelines, but the affirmative has resulted in about 72% of my challenged readers, those entering at the 6th grade reading level, passing their 10th grade basic skills tests by the end of the year. It Works, but why.
One of the things I have learned over the years is that reading ability is cyclic. Success brings more success and an increased desire to read more. Reading more improves reading skills and as skills improve, desire is increased and more reading occurs. Round and round it goes. And the same applies in reverse. Students with reading problems struggle with required reading. They quickly come to ‘hate reading’. They avoid reading and their skills deteriorate.
Technology has perhaps done a disservice to reading abilities. We expect to learn about things from imagery, especially moving images. Students today are plugged in and in many cases the school classroom they spend so much of their day in are not. These students are bored and teachers are becoming more the entertainer than the teacher. Students don’t have time to read and don’t want to read. By incorporating the graphic novel or picture book we are enticing them with something they can visually connect to.
Often this is just the catalyst needed to show the students that a world filled with words is more open to them than they previously believed. They gain a desire to continue as each success is measured and reverted to a desire for more success. The negative cycle is broken and the successful one is begun. All because of a picture book.