Comic books and reluctant readers

The Lumière brothers showed their first actualities--very short films documenting things like a train's arrival--in France in December 1895.  The first comic strip published in a newspaper was also in 1895.

Since then movies have grown in scope and sophistication to include a range of genres and stylistic approaches, resulting in a number of acknowledged masterpieces.  Comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels have experienced similar growth since 1895, yet it's not uncommon to find well-meaning adults discouraging children from reading comics.

Owly book coverThe Canadian Council on Learning holds that "reading comic books can help develop many of the same literacy skills as reading prose-based books" including the ability to interpret symbols, to relate personally to narratives, to understand sequential events, and to predict further events in the story.  The report also states that "Comics, thanks to their strong visual element, have also shown promise as a teaching aid for second-language learners and students with learning difficulties."

A 1986 study of institutional use of comics in Nepal found that "the use of pictures greatly increased the number of meaningful ideas that could be communicated" and that "the pictures make the page less formidable and reinforce the written word," allowing comics to introduce "social issues in a dramatic, exciting way that could not be achieved through stories with a limited vocabulary."

Into the Volcano book coverDecades of studies (reproduced and confirmed both internationally and repeatedly, including by the Canadian Council of Learning) have shown that boys do not read as much as--or as well as--girls of the same age, that they do not tend to enjoy reading, and that their reading interests--science fiction, fantasy, adventure, instructional books, and comics--tend to be under-represented in schools.

If you think that those four facts might be interrelated, you're right: The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study found in 2001 and again in 2006 that young people who enjoy reading do it more, and that "students with the most positive attitudes toward reading had the highest reading achievement." 

Beowulf book cover A 2007 study of reluctant readers by the National Literacy Trust of the U.K. found that self-defined readers read more outside of school, and that "with the exception of magazines, self-defined non-readers believed that readers enjoy materials that they themselves do not read, such as fiction books, factual books, poetry and newspapers."

Those self-defined non-readers considered themselves "non-readers" because of a perceived disapproval of their reading choices.  They also perceived readers "in an unfavourable and undesirable light, such as being geeky and boring, while also seeing them as someone who is clever and who will do well."  And, furthermore, an earlier study by the same group found that "a fifth of pupils stated that not only were they not reading enough, but they also would not want to read more."

Secret Science Alliance book coverIn other words, a group of students had been unintentionally led to think that they were not clever, that their reading didn't count, and that reading what they enjoyed was unlikely to lead to success.  Yet students who didn't see themselves as readers didn't want to become readers--or, in other words, non-readers had begun to resign themselves to being unsuccessful.

If that conclusion seems like a stretch, consider that the 2002 U.K. report "Reading for Change" found that "children's interest in reading has more impact on their academic performance than their socio-economic group" and that " young people from even the most deprived backgrounds could outshine their more affluent peers if they regularly read books, newspapers and comics outside school."  

Out from Boneville coverSo what could possibly lead reluctant readers to change?

In 2006 the National Literacy Trust of the U.K. reported that "certain elements promote a love of reading," including "freedom to choose reading materials; a print-rich environment; access to a variety of texts; time for reading in school; encouragement to readers; and quiet, comfortable places to read."

Their 2007 report on reluctant readers found that self-defined non-readers do not think they have "the same opportunities for social interactions around reading as their reading peers," and also found that "opportunities for sharing and talking with others about books is an important factor in developing engaged, motivated readers."

Dragon Ball ZA 2007 report by the National Institute for Literacy in the U.S. states that "motivation to continue reading" is provided in part by prior success in reading, and that "motivation for reading, along with background knowledge, appropriate reading strategies, and interaction with others, contributes to reading engagement."

This same study found that frequent and regular "practice is the essential component of improving fluency" in reading and that "adolescents may lack motivation in school, but outside of school they may read magazines of personal interest, surf the Internet, and send and receive email."  The study recommended using a variety of print sources as a way of chaging students' view of reading into "a way to learn more about topics that are attractive to them."

Hikaru No Go book coverThe Reading to Learn Institute of the San Diego County Office of Education reports that "studies have shown that light reading (comics, romance books) does positively correlate with achievement" and that "activities such as teacher read-aloud, freedom of choice of reading materials, and owning books" all motivated reading.

So: what do you do if your son reads comics?  The studies above, and many more not mentioned, would recommend the following: encourage your son to read, allow him the freedom to read things he enjoys in his free time, strive for a print-rich environment (helped along by your local library--there's no need to buy everything), and make sure your son has opportunities to discuss what he has read (whether in class, with his friends, or with his family).

As a librarian, I'd also recommend reading books and other sources related to what your son likes to read--for instance, if he loves Spider-Man comics he might also be interested in chapter books on Spider-Man and some of his archivillains like Doctor Octopus and The Lizard.  If he loves superhero movies, he might be interested in books on how those movies were made (or how movies in general are made).  If he's particularly interested in the art in comics, he might be interested in learning how to draw superheroes from Marvel or from DC, or how to make his own comics, or even in the theory behind how comics work.

And if your son doesn't grow up to become the next Barack Obama (who, while a fan of Spider-Man, remained literate enough to head the Harvard Law Review), he could do worse than to become the next Ray Bradbury, John Updike, or Norman Mailer.

Recommended comics and manga for younger readers

Posted by JohnJ on March 7, 2011