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How Graphic Novels Teach Important Reading Skills

By Laura Smith

I have not always been a reader of graphic novels. And though from a young age I always read the “funnies” page in our local newspaper and the cartoons from “The New Yorker” when it was delivered each month, I couldn’t get into longer comics or graphic novels. I much preferred the written word. It wasn’t until searching for a more accessible way to teach Homer’s formidable Odyssey that I discovered the wealth, depth, and breadth of the world of graphic novels. 

Once I started reading graphic novels, I quickly realized how valuable they are in teaching the skills of reading and making the things “good readers” do more visible and accessible to students. Consider the skill of inference, something readers need no matter what text they are engaged with. In a graphic text, the images, in concert with words, invite the reader to make inferences. What can we tell about the character based on their facial expression? What happened between the first and second panel on that page? (The responses to those questions require inferences!) We can then go a step further and ask the reader to tell us how they came to their response – what did they see on the page that led them to that conclusion? (Doing this builds another important good reader skill, the ability to point to specific textual evidence!) Teaching students about these skills in the context of a graphic story can help them translate those same skills to the reading of text-only works. 

I was thrilled to develop VHS Learning’s Graphic Novels course which allowed me to put into practice my convictions about using graphic text to teach essential reading skills. Alongside developing their skills of inference and citing textual evidence, students will read graphic novels in a variety of genres (memoir, sci-fic, and realistic fiction), helping them understand how this medium can encompass a wide range of stories. And as they develop as readers, they will develop as writers – creators – of their own stories, working to craft an original graphic short story that draws on literary techniques as well as artistic ones. 

I am now a convert – not only when wearing my teacher hat, but also when seeking out books for personal enjoyment. I’ll leave you with a few of my favorites: Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka, the March Trilogy by John Lewis, et. al., Heartstopper (all Volumes!) by Alice Oseman, and The Odyssey: A Graphic Novel by Gareth Hinds.