Teaching With Comics

FlPixton_Comic_Pixture_by_mrogray_LYou know the WHY… what about the HOW?

If you buy into the why of comics, that’s great! But now you’re wondering how to go about incorporating them into your daily lessons. You’re in luck! There’s plenty of ways to do that. So just read on…

Teach Visual Literacy

Why not start with simply using comics to help teach visual literacy? This is right out of the common core, as shown on our rationale page. Students are expected to understand how to interpret the information contained in pictures and what better way to do that then to do a reading unit with graphic novels? In his landmark piece of comics’ theory Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Scott McCloud offers up a number of different ways that comics use images to convey meaning. For example, he discusses how simple lines can be used to represent different things: motion, smell, steam, or the way an object shines to name a few (McCloud 1994).

He also discusses the importance of the panels’ sequencing: that alone, each panel is just a lone image, but when placed next to another, the two images tell a story, drawing on the reader’s ability to infer a connection (McCloud 1994). Two comics’ scholars who build on this idea are Hollis Margaret Rudiger and Brian W. Sturm. Each share a walkthrough of two different comics that you can do with students, Rudiger with Kazu Kibuishi’s Daisy Kutter and Sturm with Jenni and Matt Holm’s Squish: Brave New Pond. Each of these walkthroughs illustrates the incredible power of comics, through the sequencing of images, to convey meaning. They also show exactly how much inference is required on the part of the reader. Here, Sturm shares the skills required of the reader simply to make a connection between two panels:

“Using the cues provided in these two panels, the reader fills in missing actions (journey across the city), forges connections between similar elements, relies on object permanence and perceptual constancy, negotiates the passage of time, and applies prior knowledge of illustrative conventions in comics to transition between these first two panels. (Sturm, 2013)”

You can find Rudiger’s walkthrough here. Sturm’s can be found in the Jan/Feb 2013 edition of Knowledge Quest, the journal of the AASL.

Writing Prompts

Both Sturm and Tomasevich (2013) reccommend using graphic novels and comics as writing prompts for your students.

First of all, it is possible to use the numerous wordless comics out there (Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, Sara Varon’s Robot Dreams, and Andy Runton’s Owly, to name a few) to inspire a creative writing activity. OR, you could ask your students to write what happens between the panels (the part that, as readers of the comic, they have to infer). Encourage them to “tell you more (Sturm, 2013)” about a certain scene, using what they infered from the sequenced images of the comic to fill in the gaps of the story. As Sturm points out, when doing this activity, “It is important to emphasize that no child’s interpretation is “better” or “more correct” than any other’s. (Sturm, 2013).”

More Language Arts!

Mindy Tomasevich’s article, “Creating Superlearners,” has a number of ideas on how to use comics to bolster your students regular classroom work, including:

  • Adding of graphic novels to your reading circles to increase excitement, help with comprehension, and potentially help English Language Learners.
  • Using them to teach common literary elements: setting, theme, symbolism, etc. Here, the students can actually visualize what you’re teaching them about!
  • Comparing graphic adaptations to classic texts .
  • Using graphic nonfiction as a way to better understand various text features.

Don’t Know Nothing ‘Bout History…

Tomasevich (2013) also encourages you to pair historicaltexts with historical graphic novels to make history come alive. “The illustrations give detailed information about the time period, and can especially inspire students with little background knowledge (Tomasevich, 2013).” One example she offers is using graphic novels such as Art Speigleman’s Maus with a text-only book like Jerry Spinelli’s Milkweed to do a class unit on the Holocaust.

Create Presentations!

Being the knowledgeable teacher that you are, you’ve probably already realized that comics and graphic novels fit into Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy on many different levels. Ifyou use them for reading alone, they can require students to go from Understanding all the way to Evaluating, depending on the way you use them.

You could also take your students right to the top of Bloom’s, and have them create their own comics and use them as a presentational tool in class.

One of the simplest ways to do this, of course, is to have students draw their own. Jeff Sharp’s website, flummery.com, has many useful resources to help you do this: from understanding the basics of cartooning (drawing comics) to panel templates and reproducibles that you can use in your class. There are even content specific templates that you can use for different subjects: one fun example is having students turn a chemical element into a superhero and then writing a short comic about the origin of that element and all the “powers” it has.

Of course, if you don’t have the time or the desire toteach students to draw their own comics, there are plenty of online comic creation tools to help you get the job done. Check our resource page for a useful list.

Whatever you do, remember… be creative!

Comics motivate your students to engage learning in all kinds of different and unique ways. Simply using them as part of your instructional toolkit will elevate your classroom’s relevance in their eyes. So take advantage of this great resource that your students already appreciate in many ways and start using comics in the classroom. As Tomasevich (2013) says… comics can turn your students into “Super Learners!”


McCloud, S. (1994). Understanding comics: The invisible art. New York: HarperPerennial.

Rudiger, H. (2006). Reading lessons: Graphic novels 101. The Horn Book Magazine, 82(2). 126-134.

Sharp, J. (2011). Teaching with comics resource page.  Flummery. Retrieved April 27, 2013 from http://www.flummery.com/teaching.

Sturm, B. (2013). Creativity in the space between. Knowledge Quest, 41(3). 58-63.

Tomasevich, M. (2013). Creating super learners. Knowledge Quest, 41(3). 18-23.


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