Using comics to teach literacy

Essays by Shalon Sims on education, creative writing and literacy

Using comics to teach literacy

Diversity, Multimodality & Comics

Teaching children’s literature using sequential visual narratives

Part 1: How comics were squeezed out of my life

Until recently, perhaps the last five years, I looked down on comics and visual narratives. As a young reader, I read Archie and some Wonderwoman; however, I didn’t relate to the male protagonists of most comics, and found Archie-style comics repetitive and boring. By nine or ten years old, comics were already firmly classified as ‘baby’ books.

As I grew, my tastes in literature narrowed in direct proportion to the extent my English teachers focused on “classic” literature—Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Dickens, etc. I took the hint embedded in the hidden curriculum: classics good, comics bad.

Later on, in university, my tastes narrowed further as I studied Joyce, Hemmingway and Tolstoy. I grew up in a low income home with a mother who read murder mysteries voraciously. I wanted a different life and knew to get that life, I had to quit reading ‘trash.’ So I took my professors’ prejudices a step further: I stopped reading fiction entirely. 

That was how comics were squeezed out of my life.

Excerpt from Hulk, 2016 #9, Marvel

About five years into my fiction strike, lacking options, I picked up a novel by Ursula Le Guin from a dusty window ledge in an old farmhouse. Reading The Left Hand of Darkness that summer was a mind-blowing experience that changed the course of my life. I realized that fiction, especially speculative fiction, can be deeply philosophical; it can open up new ways of seeing the world, and make people question their beliefs and values, and how society operates. 

Since then it’s been a slow process of opening back up to literature I had been taught to look down upon: science fiction, horror and now also comics.

Comics have been the last bastion of my prejuidice, due in large part to the way they tend to stereotypically present females. Especially Manga is something I’ve always viewed as sexualizing women and had disdain for. 

However, in the last two years I’ve started to actively explore comics and graphic novels as they’ve bubbled up in my awareness. With personal and often hilarious web comics, minicomics, graphic medicine, and of course popular long-form comic stories (graphic novels), I’ve begun to see how comics can contain deeply meaningful stories that explore the human condition.

What finally cemented the deal for me was the realization that I wanted to tell part of my latest novel in comic form. In pursuit of that, I’m taking a comics creative writing course, and have been studying the medium extensively.

What I’ve found is that comics are uniquely suited to address difficult topics in ways that are accessible and engaging. They have a fascinating history and complexity that belies their apparent simplicity. They have excellent educational applications, and most delightfully they, they are a great source of authentic diverse fiction. I’ll go into these features of comics in more detail in parts 2 and 3 of this essay.

What is a Graphic Novel, by Jessica Abel

Comics vs. Graphic Novels

I’ve made a conscious decision to use the word comics in this essay, rather than graphic novel or sequential narrative. The choice is a conscious attempt to rid myself of the literary and literacy prejudices that were instilled in me by my formal schooling. 

The foundation of those prejudices is the idea that literacy and literature is a hierarchy rather than a spectrum. That there is literature and then there are ‘trashy’ beach reads. That there are academic essays, and then there are grandma’s recipes. That there are graphic novels and then there are comics. 

The term graphic novel was developed by one of the fathers of comics, Will Eisner. According to Chute (2017), Eisner wanted his comic book to be “received in bookstores alongside “regular” books… so he came up with the description “a graphic novel” to emphasize its literary qualities.” Chute goes on to say, “Most cartoonists I know don’t love the phrase “graphic novel,” for several reason…. One reason is that it can seem pretentious, like a bid for prestige that attaches to the term “novel.” 

For this reason, I’ve chosen to stick with the word comics. 

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

Part 2: Comics and multimodal learning  

So why all this focus on my decision to use the term comics instead of graphic novel? I believe it’s this attachment to traditional literacies, novels in particular, that runs counter to my new understanding of multiliteracies and multimodal learning, and reinforces my childhood experience of shame around my reading choices.

In the past, literacy was defined, basically, as the ability to read and write. In today’s world, literacy is about being able to communicate. According to Kress (2003), literacy in the modern age involves encoding and decoding meaning from a variety of different symbol systems. This can include things like music, videogames, social media, dancing, playing sports and even cooking.

My personal definition of literacy is a little broader, and perhaps a tad outlandish, but I’m partial to it:

My definition of literacy

Literacy refers to the communication skills that empower us to participate in society as active and engaged people who can navigate and move within and between various social spaces comfortably and effectively.

My definition goes beyond communication and focuses on the goal of communication, which is at its most basic, to feel good. Whether we use sign language or English, whether we read murder mysteries or Doestoyovski, whether we write academic papers or recipe cards, the point is to engage in and contribute to life, our families, and our society. 

As a teacher candidate, learning about multi-literacies this past year has been both exciting and uncomfortable. I’ve had to address my prejudices head on, and come to terms with the fact that I’ve been very closeminded and judgemental. I’m very uncomfortable admitting that my student’s gaming abilities are a valid type of literacy in which they are fluent.

However, I’m simultaneiously excited by the opportunity to do things differently, to outgrow my prejudice and see a new way of looking at literacy, and learn new ways to engage my students in building on their interests and literacy skills. But where to start?

Comics, storyboarding and multimodality

Why not start with comics? Comics are, by their nature, multi-modal, containing both text, visuals and one could argue, sound (Splat! Kaboom!). Comics have excellent classroom applications, one of which is storyboarding.

Storyboarding requires “visualizing the setting, characters and actions, then describing that visualization through written words or the use of drawn or photographed images. And finally, planning the captioning, narrative or dialogue that will go with the visual renderings” (Delveccio, 2020).

Sounds a lot like a comic to me, except perhaps in purpose. One of the purposes of storyboards is to guide the creation of something else—a story, an idea, a plan. A storyboard is not usually the finished product, but rather a stepping stone. 

But another purpose of storyboards (and other multimodal responses), is to give students an opportunity to reflect on a given text (I use the word text in a broad sense) and activate their knowledge by transforming the text into a different mode. In other words, personalizing it—making meaning. 

And isn’t this the purpose of all art? To reflect on something and activate our knowledge by transforming it into something meaningful? 

Reflection and personalization are the cornerstones of learning, I’ve come to understand. Without them, we’re simply memorizing. 

Excerpt from Making Comics, by Lynda Barry

Reflecting on reflection

As a student, when my teachers assigned reflection as an activity, I interpreted that as an invitation to fart around. Yes, free time! (fist pump)

No one explained how reflection would benefit me, and it seemed, especially in comparison to worksheets, pop-quizzes and flashcards, to be a supremely lazy way to “learn.” What was the point of it, anyway?  

Now, after a year in the B.Ed and having taken quite a few education theory and practice courses, I’m starting to realize how essential reflection is in the learning process. I could go so far as to say that reflection is the foundation of learning, without which nothing useful or worthwhile can be built. If I can’t help my students find a way to make what they’re learning personally meaningful, can I really say that they’re learning?

And while I believe that reflection is the engine that drives learning, it’s not just any type of reflection, as my childhood experiences show. 

In her article The Impact of Descriptive Feedback on Learning and Teaching, Rodgers (2006) gives an incedibly thoughtful model of reflection that includes much of what might be essential in a well-crafted multimodal response. This model delighted me, so I’d like to spend some time reflecting on it.

The first step to reflection is presence—to be present with an experience. To be in the moment. Then we describe what we experienced, which I see as a semiotic journaling where we are reminded by Rodgers that “one is able to describe an event or a person only to the extent to which he or she has been present to it/him/her.” [Pardon the awkward pronouns] So, the next step after description is to think critically about the experience, and this means relating the experience to our personal understanding of the world. Then we take action. We create. We protest. We respond.

Giving students opportunities to respond in multimodal ways ensures they have a higher chance of success in all the parts of reflection. Multimodal responses draws on their strengths to personalize the information (the experience) we’ve had as a class, thereby making it more likely they will learn something.

This brings us to Part 3 of my essay, which explores comics and diversity.

Excerpt from Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

Part 3: Diversity in Comics

One of the most frequent things I hear about comics in the classroom is that they level the playing field, helping “diverse” students enter the class discourse.  These “diverse” students are often painted as having “deficits” in their learning, such as ESL, CLD, ELL, reluctant readers, refugees, special needs students. Whatever you want to call them, they’re viewed as requiring easier texts. 

But comics aren’t easy, and it’s a tragic misconception that they are. Comics can challenge all students in new and exciting ways. And best of all, they challenge students while engaging them. 

There is something disarming about comics that makes them especially suited to deal with very serious and difficult topics. Perhaps it’s just the style of drawing. The cartoon faces. 

Scott McCloud (1994) would say that cartoons use iconography, abstract symbols, that enable the reader to identify more easily with the character/world and make their own meaning from the text. According to McCloud, comics require more input from the reader to fill in the blanks. Comics are not just the combination of words and image (that would mean a picture book is a comic), but rather something that supersedes both. 

Excerpt from Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud

I think it’s this use of iconography that enables comics creators to deal with very dark subjects. Take Maus, for example. The characters are animals, but Spiegelman commonly depicts himself as a man wearing a mouse mask. The ties holding the mask on are often visible from the back. On first glance the following sequence is funny, but on further reflection it’s quite disturbing. This is where Spiegelman finally takes his mask off to reveal what’s underneath. 

Excerpt from MetaMaus, by Art Spiegelman & Hillary Chute

It reminds me of that scene in A Few Good Men where Jack Nicholson screams, “You can’t handle the truth!” 

And maybe that’s the truth. Comics make it possible for the reader to enter into these dark spaces that we can’t normally handle. Is it a cop-out? Maybe. But should we have to read heavy historical tomes of the Holocaust to call ourselves informed about it? What is important for us and our students to know about the Holocaust? Some facts and figures, yes, but more importantly the human impact.

Authentic Voices in Comics

One of the key features of Maus that makes it a truly rich educational resource is that it’s the tale of a survivor. It was an #ownvoices text before there ever was such a hashtag. 

In the TedTalk, The Danger of a Single Story, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about how we build up narratives of other people, groups, ethnicities that choke off the ability for those people to tell their own, nuanced stories. By doing so, we remove their humanity. Even though we might mean well and might even be trying to help a good cause, as outsiders we often just confirm our biases.

As Mallan (2013) so aptly put it in her essay on narrative empathy, “to consider ourselves empathetic makes us feel good about ourselves, but often in a simplistic way that requires binaries such as victim and saviour, superior and inferior, and that acknowledges individual and often one-off acts of empathy while failing to address institutional, corporate, systemic abuses of power that are much more toxic, powerful, and oppressive than anything an individual can commit or, conversely repair.” 

The solution to this narrative blindness is to let people tell their own stories. To listen to people tell their own stories. That’s why it’s so important to have authentic own voice stories. 

And this is where comics are so incredibly rich and resourceful. There is something about the history of the medium, its publishing, and perhaps the medium itself that has opened the door for people from all walks of life to share diverse, own voices stories that shock, haunt and engage. 

The majority of diverse comics I’ve seen, from a memoir of what it’s like to live with bipolar, or the memoir of growing up as a Chinese American, to the memoir of growing up in Iran in the Islamic Revolution, comic creators don’t give pat answers to life’s problems, or simplistic renderings of these complex life experiences. They show explicitly the struggle, paradox, and confusion that inhabits the forming of identity and what it’s like to live in a world as an ‘other.’ 


Going back to school as an adult to become a teacher has been an amazing opportunity to examine what I learned as a child, and how I learned, and to hold that up to some scrutiny. The saying is that we teach how we were taught. 

Another saying is that we teach who we are. I’d like to think that I can change who I am and how I teach, and that starts with the difficult work of being honest. And that requires reflection. I’m grateful for this opportunity to reflect on my personal journey with comics, and I hope that perhaps this has been fruitful for you as well. 

Works Cited

Adichie, C.N.

(2009). The Danger of a Single Story. TedTalk,

Chute, H. L., & Panter, G.

 (2017). Why comics?: From underground to everywhere.

Delveccio, J.

(2020). Multimodal Responses to Literature Across the Curriculum [Module 9 Notes]. LLED 441: Teaching Children’s Literature, a UBC course.

Kress, G. R.

(2003). Literacy in the new media age. London: Routledge.

Mallan, K.

(2013). Empathy: Narrative empathy and children’s literature. In (Re)imagining the world children’s literature’s response to changing times. Brisbane, Australia: Springer Berlin Heidelberg. (chapter 9)

McCloud, S.

(1994). The invisible art: Understanding comics. NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

Rodgers, S.

(2006). Attending to Student Voice: The Impact of Descriptive Feedback on Learning and Teaching. Curriculum Inquiry, 36, 2, 209-237.

Spiegelman, A.

(2011). Maus: A survivor’s tale. New York: Pantheon Books.

Spiegelman, A.

(2011). MetaMaus. New York: Pantheon Books.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *