Posted by: Doc Comics | April 30, 2015



TWU Libraries is hosting a FREE COMIC BOOK DAY talk on the power of comics, inviting yours truly to offer some thoughts. Since a lot of educators often find themselves justifying using comics in the classroom, I figured I’d overview some of the educational research and teaching resources that have emerged to provide “5 Super-Powerful Reasons You Should Be Teaching With Comics!!”

LONG GONE ARE THE DAYS when comics and comic books were dismissed as “just for kids” or even, at worst, a crutch for the uneducated and illiterate. Still, a few administrators and policy-makers cling to such outdated myths, despite growing evidence to the contrary. Although Shakespeare is now considered part of our classical literary canon, his plays were once considered the ‘trash pop culture’ of his day, so maybe comics are in good company. Today, an increasing number of K-12 classrooms and even college courses internationally are utilizing the power of graphic narratives to engage their students, while educational research over the past two decades has begun to confirm the numerous benefits of using comics in the classroom!! According to the best research on student learning and studies of innovative educational programming, here are the top 5 justifications for bringing comics into your K-12 or college classrooms! 

1. Comics are proven to increase reading & writing skills, comprehension, and can actively engage multiple student learning styles!

understandingcomicscvrAs school boards across North America are becoming more open to varied strategies to improve student literacy, there has been an increase in the use of graphic novels in the classroom. However, for some older administrators and policy-makers, there is still a lingering stigma attached to the idea of using comics as a teaching tool. Anyone who has tried to convince a non-comic reader of the benefits of comics has heard the same things: the reading level is too low, the subject matter is frivolous, comics are too violent. While these complaints may ring true for some books on the market, it dismisses the wide variety of books out there that are challenging to read, thoughtful and insightful, and age-appropriate. It also dismisses the fact that comics can be an incredibly rewarding teaching tool for a variety of learners.

STUDIES APPLYING GARDNER’S MULTIPLE INTELLIGENCES MODEL found more consistent achievement from their K-12 students when teachers incorporate assignments and activities which tap into multiple intelligences, as this differentiated learning allows more students to achieve success. Assignments or activities used comics alongside traditional rubrics to build in student options for completion, which will allows different learners to more successfully demonstrate their learning. Such tactics insures that students who learn in different ways can increase their opportunities for success in the classroom. The benefits of using comics in the classroom are certainly great, both in increasing literacy and in addressing the educational needs of differentiated learners. As schools struggle to maintain enrolment and ensure that students are not left behind in the learning process, teachers must adapt their classroom to the developing needs of their students.

Carol L. Tilley, a professor of library and information science at Illinois, says that comics are just as sophisticated as other forms of literature, and children benefit from reading them at least as much as they do from reading other types of books. “If reading is to lead to any meaningful knowledge or comprehension, readers must approach a text with an understanding of the relevant social, linguistic and cultural conventions,” she said. “And if you really consider how the pictures and words work together in consonance to tell a story, you can make the case that comics are just as complex as any other kind of literature.”

2. Comics provide a medium for engaging critical thinking about complex philosophical, ethical, historical, and theoretical concepts… even for Common Core subjects like math and science!

Legions of K-12 educators have reported great success when they have integrated graphic novels into their curriculum, especially in the areas of English, science, social studies, and art. Teachers are discovering that graphic novels—just like traditional forms of literature—can be useful tools for helping students critically examine aspects of history, science, literature, and art. Graphic novels can be integral parts to implementing any curriculum standards… including the Common Core and others. RWPBook

Analysis of comic books and graphic novels actively engages students’ critical thinking and develops valuable skills in articulating their understanding of mood, character relationships, voice, and more. As comics are already beloved by elementary students, it is easy for teachers to bring them into the classroom to engage their students to use and develop crucial critical thinking skills.

Comics have transformed into powerful teaching aids! Josh Elder is the founder of a non-profit called Reading With Pictures (RWP), which, according to its website, aims to unite “the finest creative talents in the comics industry with the nation’s leading experts in visual literacy to create a game-changing tool for the classroom and beyond.” The organization has released Reading With Pictures: Comics That Make Kids Smarter, an anthology featuring 180 pages of original content by top industry talents, including George Washington: Action President by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey, Doctor Sputnik: Man of Science by Roger Langridge, and The Power of Print by Katie Cook. Each story is aligned with Common Core Standards to justify classroom use. A 150-page teacher’s guide, with a lesson plan for each comic, is available for free download at the publisher’s website.

3. Comics can engage multiple literacy skills essential to the media and digital platforms of our fast-developing Information Age!

Josh Elder sums up the strengths of comics as educational tools with his “Three E’s of Comics.”

  • Engagement: Comics impart meaning through the reader’s active engagement with written language and juxtaposed sequential images. Readers must actively make meaning from the interplay of text and images, as well as by filling in the gaps between panels.
  • Efficiency: The comic format conveys large amounts of information in a short time. This is especially effective for teaching content in the subject areas (math, science, social studies, etc.).
  • Effectiveness: Processing text and images together leads to better recall and transfer of learning. Neurological experiments have shown that we process text and images in different areas of the brain: known as the Dual-Coding Theory of Cognition. These experiments also indicate that pairing an image with text leads to increased memory retention for both. With comics, students not only learn the material faster, they learn it better.

power of comics“The most significant difference from a comic is that the graphic novel’s text is both written and visual,” educator Cat Turner explains of emerging research; “Every part of each frame plays a role in the interpretation of the text, and hence, graphic novels actually demand sophisticated readers.” Interest in comics and graphic novels as well as questions about how to use them in the classroom have encouraged the National Association of Comics Art Educators to gear up for a new initiative to help K–12 teachers and librarians understand and use comics in their schools. The NACAE website features the syllabi of existing courses, instructional units written by cartoonists and professors, and an online community of comics educators. “There really is a resurgence in this,” high school teacher Jean Diamond says of comics-based projects, “and it’s a fabulous way to get kids thinking creatively.” Even the Harvard Educational Review devoted a 2013 special issue to “Graphica: Comics Arts-Based Educational Research” as these programs have gained international recognition.

One wonderful book is The Power of Comics, a survey of critical approaches to comics, graphic novels, and sequential art which offers both foundational information and vocabulary to exploring the medium’s multiple educational opportunities for teens or even college students. This one-stop volume is amazingly valuable.

4. Comics can help people to retain information BETTER than traditional textbooks or training manuals!!

This is an idea that Scott McCloud has talked about forever, but now there’s a study that shows that comics may actually help people retain information BETTER than traditional text books. University of Oklahoma professor Jeremy Short co-authored a new study, titled “Graphic presentation: An empirical examination of the graphic novel approach to communicate business concepts.” Published in Business Communication Quarterly, 140 graduate students in a strategic management class were given two books covering the same subject. One set read an excerpt from the graphic novel Atlas Black: The Complete Adventure, the second read material from a traditional textbook covering the same topics. A short quiz showed that while both groups had absorbed the concepts of the texts equally, students who had read the graphic novel excerpt had better verbatim recall of the material. In a companion study, 80% of the students felt that the graphic novel treatment of the business topic “compared favorably” with the text-only treatment.

5. Comics can provide thought-provoking examinations of important social issues involving race, class, and gender!

Advanced students and university courses (like the one I’ve taught for years) also have much to gain from bringing college into classrooms. Modern graphic novels can break down disciplinary divides and enable discussions that cross between literature, art, history, politics, media, religious studies, and so on. The value that universities now place on creative thinking across subjects could be embedded much earlier, and using a medium that reflects forms and influences from many diverse cultures.

“As we become a more and more visual society, schools will recognize the usefulness of these novels,” said Stephen Weiner, the director of the Maynard Public Library in Maynard, Mass., and the author of two books on graphic literature. “And the more teachers who adapt to it, the better the response they’ll get from students.” Of course, choosing the right comics for your curriculum also comes with challenges and risk, but this helpful essay offers guidance for teachers looking to bring comics into their courses.


The comics of today not only have plenty to offer, they are gaining well-deserved recognition and awards. Take advantage of the natural affinity children have for comics and use them as a powerful teaching tool in your classroom. The following tips, tools, and resources will get you started.

Comics in the Classroom: 100 Tips, Tools, and Resources for Teachers 

COMICS IN THE CLASSROOM: a comic site for teachers, parents and librarians



  1. Thanks for coming to TWU! I enjoyed your presentation! Subbed.

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