How Using Comics Can Improve Your Child’s Reading Skills

My name is Adam Kullberg and I’m pretty sure I have the best job in the world.

I (and my teammates) get the honor of helping teachers, parents and students discover how fun it can be to increase literacy, ignite imaginations and inspire a love of learning — all using comics and graphic novels.

Each year our team meets and talks with hundreds of parents across the country. During these meetings we are frequently asked a simple but very important question: Can comics really improve my child’s reading skills?

Since the answers to this particular question are so central to what we do at Pop Culture Classroom, I thought it best to dedicate a full blog to it.

Here are some — but certainly not all — of the biggest reasons comics can have a positive impact on your child’s reading skills and their overall love of learning.

Improved Vocabulary Comprehension

In her groundbreaking book Raising a Reader: How Comics and Graphic Novels Can Help Your Kids Love to Read!, author Meryl Jaffe, PhD. points out that:

“Graphic novels’ concise text paired with detailed images help readers decode and comprehend the text. Reading is less daunting (with less text to decode) and concise verbiage highlights effective language usage and vocabulary while the images invite and engage readers.”

Meryl is pointing out something our team has witnessed time and time again in our interactions with early readers.

When kids inevitably come across a word they don’t know, comics provide a visual “clue” on what the word means.

This additional visual context not only enables kids to learn the meaning of words more quickly, the visual associations help them retain and recall those meanings in the future.

Better Content Retention

We recently engaged Research Evaluation Consulting, an independent, third-party research firm, to identify sources of evidence that support the positive impact comics have on reading skills.

The results supported our own observations that comics have a significant, positive impact on overall reading retention. One example is a study published in the Journal of Baltic Science Education. In it, teachers reported that:

“… cartoons, along with problem-based learning techniques, improved students’ permanent learning (i.e., learning with deep understanding and retention). Teachers also reported the concept cartoons encouraged students to study and fostered an environment in which discussion and debate were welcomed…”

The main concept here is that when kids read and see a graphical representation of the words in-context, they retain the information better than if they read the words alone.

Studies suggest this may be because graphical representations cement long-term memories and word associations more effectively.

Other research suggests that the combination of textual and graphical information allows students to focus more on comprehending main ideas, rather than focusing on minute details, allowing for better initial comprehension and therefore better long-term retention.

One example can be found in a recent article published in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America. In it, researcher Carly Melissa Tribull outlines her findings on the benefits of using comics for education, including that:

“Comics can also help with the long-term retention of concepts in advanced science courses. In Nagata (1999), the popular manga Bishojo Senshi Sailor Moon, was shown to help biochemistry students recall terms two years after the course had ended.”

Additional Benefits We See First-Hand

The positives mentioned above are being increasingly studied in formal research, but there’s also a growing list of benefits that we continue to discover through first-hand experience and observation.

More Fun Reading Together

One big example of these “softer” benefits is that comics can make it easier and more rewarding for parents to read to their children.

Not surprisingly, the reason for this appears to simply be that very young kids enjoy seeing pictures and colors, and so demonstrate greater engagement and enjoyment when being read comics as compared to text only.

A Welcoming Format

Many kids have an affinity and familiarity with pop culture characters, topics and formats they experience in their daily lives. Further, kids today are increasingly “multi-modal learners,” meaning they acquire and process information from a wide range of visual sources in order to form a final conceptual understanding.

The combination of these two factors appears to make comic reading much more approachable and accessible for many kids, making it easier and more enjoyable even if they struggle with reading traditional all-text formats.

An Intro to Non-Verbal Communication

One of the most interesting things we’ve observed is that comics often introduce and help students begin to understand the important role non-verbal communication plays in our world.

In our classes and camps, kids seem to naturally appreciate and enjoy the many forms of non-verbal language representations that are often so frequently a part of the comic book and graphic novel medium.

Primary examples of this are the use of body language, color and shapes to express concepts as simple as movement and action, but as complex as metaphors, symbolism and emotions. 

For Next Time… 

We hope this post has been helpful in explaining some of the many reasons comics can be a great way to help improve your child’s literacy skills.

We always want to hear from you, so please leave feedback or suggestions for future posts in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or by sending us email at education@popcultureclassroom.org.

Stay tuned as we explore many more topics and answer more questions for educators, parents and students on how to use comics for fun and imaginative learning.

See you in the classroom!