Can I use comic books in the ESL classroom?

Short answer: YES! Absolutely!

Longer answer: Comic books are experiencing a sort of renaissance right now. Before the current popularity of super hero movies (looking at you, Iron Man), comic books were sort of a niche market, and could only be found in comic book stores. But now, comic books are extremely popular, and can be found in most book stores (and can still be found in your local comic book store!). With the popularity of comic books in the US, and around the world, many ESL students will definitely be drawn towards comic books as a source of fun reading material. Therefore, teachers might want to consider introducing comic books as part of their regular reading classes. Here are a few reasons why:

1. Comics capture the written word in a different way than books do. Comic book dialogue is closer to the spoken word, and is engaging and dynamic to read. The dialogue in comics can help ESL students with cultural humor and contextual speech.

2. Comics are not just for children any more. With the increasing popularity of comics, you can find many comics geared towards adults and young adults, with themes ranging from the terrifying and gritty to the fun and light-hearted. There are so many options for comics, and it’s easy to find comics meant for adults with relatable characters and themes. (One common complaint I hear from students when we read juvenile fiction novels is that the characters are all too young and they can’t relate…this is easy to fix with comic books!)

3. Comics are relatively short; they range from the three panel comic up to entire graphic novels. If you are interested in having students read comics for extended reading, they can read an entire issue (about 18-20 pages) in one class period, or a trade copy (6 issues of the comic) in 2-3 weeks. This is a great way to introduce ESL students to reading in English before jumping head first into a novel.

4. Comics are excellent for teaching inferences. Because a lot of the plot is divided between dialogue and illustration, students must use background knowledge and inferences to determine what exactly is happening in each panel. They can also use visual context clues to figure out meanings of unknown words.

These are all great reasons, but how can I ensure that the use of these comics is still achieving curricular goals?

Great question! You can basically use comics in the same way you might use novels or short stories in the classroom to increase vocabulary and reading fluency. Here are a few suggestions on how to use comics in the classroom:

1. Cultural discussion questions – As stated above, comics are not just for children any more, and they cover a wide range of themes and topics. Some of these will be very American cultural topics, and are a great jumping off point for cultural discussion.

2. Reader’s Theater – Because comic book dialogue captures the spoken word so well, comics books can easily be adapted into your own version of Reader’s Theater. Students can read out loud to practice pronunciation, stress, intonation, and speaking rhythm.

3. Understanding visual symbols – While reading comics, students not only practice reading English, but they practice reading symbols as well. Students can work in pairs or with a group to find and decipher various comic book symbols. They can also talk about comics or visual reading in their own language – do they have symbols with similar meanings?

4. Fill in the text – Copy a few pages of different comics and white out the dialogue. Students then have to use visual clues to fill in the missing dialogue. You can also have students use specific vocabulary words that you may be working on in class.

5. Sequencing – Take any length of comic you’d like (from the 3 panel up to an entire page) and cut out all the individual panels. Students then have to use their knowledge of sequencing and conversation flow to put the comic panels into the correct order.

I hope that this helps you explore a new and fun approach to English reading and literacy. Enjoy!

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