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How Comic Books Can Give Your Kids Bilingual Super Powers

February 4, 2014

How Comic Books Can Give Your Kids Bilingual Super Powers

My kids don’t really believe me—because I’m now such a nutcase about books and reading—but when I was a child, I actually read very little.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I would avoid reading books—even when assigned in school—but I read all the comics I could get my grubby hands on. I read comics voraciously, and despite reading very few “real books” in my youth, the obsession I had with comics helped fuel my language development and my love of literacy. And though I now regret that I didn’t read more widely when I was young, the fact is, that period of comic book reading not only nurtured my language ability, it eventually led me, at an older age, to reach for the “real books” I had shunned as a child.

I thought of my early experience as a reader when I was tutoring a 15-year-old boy last year. (I tutor a number of children from Hiroshima International School, where I used to teach.) Like the teenage me (click for an embarrassing photo!), this boy was a reluctant reader, but in his case, he wasn’t reading comics, either. As a result, his language level was weak for his age and he was doing poorly in school. Because he didn’t enjoy reading and writing, he put only the bare minimum of effort into these activities, and instead would spend long hours playing online games.

How could I help him?

I hit a bull’s eye

Art Spiegelman on comics

It had been years since I read my last comic book—and I had no idea what was available for teens today—but I was confident that I could get him reading if I could just put the right comics in his hands. And so I went online, seeking suitable “graphic novels” (comics in book-length form) for his age, level, and interests.

My first couple of choices missed the mark—he read them, but was unimpressed. But when I came across the wildly imaginative work of Doug TenNapel, and gave him several books by this author, I hit a bull’s eye. “These are the best books I’ve ever read!” he told me. In fact, he was suddenly so hooked that he eagerly read them over and over again.

Meanwhile, I continued searching for fresh material that could feed his newfound reading habit and discovered the brilliant Bone series by Jeff Smith. I ordered all nine books in the series—a marvelous epic, full of adventure and humor—and the boy gobbled them right up, reading each one half a dozen times.

Of course, a diet of comic books alone won’t turn this boy into an “A” student. But I do believe they’ve had a significant impact on both his language development and his interest in reading. And my larger hope is that this breakthrough at the age of 15 will help pave the way, as he matures, for more independent reading in the future.

Batches of books

Jim Trelease on comics

Once I began to have some success in using graphic novels with my student, I started pondering, more seriously, the use of comic books with my own kids. Now that they were competent readers, could providing them with comic books on a regular basis get them reading more in English, our minority language, during the free time they had outside of Japanese school and homework? At that point, I was fairly familiar with graphic novels for older kids, but I didn’t know what was out there for younger children.

Again, I turned to the Internet and began combing through various lists and studying the reviews and sample pages at amazon. As I did with my student, I sought graphic novels that would match their age (currently, 9 and 6), level, and interests, and the first small batch of books I ordered—which included Zita the Spacegirl and Giants Beware!—were welcomed gladly and read eagerly. (See When You Screw Up Badly as a Parent for a sorry story in connection with Zita the Spacegirl.)

Based on this first promising experience, I decided to order a bigger batch of graphic novels and give them as gifts last Christmas. The nearly 20 books—which included the Lunch Lady series and the Amulet series—were devoured by both kids even more quickly than expected, and were largely finished by the end of the holiday break. It was almost “too successful,” in a way, because I had hoped this supply of books would last a bit longer!

Still, as a result of their enthusiasm for comic books, I decided to make graphic novels one of my main “bilingual resolutions” for this year, pledging to maintain a flow of fresh comic books into our house to the extent I realistically could. The more successful I was at this aim, I schemed, the more successful I would be at getting them to read independently and thus advance their own language ability.

In January, I received another batch of half a dozen graphic novels, courtesy of an amazon gift card from my aunt. (But this time I’m giving them out more gradually!) And the other day I placed an order for ten more, which should hopefully arrive in time for my son’s birthday in early March.

Again, my intention here isn’t for these comic books to replace the regular “text-heavy books” that I use for reading aloud and “shared reading” (when we read together each day, taking turns). I simply want them to read more in their minority language, despite the constraints on their time and energy, and comic books are proving to be highly effective in producing this result.

The case for comics

Stephen Krashen on comics

The three stories I shared above—involving me, my student, and my kids—may be anecdotal, but they mirror the findings of much hard research when it comes to the positive impact that comic books can have on language development and enthusiasm for reading.

In his compelling book The Power of Reading, the noted linguist and researcher Stephen Krashen reviews a range of studies on comic books and draws these conclusions…

The case for comics is a good one:

The texts of comics are linguistically appropriate, and pictures can help make the texts comprehensible.

Research shows that comics have no negative effect on language development and school achievement.

Comic book readers do at least as much book reading as non-comic book readers. There is, moreover, suggestive evidence that comics may serve as a conduit to book reading.

Krashen’s whole argument in The Power of Reading is that children, if given the chance to read for pleasure, will become active readers, and as active readers, will develop all-around competence in that language as a matter of course. And what better way is there to kindle this pleasure than through comic books? Again, I quote Krashen…

When children read for pleasure, when they get “hooked on books,” they acquire, involuntarily and without conscious effort, nearly all of the so-called “language skills” many people are so concerned about: They will become adequate readers, acquire a large vocabulary, develop the ability to understand and use complex grammatical constructions, develop a good writing style, and become good (but not necessarily perfect) spellers.

When we read, we really have no choice—we must develop literacy. We rarely find well-read people who have serious problems with grammar, spelling, and so on. They write acceptably well because they can’t help it; they have subconsciously acquired good writing style as well as the conventions of writing.

Implications for parents

Desmond Tutu on comics

To me, the implications for raising bilingual children—particularly with limited time and energy when it comes to supporting the minority language—are very clear…

1. Comic books are a powerful, child-friendly resource.
In this era of visual media—TV, video games, the Internet—the visual nature of comic books holds a natural appeal for kids. Such books, while promoting language development, can provide “training wheels” to become more confident and competent readers, willing and able to tackle more “text-heavy books,” too.

Not only can comic books nurture language ability—independent of a parent’s direct involvement—they also introduce concepts like narrative structure and character development, strengthen analytical skills and critical thinking, encourage discussion of cultural and personal issues, and often inspire children to create their own comic books, thus promoting art, writing, and self-expression. (Our graphic novels motivated my kids to create, entirely on their own, a little comic book called “Captain Spiky.”)

2. Comic books should form an important part of our home library.
Ideally, a steady stream of comic books—suitable for the child’s evolving age, level, and interests—would flow into the home from the time the child begins to read and continue right through the teenage years. This supply of comic books is in addition to “regular books”; comic books should supplement and inspire the reading of “regular books,” not replace it.

I realize this ideal is a lofty challenge for anyone (and particularly when such resources are limited in the minority language): it demands regular time to search out suitable titles and ongoing investment that adds up quickly. (I’m afraid we’ll be eating our books by the end of the year!) Still, whatever efforts we can make in this direction will surely help strengthen our children’s language development and their love of literacy.

3. Comic books should play a central role in our strategic efforts.
By taking advantage of the natural appeal of comic books, we can increase the amount of time our kids spend reading in the minority language. And as the research shows, this form of “light reading” holds the power to nurture language ability, foster a positive attitude toward books in general, and serve as a bridge to “heavier reading” as time goes by.

To my mind, one of the most effective things we can do, once our kids begin to read, is to implement ways to encourage independent reading in the minority language so that children receive additional exposure to print in the “cracks” of each day. The many versions of captive reading are certainly helpful toward this end, and the use of comic books should be seen as another powerful means of achieving the same aim.

See my suggestions for good graphic novels in English!

Recommended Resources: Captivating Comic Books for English Learners

How about you? Did you read comic books as a child? Would your children enjoy reading comic books in their minority language?

1 Alisa February 4, 2014 at 9:34 pm

Love it. I think the key to getting kids to read is hooking their interest! Per my resolution, I’m working harder on reading to and with my boys this year, and to that end, picked up a stack of children’s books at the thrift stores last time I was in the U.S. (Trying to keep my goals budget-friendly!)

I was amazed what a hit “Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot” series was with my 8-year-old. He gulped them down, independently, without any prodding from me! One of the reasons he loves reading in French more than in English is because of the Astérix and Tintin comic books. So I’ll be looking forward to hearing some specific recommendations in English when you get a chance to post those!

On a more general note, my husband and I notice so many differences between kids whose parents read to/with them and encourage reading and kids whose parents don’t; homes where there are books, and homes where there aren’t. My husband wasn’t much of a reader growing up, as he grew up in one of those book-less homes, but he’s really taken to reading with our sons, and I think it’s a great benefit for our kids to have both of us on board. Reading “clicked” for my 5-year-old a few months ago, and I love it!

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2 Adam February 5, 2014 at 10:09 am

Alisa, thanks for your comment. It sounds like you’re doing really well with your resolution. I bet you’ll find that your boys will eat up good graphic novels in English.

And you’re absolutely right about the distinct difference between children who come from homes with an active “book culture” and kids from homes which lack this emphasis on literacy. When I was a teacher at Hiroshima International School, it generally wasn’t too hard to pick out the children who were read to by their parents and had a healthy home library: they were more articulate, had a larger vocabulary, were stronger readers and writers, knew more about the world, and showed a keener interest in books.

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3 Tatyana February 5, 2014 at 1:33 am

Fantastic article. Comic books often get marginalized, but they are an excellent tool for bilingual children. Since minority language is usually weaker it’s so hard sometimes to find material that is age appropriate and interesting but at the same time simple enough for a child with lagging language skills to understand. Pictures provide that visual aid that helps a child figure things out by context and few enough words for them to not be intimidated. Gateway drug indeed.

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4 Adam February 5, 2014 at 10:16 am

Tatyana, these are important points and I appreciate you adding them to the discussion. I agree, from a child’s perspective, there’s a world of difference between a comic book, with its colorful pictures and bite-size text, and a “regular book” with blocks of dense print and few illustrations!

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5 Katie February 5, 2014 at 9:19 pm

I love this. Thanks for sharing. I never really thought about purchasing comic books for my kids. The oldest is just now starting to read, and I think he would really like comics. Does anyone know of any comics that are published in Spanish? That is our minority language.

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6 Adam February 6, 2014 at 8:21 am

Katie, I imagine others will be more familiar with comic books in Spanish, but here’s a start…

http://www.amigoman.com/

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7 Nathalie February 6, 2014 at 2:51 am

Funnily enough I have recently got some Tintin adventures out trying to spark my boys interests in reading (whether minority or majority language). They are also great for general culture because they make reference to something that really happened/a famous character in history (at the moment the legend of the Yeti / climbing the Himalayas – first human on the moon) so you can then stretch to looking up that part of history. I find it also sparks interest in drawing.

I remember really enjoying all the Tintins when I was about 12!

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8 Adam February 6, 2014 at 8:23 am

Nathalie, I haven’t read much Tintin myself, but I’ve put it on my list for future orders!

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9 Ana Lynn February 6, 2014 at 3:00 am

You are definitely onto something here. My son was as thrilled about reading as a fish being out of the water. I struggled with getting him to read anything, monthly book reports at school were his nightmare, the family reading time was a torture. Then my husband had an idea that was a huge hit. Our son is a huge Spiderman fan. My husband suggested we buy him a couple of Spiderman comic books and lo and behold our son was actually reading. He is still not thrilled about book reports but at least family reading time is much more fun for him now!

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10 Adam February 6, 2014 at 8:28 am

I’m glad to hear about your good success, Ana Lynn. My son is a fan of super heroes, too, as I described in…

POW! How Super Heroes Strengthened My Son’s Bilingual Ability

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11 Louise February 9, 2014 at 5:15 pm

Great article! Some food for thought for me here, as my youngest is not reading at all for pleasure, in Japanese or English. Maybe graphic novels are the key… By the way, super cute photo of a teen Adam!

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12 Adam February 10, 2014 at 6:39 am

Louise, I’m glad this post offered some inspiration. I expect you’ll find good graphic novels very motivating.

As for my photo as a young teen, I’d like to recreate that hairstyle, but I no longer have enough hair!

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13 Barry July 6, 2014 at 11:41 am

My son is a big fan of Tintin and Asterix! Recently he’s become hooked on the Ultimate Spider-man series which is for teens. I still read comic books myself (Judge Dredd) from time to time so naturally I wanted my son to enjoy this format.

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14 Adam July 8, 2014 at 2:04 pm

Barry, I’ve heard good things about Tintin and Asterix, so I definitely should look at them more closely. They’re time-tested comic books, aren’t they, and I bet we would enjoy them, much like your son.

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15 Mel McMurrin April 15, 2016 at 1:28 am

Yes! I used comics to improve my Spanish and German, and then graduated to Diary of A Wimpy Kid which is about 10-20% comic, but has just enough pictures to keep the context and interest alive. Highly recommend for kids or adult language learners.

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