Perhaps you have noticed your children coming home with books such as Lunch Lady, American Born Chinese, Bone, or Big Nate. Maybe you have seen books such as Zita the Spacegirl, Bake Sale, Smile, Giants Beware!, or Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy. All of these books, and more, belong to a growing format in our libraries: graphic novels. The format of graphic novels includes both fiction and non-fiction (for example, the abovementioned One Dead Spy is a biography of Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale).
While it might be tempting to be dismissive of graphic novels because of the comic-book style of the text, graphic novels have a great deal to offer new and experienced readers alike, including the strengthening of visual literacy, vocabulary development, and proficiency at inferring.
Strengthening Visual Literacy
In a media-saturated environment, visual literacy – the ability of an individual to read, interpret, analyze, and synthesize imagery from diverse sources (pictures, graphs, infographics, etc.) – is an essential component of education for 21st-century learners.
Graphic novels require that an individual integrate both text and images in order to follow the narrative. As Arizona librarian Kristin Fletcher-Spear puts it, graphic novels rely on “a synergy of words and pictures” to convey meaning to readers. They therefore require a high level of concentration on the part of students. Furthermore, the visual component fused with the text plays an important role in supporting the needs of ESL students striving for comprehension.
In addition to fostering students’ visual literacy, graphic novels employ language concisely in order to communicate meaning. However, concise language does not equate to simplistic language. As one who has studied graphic novels for two decades, researcher and librarian Steven Weiner reports in Faster than a Speeding Bullet that the average graphic novel introduces readers to twice as many words as an average children’s book (61).
By reading graphic novels, students often encounter an economy of higher-level words. The illustrative nature of graphic novels scaffolds students’ experiences of the text as they construct meaning, thereby reinforcing their newly met vocabulary visually.
Proficiency at Inferring
Finally, the succinct visual nature of graphic novels demands that readers must frequently infer meaning, since not everything is spelled out for them in words. “Inferring” means deducing or reaching a conclusion based on available evidence and reason. For example, if someone sees smoke, he or she might infer that there is a fire. Paying attention enough to infer meaning is both a life skill and an academic one.
Higher-level texts necessitate readers to make more inferences as they grow in literary competence. The reading STAAR requires students to formulate inferences, and graphic novels thus have a role to play in this capacity.
Not only do graphic novels serve students admirably in consolidating their literacy skills, but they also draw abundant enthusiasm from a wide variety of students, both avid readers and reluctant ones. Graphic novels assist students in building the habit and love of reading. Far from a habit to break, a passion for reading ushers the young into practices of life-long learning that will accompany and fortify them long after they depart our schools and homes for a world in need of an informed, capable citizenry and thoughtful, compassionate human beings.
Written by Susan Cox, Librarian, Davis Elementary School