30 November 2009 01:58 PM

The Case for Adding Graphic Texts to Your Read-Alouds

by rbavaria

Regular readers of the Dr. Rick Blog know that we occasionally have guest bloggers, experts in a particular field of education -- math, reading, study abroad, to name a few -- who give added dimension and insights to our blog and to our readers.  Today's guest blogger is Peter Gutiérrez, a spokesperson for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), a founding board member of Reading with Pictures, and an expert in a field of reading that has always been popular with kids and is now increasingly embraced as "serious" literature by adults and writers -- the graphic novel.  His thoughts are intriguing and make good sense.  Reading aloud with kids of any age is always a good activity. I've written about it often.  Check out my blogs on Reading Suggestions for Students,  Read Across America Young Readers Suggestions, Family Reading Activities, and Summer Reading Suggestions for more.  So when we sharpen kids' skills, pique their interest, introduce them to new ideas and forms of literature, and share quality time with them, what's not to like?

We welcome Peter Gutiérrez as our latest guest blogger.

-Dr. Rick


Since you’ve read the title of this post and have decided to keep reading, I have a question for you given your apparent interest in this topic: why would you ever read a comic book or graphic novel aloud to a child? The idea seems wrong-headed on several levels. First, don’t kids read comics all by themselves, without our encouragement? Second, what would be the literacy benefits of such a read-aloud—isn’t comics-reading really suited only to engagement and motivation? In other words, do comics really represent texts of sufficient complexity that they require adults to step in and lend a hand like this?


To be sure, there might be some truth to the position I’ve articulated above… but only if one presupposes that comics are somehow fundamentally different from other narrative texts, that by reading them aloud we might as well be dealing with the backs of baseball cards and cereal boxes. Or, being more charitable, perhaps the synopses of cartoons that one might find in TV listings. Yes, technically it’s reading but clearly a kind of minor league version whose usefulness lies solely in being a stepping-stone to reading more legitimate texts.


Actually, though, reading comic books and their more substantial cousins, graphic novels, is closer to reading short stories and other prose narratives. In both cases, there are titles we should embrace and, just as true, ones we should probably avoid. But in any event, we wouldn’t say that the only advantage of reading engaging YA or children’s literature is to motivate kids to continue on to other more sophisticated texts. Surely they possess aesthetic value in their own right, not merely as warm-ups to McSweeney’s and Dostoyevsky. And of course we never question ourselves when we read picture or chapter books to kids as part of a bedtime ritual, wondering whether we’re wasting our time on stuff that they might conceivably want to read on their own.


In case it’s not overbearingly evident, I’m an advocate of incorporating appropriate graphic texts of merit into children’s reading habits, both inside and outside of school. Not to supplant prose texts, and not just as a pseudo-remedial method of content delivery. Rather, graphic texts are one more pathway to literacy along with basals, leveled readers, independent reading titles in classroom libraries, articles in kid’s magazines and on Web sites, songs, canon and contemporary children’s literature, and so on.


Kids themselves don’t know this, however—and that’s where the opportunity lies for educators and parents. To kids, reading comics (which are still not widely used in schools) is something more akin to spending time on a PlayStation than to doing anything “educational.” As with the best kidlit, reading graphic stories comes across as a leisure activity, pure and simple. Which is why reading such texts aloud is so effective as a literacy enhancer:  children won’t notice that you’re reinforcing—and that they’re practicing—a wide range of skills, that you’re being a reading teacher rather than just a performer. Furthermore, as with any read-aloud, if your act of guiding kids through the text is done effectively, it will enhance their enjoyment of it and promote comprehension as well. It’s an interactive process that brings out humor, subtlety, and artistry that might otherwise go unnoticed. You can switch your focus from the print to the images and demonstrate how each supports, or even scaffolds, the reading of the other.


If that sounds familiar, maybe it’s because what I’m describing is not too far removed from how we read picture books aloud to kids. It’s a problematic comparison to make, however. That’s because traditionally this has been the argument for why we should avoid mentioning comics in the context of literacy:  since kids “grow out” of picture books, why should we encourage a form of storytelling that is also so heavily reliant on the visual?


The trouble with this line of reasoning is that it draws an equivalency between picture books and comics, as if they were variations on each other, that simply doesn’t exist. There’s a particular and precise storytelling language to that latter, one that is brilliantly outlined in Scott McCloud’s seminal 1993 work Understanding Comics. In short, using a variety of semiotic and typographical codes, the visuals in comics convey much more information than “illustrations” typically do, and that’s not even counting the critical role that the relationship between images plays. And partly as a result of all this complexity, the artwork in comics enjoys a rich connection to the print text.


Indeed, it’s this rich connection that enables graphic narratives to provide unique ways of building literacy skills. Yet we can’t reinforce all these skills by the sheer act of reading a comic or graphic novel aloud. The realization of the full literacy benefits requires some facilitative strategies that are specific to comics. In my next post I’ll cover some of these in detail, now that I’ve provided, if not a rationale then at least a fervent pitch for why you should include comics in your kids’ reading mix in the first place. Thanks for reading, and thanks to Dr. Rick and his team for letting me share my thoughts.


Peter Gutiérrez serves on the NCTE Commission on Media and is an NCTE spokesperson on graphic novels. He is also on the boards of The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) and Reading with Pictures, a non-profit dedicated to advancing the role of comics in K-12 education. His consulting clients include Pearson Education, Sesame Workshop, Scholastic, and Sylvan Learning.




Add comment


  • Comment
  • Preview

Blog Posting Rules

This blog is for the good of education - for students, for teachers and for parents. I very much value a two-way communication with you and welcome and encourage your comments and feedback. However, to facilitate a constructive conversation that is beneficial to everyone in this online community, I expect the same respect in your comments that I present in my blog.

Read the full Dr. Rick Blog Posting Rules.