Evaluation of the Uses and Usefulness of Comics as a Tool in Second Language Teaching

Essay 2008 7 Pages

Didactics - English - Pedagogy, Literature Studies


Modern school books are filled with cartoons and comics, which are supposed to support the students in their learning efforts. Before it can be discussed whether comics are a useful tool in second language teaching or not, it is necessary to understand why comics have made their way into the classroom. Then, a discussion about the effects of comics on children and their abilities follows. The last part of this essay deals with concrete examples of how comics can be used in second language teaching.

It is very obvious that children are the major consumers of comic books. Paul Burgdorf, the author of the book “Comics im Unterricht”, conducted a survey among students, in which he found out that 82.4% of them read comics in their spare time. Paul Witty, a former professor of education and director of the Psycho-Educational Clinic at Northwestern University of Illinois gave an answer to the question why children read comic books by providing these eight reasons:

1. “Comic-Hefte zeigen eine kurze spannende Serien-Geschichte, die Themen von universeller Ausstrahlung nutzbar macht.“
2. Sie befriedigen den Wunsch der Kinder, der Routine und Monotonie des alltäglichen Lebens zu entfliehen.
3. Sie sind leicht zu lesen. Die Bilder tragen die Geschichten und helfen dem Kind, dessen Lesefähigkeit gering ist.
4. Sie zeigen bekannte Charaktere in einer Reihe von verwandten Erlebnissen.
5. Sie verlangen verhältnismäßig kurze Konzentrationszeiträume.
6. Sie sind leicht zugänglich.
7. Sie sind nicht teuer.
8. Sie werden gelesen, weil viele Klassenräume und Elternhäuser unzureichend mit guten Büchern und anderem Lesematerial von Interesse für Kinder ausgestattet sind.“[1]

Burgdorf’s survey also identified children who are in the 5th and 6th grade as the main readers of comic books. That does not mean that students in higher grades are no longer interested in comics at all; 70% of 9th grade students still read comics on a regular basis but the number decreases slowly as the students grow older. Since comic books are so popular among students it is easy to come to the conclusion that they can be used at school for their “fantastic motivating power” (Haugaard, 1973). But it is not as simple as it seems. There is a negative side to it as well. Burgdorf also found out that girls are less likely to read comics than boys (77.1% : 87.8%). He sees the reason for that in the writing of the story which most often hints at boys. For a teacher this means that he has to pay attention not to discriminate against female students. When he looks for comics that are appropriate to use at school he also has to distinguish between comics which are appropriate for one sex and those which are appropriate for both sexes. However this is a manageable task considering that 77.1% is still an extraordinary high percentage for a spare time activity and this percentage in comparison with an online survey (Abb.: 1) among 14-19 year old girls, which shows that 53% hardly ever read books, also demonstrates that even girls are still much more interested in comics than in normal books. So, by taking comics into the classroom, teachers bring “the learners’ real world” to school and therefore benefit the motivation of their students.

In his book “Barn och serier” (“Children and Comics”) the Swedish pedagogue Lorentz Larson presents dangers that children are exposed to through comics. One of these dangers is that reading comics supposedly has a negative influence on the oral and written wealth of expression. If this thesis is true, teachers make a huge mistake by using comic books in school. Since the improvement of language skills through growing wealth of expression is a key factor in second language teching, comics would especially fail in such a classroom setting. H.L. Mosse, a child psychologist, and Dr. G. Schückler support Larson’s thesis. They even go one step further and state that there is a connection between reading comics and alexia. Children become so used to skimming over a text that they will not be able to memorize what they have just read and therefore never develop the ability to read a book carefully, where they rely solely on words, not pictures. Neither Larson nor Mosse nor Schückler give proof for their statements. There are other people like A.C. Baumgärtner, B. Cusomano and Dr. W.W. Sones, who claim that reading comics actually enhances general reading ability. During his studies Dr. W.W. Sones, who worked at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education, found out that children practice the same activities no matter whether they read comics or text books. They learn new word symbols through pictures of things, depicted actions or epic contexts. The interest in the story and the resulting wish to follow the plot requires the learning and recognizing of new words. The learner exercises recognition of new words in new environments regardless of pictures that help to understand the word. Since Sones has not only stated, but also proven his claims through several analyses, which he published in the Journal of Educational Sociology, he is considered more reliable than Larson, Mosse and Schückler.

Schückler does not only consider comics dangerous to the ability to read, but he also sees a danger for the development of mental abstraction skills. In his book “Jugendgefährdung durch Comics!” he writes that the shortened and simplified picture viewing, as it is done with all comics, causes mental poverty and sooner or later ethical and emotional primitivism. In Schückler’s opinion comics support conclusions that are made too quickly and always follow the same schema. The ability to look at more complex layers of texts will be lost more and more. There will be nothing of importance anymore, no deeper meaning and no encouragement of further interpretation. Everything will be deemed overt and known. This view, especially in light of a scenario where schoolbooks have given way to comics, certainly sounds overly dramatic. But again, Schückler does not give any evidence that his thesis about the decline of the ability of mental abstraction is correct. Marietheres Doetsch tried to partly back up Schückler’s theory by searching for a link between intelligence and reading comics but she did not find any. Children who are considered more intelligent concerning literature do not read more or fewer comic books than other children do. Sven Lidman, author of the book “Bildning i Bildaaldern”, takes another point of view regarding the ability of mental abstraction. He states that our educational system aims at students who can deal well with abstract thoughts. Students who can deal well with concrete thoughts are penalized by it. That is the reason why he is in favor of more comics in the classroom. The pictures in comics help those concrete thinking students to grasp the story without putting the other students at a disadvantage and they therefore give all students equal opportunity to learn.

In an article, Prof. Dr. Doff has suggested several ways to teach a foreign language by using comics. She gives an exemplary lesson plan detailing how to learn vocabulary with the help of comics. Comics with English speech bubbles are handed out to the students. Having looked at the comic for a few minutes the students speculate about the plot of the story. The teacher does not provide an answer but has the students look up the words they do not know and translate each speech bubble as exactly as possible. Simultaneously the students transcribe all the words they do not know into their vocabulary notebook. After finishing the translation, the students compare their first idea of the plot with the correct plot. This is supposed to show the students the importance of knowing vocabulary. The idea behind the whole task is that the learners can memorize vocabulary better if they put more effort into finding out the words’ meaning, and if the new vocabulary is learned in a context. Motivation is another reason to combine looking up vocabulary in a dictionary with comics. Just looking up the words would probably bore the students really quickly since they would lack the reason why they have to do it themselves and cannot just ask the teacher. Following this method the students might even see it as a kind of puzzle and therefore enjoy doing it. In another of her lesson plans Doff uses a comic book to improve the students’ writing skills. The students are divided into groups of three to four. After they have read and understood the whole book they choose a chapter and try to rewrite it in their own words. The teacher pays special attention to the style of the written. The text must not be a description of each panel but the actions depicted in all panels have to merge into a fluent and exciting text. It would be ideal if every group picks a different chapter because the whole comic book could be turned into a text book that way and it could be presented in a public reading. This exercise gives students a chance to practice their writing skills without being overly creative. The story is already determined but since this is not done thorough words the students have to phrase the story themselves.


[1] Translation: Patrick Carr


ISBN (eBook)
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436 KB
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Institution / College
University of Dortmund
Evaluation Uses Usefulness Comics Tool Second Language Teaching Academic Writing Understanding Fremdsprachendidaktik Didaktik EFL Teaching English




Title: Evaluation of the Uses and Usefulness of Comics as a Tool in Second Language Teaching