Using computers to create a comic strip can give pupils a sense of power over their narratives, says Doug Dickinson
Comic strips are an underrated literary form, yet they are something that young children will be familiar with and may be their favourite thing to read.
So why can't they be a useful tool in the classroom to promote literacy? The comic strip format can be a great help in learning to write narrative succinctly. Many pupils already do story-boarding for digital animation purposes, so finding an electronic version is the logical next step.
There are numerous comic-strip generators available on the web. Most of them were not designed specifically for educational purposes but ToonDoo is. It's a free Web 2.0 software application that enables users to create simple one, two or three-panel cartoons quickly.
There are lots of characters and backgrounds, from simple stick figures to more detailed and colourful cartoon characters.
You can upload your own photos to incorporate into your cartoons, and there's a function that allows you to build your own characters. All you have to do is register online at www.toondoo.com.
It's exciting for children to control their writing and develop a sense of audience and, like other Web 2.0 technologies, such as blogs and wikis, this opens up possibilities of communication and peer review.
The usual audience for children's work is restricted to the classroom or occasionally home and the close community. But now creative collaboration beyond the school gates is entirely possible.
It's good for group work. The images chosen and the captions created both carry the narrative, so pupils could focus on different parts and then blend the results at the end. Once your film strip has been created it can be saved, kept private, shared with friends or even published to the world. There is a comments box at the bottom for people to give you feedback on your work.
Pupils can also combine ToonDoons to form ToonBooks, complete with virtual page turning. This function means that groups can combine strips to make a series. It's intuitive and simple to use, so you can concentrate on the quality of the literacy involved rather than get bogged down with the operation of the software.
Thought and speech bubbles are a distinctive feature of comic books. With these bubbles characters can think, remember and visualise. The shape and size of the bubbles and their position on the page can play a part in the development of the story.
In the old Tintin books, for example, the first part of the dialogue is always on the left of the picture and any action moves with the eye line from left to right, even going out of the frame sometimes.
In the absence of sound, the size of the bubble is a crucial indicator of volume - character shouting - or its importance in the narrative - perhaps a memory that is key to the plot.
Apart from ToonDoo, there is more comic-strip software that could be explored. Comic Creator, from ReadWriteThink, providers of teaching resources and materials, is free and is designed for children aged four to 18 (www.readwritethink.orgmaterialscomic).
Meanwhile, Plasq, the software developers, have come up with Comic Life, a download rather than a Web 2.0 application, for Mac or Windows. You can get a 30-day trial at plasq.comdownloads.
There are numerous comic-strip generators on the web, but on the whole they were not designed for classroom use.
Doug Dickinson is an independent ICT consultant.