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Comic strips in lessons - Helping students to learn through play

Children love comics. And Bill Zimmerman, a leading author of interactive books aimed at cultivating children's imaginations, believes that teachers should be making use of that passion.

He is helping them to do just that with his website Make Beliefs Comix ( Launched in 2006 as a place where children and adults can "have fun", it has since found a following among educators, according to Zimmerman.

"The best educators understand that playing is learning. Parents and teachers can use the process of creating comic strips to encourage students to practise language, reading, writing and communication skills," he says.

The website enables the straightforward creation of three- or four-panel cartoon strips that use a choice of characters. Speech and thought bubbles can be written in seven languages.

As use of the website has grown among teachers, Zimmerman has added a range of resources to show how the comic strips can be used in lessons. These include ways of promoting collaboration, practising conversation skills, learning foreign languages and introducing creative writing.

"Many educators encourage students to create comic strips about a concept they have learned in class, or to talk about characters they have read (about) in a book," Zimmerman says.

"Educational therapists also use the site with children with special needs, such as those on the autism spectrum, to provide a way to help the children communicate and learn about emotions. Each of the comic characters on the site shows four different emotions that children can choose from for their comic stories.

"Also, children with limited reading skills are not as overwhelmed in dealing with the size of a comic strip as they may be with a book of many pages."

Recognition for Make Beliefs Comix has come from Google and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which selected it as one of the world's most innovative websites in fostering literacy and reading.

Teachers, parents and education bodies have also provided positive feedback. The comments section on the website is full of praise, such as "A great tool for motivating students" and "It's fantastic and I have added it to my favourites list to use in teaching".

Zimmerman plans to add new characters to Make Beliefs Comix in the next few months.

The remit and the reach of the website is expanding gradually and Zimmerman hopes that more educators will use its potential to improve learning. "Perhaps the most important benefit of the site to young people is the opportunity to express all the wonderful, creative ideas within them," he says.

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