Reading skills are crucial in middle school. We really have such a short time to get students reading, comprehending, and on level.
One way to do that is through graphic novels.
Graphic novels have been growing in popularity for a long time, but many teachers tend to shy away from bringing them into the classroom.
There are many reasons for this, but one I see is along the lines of “How would I teach a graphic novel?”
It’s a reasonable question. To some of us, teaching a comic can be hard to wrap our brains around. How do we bring them into the classroom? Can we bring them into the classroom? Odds are, your students are already familiar with them, so is there a way we can use that to our advantage?
If you’ve been grappling with this problem, never fear. Read on, and you’ll see why graphic novels are a great tool you can use in your lessons.
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What is a graphic novel?
These are stories told in a comic style. They can be any genre — fiction or nonfiction.
They are similar to comic books, and the terms are often used interchangeably, but a graphic novel will generally include a full story from start to finish. Think of comic books as a single chapter in a longer story, while a graphic novel is an entire book.
The artwork is colorful and stylized (hence the “graphic”!) — and often they rely heavily on visual storytelling, with dialogue or narration being secondary.
This makes them so appealing! And once a student picks one up, you have an avenue for teaching reading skills.
Why should we teach graphic novels?
There are a number of reasons why you should bring graphic novels into your classroom.
For starters, students love them!
If you’re trying to get your students on board with a reading challenge, or if they aren’t excited about reading, hand them one to try. I guarantee they’ll blaze through it in no time.
But graphic novels aren’t just good for easy reading. There is so much potential for learning, and so many lessons you can reinforce by reading them.
Use graphic novels to reinforce lessons
Any form of comics offer us a unique chance to really test our students’ reading comprehension and improve reading skills.
Since they rely far less on text, they serve as a great way to reinforce lessons about inference.
Students have to infer meaning, themes, and conflict from facial expressions, character designs, and the art of each panel. What is the focus of each scene? Why is that the focus?
We can also use graphic novels to practice writing techniques.
How to do this:
Have your students pick a panel or page.
Then, have them write as detailed a description as possible in one page.
Next, as a class, try to match the written descriptions to the panels they came from.
This allows your students to practice descriptive writing in a unique way, where the image is already defined for them.
Teach dialogue & word choice
Try using them to study dialogue as well.
Since the majority of the text we get in a graphic novel is dialogue, this gives us an opportunity to reinforce lessons on writing speech. Words can’t be wasted when they have to fit in a speech bubble. Use the dialogue to reinforce the importance of word choice.
Ways to use graphic novels in your classroom
1. Use for your book clubs. Almost any lesson that you can teach with a regular novel, you can teach with a graphic novel as well.
2. Start a collection — and pass them around. There are so many fabulous graphic novels available. Provide a varied collection to your students. Ask your school librarian to share a book bundle of various titles for you.
3. Encourage your students to create their own. This is a blast when you include it as an end-of-novel study activity or book report. (You can find a done-for-you graphic novel book report here.)
4. Use them to build background information. Historical fiction and nonfiction graphic novels offer a quick and engaging way to do that.
5. Compare a graphic novel to a text novel. Many books will have comic adaptations, and we can use these to our advantage.
Have your students consider what the graphic novel did differently than the original. Why did the artists make the changes they did? Ask them which version they preferred — then have them defend their preference.
Book club activities
Want to use them as a book club activity? Here are ideas for discussion and more:
- Choose a page to examine as a class. What do students notice? How does the writer/illustrator convey meaning. How is the page set up?
- What can be inferred? Select a few pages and have groups draw inferences about the plot, theme, setting, or conflict.
- Examine color and style. Why is it appropriate for this story? How does it influence the theme?
- What are the main plot points of the story? How can you tell?
- How does the writer/illustrator show conflict?
- Since a graphic novel doesn’t rely on big blocks of narrative, the writer must tell the story in other ways. How does the writer do that?
- List the ways it is different from the same novel written traditionally. What else would the writer need to include?
Where Do You Start?
There are a lot of graphic novels out there, and picking one to start your class with can be daunting, just like picking any other book for your reading list. Not to worry, as I have a list of titles that you can try for a variety of lessons.
I also want to strongly suggest picking up a copy of Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. This is one of the best texts covering how comics and graphic novels work. If you’re at all interested in bringing graphic novels into the classroom, this is a great place to start.
Should We Teach Graphic Novels?
If you’re still be hesitant about introducing graphic novels to your students, that’s understandable. They’re a new medium in a lot of classrooms. Are they a replacement for other texts? No. But they still have their place in the classroom, and they offer us a new way to train our students to be better readers
Give them a try!