Comics help to zap illiteracy

12th November 2004 at 00:00
The Reading Agency suggests using Japanese fantasy cartoons to improve pupils' literacy. Adi Bloom reports.

Sex, violence and fantastical creatures have long been staples of English literature. But generally they appear in written form. Now the Reading Agency, an organisation that promotes literacy, is encouraging schools to buy Manga comics, the Japanese cartoon novels notorious for their violent, and often adult, content.

Mangas depict wide-eyed heroes, often in varying states of undress, as they battle to overcome adversity or fantasy villains from futuristic worlds.

Text appears in speech bubbles or in brief descriptive passages, and is unavoidably limited. "Master, you are bleeding," says a character in The Kung Fu Sisters. "Sob. Sob."

The Reading Agency is sending an annotated list of 150 recommended Manga titles, deemed suitable for teenagers, to all libraries and schools.

Ruth Harrison, of the Agency, said: "Mangas have the reputation of being about sex and violence, but I don't think that's justified. There is a huge range of storylines, covering relationships, football, fantasy horror and sci-fi.

"A lot of the stories are quite sophisticated, with complicated storylines and development of different characters. It's more subtle than just a hero going out to battle evil."

Tony Sewell, education consultant, said: "Aren't they very violent?"

But he said that if the aim was to recruit reluctant readers, this may not be a disadvantage: "Boys are interested in violence, so it's a way of engaging them. I don't think boys read comics any more. They're not going to be interested in The Beano, so you need to offer something that will grab them."

Barefoot Gen, a two-part Manga telling the story of the atom bomb exploding over Hiroshima, is used in some British schools to teach pupils about the end of World War Two.

But some teachers are more worried about the form. Manga layout follows the Japanese pattern of reading from right to left.

Jocelyn Charters, English teacher at The Rickstones school, in Witham, Essex, said: "If pupils are going to develop any kind of reading stamina, they should be reading more substantial texts. Libraries should be spending their money on books we recommend."

Helen Pallett, literacy co-ordinator at Djanogly city academy, in Nottingham, already uses fantasy battle games to engage reluctant readers.

"Anything that gets pupils reading is a good idea," she said. "You have to tap into their interests. Getting them to admit that reading is cool, and that they enjoy it, is the first step.

"Once they've got over that barrier, you can easily get them to move on to graphic novels, and then to other books."

Trevor Millum, of the National Association for the Teaching of English, draws comparisons with the Asterix and Tintin cartoons, which many children are advised to read in order to improve their French vocabulary.

"Whether or not they're improving their vocabulary, at least they're reading," he said.

"As long as it contains a more interesting vocabulary than 'bam' and 'ouch', I can't see a problem."

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