Even if you’re not a parent or an educator, it’s likely you’ve heard about American students’ dismal reading scores. The most recent numbers compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics place the U.S. 20th in the world.
Each year, educators try to find new strategies to increase reading scores. What’s surprising is how many strategies ignore the most essential component to improving reading — consistent, willing practice. It is a rare feat indeed to master a skill you have no interest in, especially if you hate being made to do it. Enter comic books and graphic novels, a medium generally beloved by young people. Since the early 20th century, comics have been seen as worthless pulp. Ignored during their early heyday, vilified in the 1940s and 1950s, they have quietly gained greater critical attention in the last two decades as Hollywood has churned out one comic action adventure after another.
Graphic novels have a slightly more reputable history, and more than one major literary figure today (Michael Chabon, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill) is on record claiming graphic novels are on-par with novels as artistic achievements.
However in American classrooms, reading comics and graphic novels is generally seen as a last resort. Only if a kid (usually a boy) will read absolutely nothing else do teachers and parents surrender and allow him to indulge such suspicious, somewhat less-than-literary pursuits. Is your kid doomed to mediocrity by his reading preferences? Will a steady diet of comic books and graphic novels stunt his intellectual growth or cripple his literary understanding?
Survey says: No.
In spite of the dire warnings from conservative educators and commentators, research has clearly shown that it is reading itself — regardless of genre — that matters.
Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, has been a pioneer in the field of reading research. His book “The Power of Reading” explores numerous studies he has conducted comparing traditional classroom reading strategies (assigned novels, direct instruction, grammar, and spelling instruction) and what Krashen calls Free Voluntary Reading (FVR), in which students may choose to read whatever they want.
A fifteen week study of fifth grade students found no difference in reading comprehension and vocabulary tests between one group that engaged in the traditional curriculum and another group that read exclusively comic books.
There was one difference; the kids reading comics enjoyed their reading.
A similar study of third grade students showed the same result.
Perhaps most persuasively, in a study of 12 to 17 year old boys, the scores of boys allowed to engage in FVR jumped from 69.9 to 82.7. These students were allowed to read whatever they chose (comic books, graphic novels, magazines, newspapers, books). The gains of the group following the traditional curriculum were significantly smaller: a shift from 55.8 to 60.4.
Such results are compelling. They certainly demand a reassessment of the commonly held belief that comics and graphic novels have no value to literary development.
Even a quick perusal of your standard comic book should reveal the fact that even a short comic book contains roughly as many words as your average short story. Graphic novels, by their nature, contain far more. What should also be evident is that comics and graphic novels will aid and engage visual learners more than a standard text, a distinct advantage.
But more than any other argument, what should matter most is that many students want to read comics and graphic novels. Discouraging such reading can be counter-productive. The more students read, the more they learn. The more they are told their reading choices are poor and “bad for them,” the more certain it becomes that they will have a disdain for the kind of reading they're forced to do inside the classroom.
While there are numerous lists out there of excellent comics and graphic novels for your kids to read, the best place to start is at your local library or bookstore. Take your kid and let him search for what he wants to read. After all, do you like being told what to read?
International comparisons of achievement . (2014, January 1). Retrieved , from nces.ed.gov
Krashen, S. (2004). The power of reading. Libraries Unlimited.