Storytelling is one of humanity’s oldest pastimes, and for good reason. We’re naturally drawn to stories of all sorts; narratives are attractive, partly because they give us a linearity and a causality that are often lacking in real life, helping us make better sense of the world around us. Hence, storytelling can make the perfect teaching tool. When people think of stories, the first thing that might pop into their mind is words. Visual storytelling, however, has predated oral tradition and it remains a highly effective way of conveying information. A picture’s impact is strong and immediate. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a magic blend of image and text?
Well, there is. Comics have been here all along. For years, they were looked down upon and treated with varying levels of mistrust. Then they slowly claimed their place in the mainstream and started fighting for their right to be viewed not just as a legitimate form of art, but also as highly efficient instructional tools. A comic’s main ingredients are words and pictures. Pictures not as illustrations that complement the story. Pictures as the story: a marriage of pictures and words whose fruit is a meaningful story with a beginning, a middle and an end.
Comics and learning
Studies seem to back up the potential of comics in education, as they have long pointed to the educational benefits of visual aids and storytelling; comics in classrooms make more sense than you think. In a 2004 study conducted by Liu (reference below), text accompanied by images was found to bring better information recall than text alone. Other researchers found that learning from comics correlated with a boost in motivation compared to learning from a textbook (Hosler & Boomer, 2011). The benefits of visual narratives in science communication are also being researched by neuroscientist and comic artist Matteo Farinella (2018). For whatever reason, information presented in this format just seems to “stick”.
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This is especially true for some pupils, such as reluctant readers and dyslexic students who struggle with big blocks of text. The eye-catching visuals, the quirky humour, the simple language and the narrative structure of a comic can draw them in and take them on a journey where they learn as they go, often without being aware of it. At the very least, a comic can boost their motivation to read, which in itself is no small feat: numerous studies have shown a positive correlation between reading motivation and reading comprehension (Clinton, 2015; Guthrie et al., 2006). There is much potential there, and educators around the world are catching up.
Comics are slowly finding their way into the classroom as an effective tool to get children reading. In the US, the Maryland Comic Book Initiative and The Comic Book Project are great examples of that. The latter is a literacy initiative led by Dr Michael Bitz, first piloted in the US in 2002, which has since developed into a large-scale successful after-school programme that has helped over 100,000 pupils in 15,000 schools around the world. Students who take part in the project get to design, script and publish their own comics.
There are so many ways to experiment with comics in your classroom: from getting kids to read a comic story about photosynthesis and filling in the blanks, to coming up with their own characters representing viruses or cell structures. Almost any sequential process can be turned into a comic story. And you don’t need to create everything from scratch. There are lots of comic-creator tools online or specialised print educational materials.
Just give it a go and see what happens. (Spoiler: the kids are going to love it – and so are you.)
Ellie Stefanidi is social media manager for Glasgow-based Dekko Comics
Clinton, V. (2015). Examining Associations Between Reading Motivation and Inference Generation Beyond Reading Comprehension Skill. Reading Psychology, 36(6), 473–498.
Farinella, M. (2018). The Potential of Comics in Science Communication. Journal of Science Communication, 17(01).
Guthrie, J. T., Wigfield, A., Humenick, N. M., Perencevich, K.C., Taboada, A., & Barbosa, P. (2006). Influences of Stimulating Tasks on Reading Motivation and Comprehension. The Journal of Educational Research, 99(4), 232–246.
Hosler, J., & Boomer, K.B. (2011). Are comic books an effective way to engage nonmajors in learning and appreciating science? CBE—Life Sciences Education, 10(3), 309–317.
Liu, J. (2004). Effects of Comic Strips on L2 Learners’ Reading Comprehension. TESOL Quarterly, 38(2), 225.