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
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
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
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
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.