The Power of Graphic Novels

The Power of Graphic Novels

As a former teacher and now mother of two, I’ve always known the value of reading to my children. I’ve read to them since before they were even born. My husband and I read regularly, and we have tons of books in our house. I have fond memories of devouring Nancy Drew books and the Anne of Green Gables series as a child and even pulled all nighters as an adult reading Harry Potter. Even though I taught many students who struggled with reading or could do it but just didn’t enjoy it, I just assumed that my children would become voracious readers, too.

So imagine my surprise when my oldest—who started out his early years enjoying to “read” books (telling his own stories through the pictures) and had lots of success with early sight word readers—entered kindergarten and seemed to lose interest in wanting to read on his own. He still loved to listen to books read aloud, but it was a struggle to get him to try reading books on his own.

I tried and tried to pique his interest with books about things he loved—trucks, sports, gross animals. He’d ask for those books to be read to him over and over, but he never wanted to dive into them on his own. 

In the middle of first grade, he came home from the school library with a book called Dog Man. And although I knew full well that graphic novels have been shown to engage reluctant readers and have lots of application for great literacy instruction in the classroom, ignorantly I just rolled my eyes and wrote the book off as being a “less than” reading choice. 

Boy, was I wrong!

For the first time ever, my son wouldn’t put the book down. He finished it in three days. It was funny, exciting, and full of action. He’d talk about what was going on in the book and show me parts he thought were cool. While I knew he couldn’t really read all of the words, the images helped him follow the story and supported his comprehension even when words were above his reading level. And although mostly pictures, Dog Man is a 240-page book. So when he was finished reading his confidence soared because he realized he had the stamina (my word, not his) to read a huge book on his own. Not only that, but all he could talk about was going back to the library next week to get book 2 in the series.

Peyton Johnson ReadingI was shocked and thrilled all at the same time.

Now, my son is a fantastic reader. He generally prefers graphic novels as his genre of choice, but is willing to try other types of books, too. This is especially true if he recognizes the name of the author from one of his graphic novel series. Anything Dav Pilkey (author of Dog Man) writes gets automatic consideration.

I know my story is obviously personal, but it’s certainly not unique. There are MANY students in our classrooms who think reading is boring, books are dumb, or aren’t willing to invest in reading because they haven’t found the right book to ignite that spark of joy in them.

After seeing my son’s reading take a 180-degree turn, here is what I believe graphic novels have the potential to do for struggling and reluctant readers:

  • Provide a fun and engaging reading experience for students
  • Scaffold the reading process with images to provide context clues that support students’ comprehension
  • Increase students’ confidence and stamina
  • Make complex vocabulary and content more accessible
  • Build fluency through engaging content that students want to read again and again…and again

If you are thinking about using graphic novels in your classroom, start by adding a small collection of titles to your classroom library. There are so many titles available at a variety of reading levels—just a quick Internet search will pull up hundreds ranging from reading levels at first grade through young adult. There are even graphic novel adaptions of classic novels such as The Diary of Anne Frank, Macbeth, and The Giver. (I wish I had these when I was reading Shakespeare in high school!!)

If you’re ready to go a little further, here are some instructional ideas for using any graphic novel in your classroom*.

  1. Use it as a springboard for creative writing projects like alternate endings, prequels and sequels, or further fleshing out a vague point in the story.
  2. Compare the graphic novel format to a traditional format of the same subject or topic.
  3. Find traditional literary devices such as metaphor, hyperbole, simile, or alliteration.
  4. Examine pacing, sequencing, or the chronology of events
  5. Debate the visual representations of good vs. evil, wrong and right, or other motifs presented.
  6. Discuss the themes represented, using the images to support interpretations or inferences.
  7. Act out or create a song about a scene.
  8. Discuss how the illustrator has chosen to portray the characters’ personalities.
  9. Use the existing art in a graphic to tell a new story by writing new dialogue and text.
  10. Create your own graphic novels! (Make sure to create a rubric, drafting procedure, and plan for revising and editing before students begin.)

No matter where you are as an educator the most important thing to remember about using graphic novels in the classroom is just do it—make graphic novels available for your students at all reading levels. You never know whom you will help unlock the magic of reading!


*Guest Contributor: Noelle Cristea
  Instructional ideas for using graphic novels in your classroom


Author bio

Sara Johnson

Sara Johnson, Educational Consultant

Sara Johnson, M.S.Ed., is a former elementary school teacher. She joined Teacher Created Materials to help create professional resources and curriculum for students worldwide. After overseeing the Shell Education imprint of TCM for nearly 6 years, she joined the Marketing team where she supported the department as the voice of the educator and led their philanthropic outreach efforts. She is now an educational consultant, supporting teachers through professional development and coaching.