Comic relief

6th June 2003 at 01:00
Is it a bird? Is it a plane?No, it's a literacy tool, write Paul Rowe and Roy Watson-Davis

Over the coming months, most of your pupils and probably a number of your colleagues will be watching the annual round of Hollywood blockbusters.

This year, the screens will be filled with the likes of X-Men and The Incredible Hulk, and a whole host of other characters who started life as comic book characters.

Today, the comic book is regarded as literature's poor relation, something only slightly more worthwhile than a computer game, and yet it has enormous potential as a tool to engage and motivate pupils in the classroom.

Promoting literacy skills Teachers want to nurture a love of reading in their pupils, but set texts often fail to spark interest, particularly in boys. Superhero comics can win over reluctant readers. If you supervise silent reading sessions, keep a pile of old comic books for those who forget to bring a book. The fact that the text comes with pictures provides a bridge between narratives that boys in particular enjoy on television and the books they will have to study in formal lessons.

A scaffold for sustained writing Using part of a comic strip, ask pupils to write the story by adding the speech, thought and narrative balloons that you have masked out. This will encourage pupils to develop ideas on motivation and character. Find cartoons that go with your subject - for example, for social science, satirical cartoons from publications such as Punch and Private Eye. This will push pupils into discussions about purposeintention - useful for citizenship.

Develop thinking skills The strength of most enduring superheroes is that while they exist in an impossible world, their universe has a sharp internal logic. Asking pupils to devise their own superhero will promote imaginative thinking, but try also asking them to account for their character's super powers. This offers a chance to explore scientific principles. It also allows pupils to explore motives of character and cartoonist, helping them to see different points of view and often disguised motives.

Exploring PSHE through comic books Most superhero comics present clear moral messages. If you wish to explore prejudice, try X-Men, in which outcast mutants try to protect a world that fears them. Spiderman explores bullying, since his human persona is a socially awkward bookworm. Spiderman comes with a core message worth instilling in pupils: "with great power comes great responsibility".

Comics offer a range of learning experiences, opportunities for literacy development, and starting points for bigger issues. Dig a few out and see where they take you.

Paul Rowe is a consultant in Dorset. Roy Watson-Davis is an advanced skills teacher in the London borough of Bexley

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