This paper provides a case where using comics and graphic novels in and out of the foreign language classroom have aided an extensive reading program. Using comic books can aid in the problem area of student motivation, especially in the area of reading and can improve the level of learner autonomy. Through personal experience and looking at the research done on the use of comic books in and out of the classroom in both L1 and L2 situations I’ve found that comics and graphic novels can and do aid in motivation.
Keywords: student motivation, L2 reading, learner autonomy, Japanese readers, comic books, extensive reading, authentic language, graphic novels.
Giving CPR to an extensive reading library
I was a bit perplexed, why wasn’t my library attracting near as much attention as it was dust. I had procured through long hours of pleading with my boss, a collection of graded readers, paperbacks, newspapers and magazines paid for by the school, and even occasionally out of my own pocket. Why weren’t my students taking advantage of these materials? Many of them had professed a desire to read in English but often complained of the lack of options. Hadn’t I just given them those options? With money for my pet project running low I decided to throw in a few things gathering dust on my own bookshelves at home. As always when I added new things to the library I let students know at the end of class and slowly, to my astonishment the library started getting some visitors. Just a few at first but the number steadily increased over the weeks (see Figure 1). I took a look at the sign out sheet to see what it was students were borrowing, and I saw that the most popular book was a graphic novel. The Best of American Splendor by Harvey Pekar (available through Ballantine Books) was being taken out again and again. I asked a couple of students why they had chosen that book and was answered with a shrug of the shoulders accompanied by “It’s fun.” Comics had provided them with materials that were interesting and comprehensible. I was then concerned with getting more books like it. Before I tracked down anymore books though, I stopped and thought about it. Could this be right? Were graphic novels, “comic books” really responsible for this? As many boys and I’m sure some girls as well know, these books have always been something that you needed to hide from teachers. Now I’m not saying that all teachers had a disdain for comics but enough did to make you want to hide them. Whether inside an open textbook, a coat pocket or a book bag, the comic book was something that teachers were always on the look out for, something that they could add to their ever-growing collection of contraband goods that they kept in their desk drawer that they had confiscated from us. It couldn’t be that these books were kick starting my program when so many other things (graded readers, bilingual newspapers, magazines) had failed to generate the type of interest I wanted. Motivating students to read in English autonomously is a goal of many language teachers and in this paper we’ll look at what worked for my students and some of the benefits in the English classrooms in Japan of comics in their many forms, from the short strips you find in your newspaper to graphic novels that are hundreds of pages long.
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With my students unable to verbalize clearly why they liked these graphic novels I went to the research to see if it could explain student motivation towards reading. Hall (2006) showed us that there are three basic factors that determine a reader’s motivation in their L1. They are a reader’s perception of his or her abilities as a reader, how he or she wanted to be seen as a reader, and his or her desire to comprehend and learn from the text. Coming from a slightly different angle is a study done by Derryberry and Wininger (2008). Their study was done with academic texts in mind and they found reading motivation in an academic setting was linked to goal orientation, cognition and self determination. EFL teachers in Japan know that reading in an L1 and L2 are different so let’s look at L2 reading motivation. Interestingly, Kondo-Brown (2006) showed that L2 students of Japanese are more motivated when they have a better understanding of the Kanji characters. The coefficients of Kondo-Brown’s research showed a stronger relationship between Kanji ability and motivation, than basic reading comprehension and motivation. Simply having the ability to read phonetically and understand leaves something to be desired. Knowing about the elaborate Kanji character gives it deeper meaning and perhaps makes it more interesting. Obviously in English we don’t use any elaborate characters like Japanese so giving more than a simple definition or translation of a word helps students to feel a more meaningful connection with it, which is the basis of good communicative teaching. A meaningful connection with the language and a deeper understanding of the words may be aided by the graphic content of comic books. Takase (2007) directly looked into motivational factors in an L2 related to reading. Looking through the analysis of his data we see intrinsic motivation for L1 reading and intrinsic motivation for L2 reading play important roles. Students likely won’t be interested in reading in a L2 if they are not motivated to read in their L1. Other components were parents’ involvement in and family attitudes toward reading and entrance exam-related extrinsic motivation.
My students and graphic novels
Before we go any further I think it prudent to explain the system and how the program works at my school. The school is a private language school that has a branch located within the business complex of a local electronics firm that focuses on four basic skills of reading, writing, listening, and speaking. The school has invested a lot of time and effort to provide the students with a large selection of materials such as graded readers and bilingual newspapers in a library next to the teacher’s office. During the enrollment process, students are given an introduction to the library system and its materials and they are told how to sign out materials using the sign-out sheet (which is used for data collection). The benefits of reading in a foreign language are explained and students are strongly encouraged to take advantage of the opportunity. That being said, they are not required to use the library unless assigned to do so from their instructor, therefore, the impetus to take advantage of the reading materials is for the most part up to the student. In other words they need to take a more autonomous approach to learning English.
Obviously students based at an electronics firm and studying at private language school are different from the ones in the studies mentioned above. The students that I teach are mostly businessmen and women who work full time, not high school and college students. They are studying English to further their careers mainly through increased conversational ability and higher TOEIC scores. My students also view class as an escape from the stresses and routine of everyday work. These are students who are studying English voluntarily so motivation for the most part is not a problem. This motivation to study English however did not translate to reading outside of the classroom.
While further investigation into the topic is necessary to provide more concrete results I think that a few things are clear. “American Splendor” is a graphic novel written by a file clerk in Cleveland, Ohio. His books cover the day to day happenings of his job and home life. There are no superheroes or villains, no men in tights, and no super powers. He writes of the small things that constitute a life, which on the surface may seem mundane but they are things that everyone can relate to. This portrayal of the working life that the students see is very similar to what they experience on a day-to-day basis. In addition, the stories range from one page to twenty pages long. The short length doesn’t tax the students too much cognitively and along with the drawings aid in understanding and comprehension and lessen the dependence on dictionaries making the reading experience quick, easy and ultimately, I believe more enjoyable. These two factors, the connection to the material for students, and the ability to enjoy the material were paramount, in my opinion, to the success of my library.
Are comics bad for you?
There is a stereotypical image of students not paying attention in class with a comic book placed inside of a textbook. Why would kids read comics instead of paying attention to the lesson? They are more interesting of course, but are they bad for you? In the past teachers commonly assumed that comic books used inferior language inappropriate for learning and at a reading level that was too low to be valuable. This is valid concern but assumes that comic books are “dumbed-down”. Krashen (2002) has shown that comic books are written at a much higher level than previously thought. Another common objection to comic books comes from an unfounded fear that they will replace the traditional forms of literature. In my own experience this isn’t the case. In fact, perhaps the most interesting effect of the students borrowing graphic novels is that when I looked at the book sign out sheet a few months after introducing the comics, the students that borrowed the graphic novels moved on to other types of reading materials including graded readers and magazines (See appendix 1).
Benefits to using comics
There are a number of benefits to using comic books in and out of the classroom. Perhaps the first and not always obvious to those unfamiliar with comics is that comic books come in a wide variety of topics and levels making them appeal to a wide range of students of all ages and ability levels. This is important because, the majority of programs designed to get students engaged in reading have been aimed at elementary age children. These programs overlook ESL/EFL students, adolescents, and adults. Comics however, have been successful in drawing these people into reading (Maryland State Department of Education 2007, McIlroy 2007). Another benefit of comic books is that they have been shown to be a bridge to more complex and challenging reading matter. Students who are attracted to comic books eventually move on to other reading materials, as evidenced by the students mentioned above. Not only this, but those who read comics generally read at least the same amount and sometimes more than those who do not (Krashen, 2002). This extra reading has benefits of its own, as any proponents of extensive reading will attest. Students who read more develop critical skills, the same critical skills that aid in comprehension. Teachers in EFL settings that have employed comic books in the classroom have seen an improvement in vocabulary, writing, and reading level (Mendez, 2004). Perhaps most importantly, let’s not forget that comic books are fun, cool, and imaginative. New learners in any language need various types of input and comic books add the visual element in addition to the words that help students infer meanings to words that they might not understand. The pictures give a physical context to the story that helps to fill in gaps that readers would otherwise have based on the text alone. The point is stressed by Krashen (2002). He states, “The texts of comics are linguistically appropriate, and pictures can help make the texts comprehensible” (p.109).
In addition, Cary (2004) shows us that there are aspects of language that aren’t seen in the majority of class textbooks. He states “[...] comic strips/books [can be used] as a means to help students deal with ‘the ambiguity, vagueness and downright sloppiness of spoken English’” by introducing “language learners to ‘ellipsis, blends, non-words, vague lexis, confirmation checks, contrastive stress, new topic signals, nonverbal language, mitigators, [and] routine/ritual phrases’” (p. 33). In other words, we move away from dry unnatural sounding textbooks into more common spoken language. So often have I seen schools claim to teach conversation yet provide students with inauthentic, drab dialogs in textbooks. Comics provide real conversation in text form that is as authentic as it comes.
Another benefit connected with graded readers in comic book form is that they allow students to enjoy literature in English in a simplified and interesting way. Readers must understand a high percentage of the text before they can infer words and confidently comprehend a passage (Huang 2006). The graphic element of comics lowers that percentage by providing a visual representation of the subject matter thus making more things accessible. As a personal example, I use a comic book version of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (available through Oxford University Press Dominoes series) with my students every October and I have received nothing but positive feedback from the students. We do role plays, guessing the next picture activities and drawing our own conclusions to the story. In end of class surveys over the past 3 years, two-thirds of students have rated it as there most memorable activity. They tell me it is much more like what they read for pleasure than the usual reading passages that a textbook offers up. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a book that would be out of reach for most EFL students in a traditional form but the graded graphic novel version makes it accessible. Finally, let’s not forget the place that Manga holds in Japanese society. It’s everywhere and you can see people of all ages reading it.
In conclusion, I believe that comic books can be a useful addition to any extensive reading library. The benefits are many and the opposition to the use of comic books or graphic novels in class was based on myths and unfounded information. Comic books and graphic novels have long suffered from negative stereotypes and prejudice, and like most stereotypes and prejudices, they have little or no evidence to support them. The benefits on the other hand have been supported with evidence from the first language and the EFL classroom. As a long time fan of comic books I know firsthand their benefits in both L1 and L2 acquisition. So, if you need to get students interested in and motivated to read English, who you gonna call? Ghostbusters, there’s a graphic novel series, (available through Marvel Comics). How many of you just had the Ray Parker Jr. song go through your head? Or if you are looking to bridge that gap between beginning and more advanced materials why not call on you friendly neighborhood Spiderman. How about getting some help from the Caped Crusader or Superman. They’ve been known to lend a helping hand in the past. The point is that there is a wide range of graphic material out there (including translated versions of Manga that many or our students read) and with a little research; teachers can find relatable and enjoyable materials for everyone. And finally, Mrs. Sheffield, if you’re out there, now do you believe that comics are legitimate and useful reading material. If so I’d like my copy of “The Amazing Spiderman Vol. 1 #300 back please.
Cary, S. (2004 ). Going graphic: Comics at work in the multilingual classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Derryberry, W.P., Wininger, S.R. (2008). Relationships among textbook usage and cognitive-motivational constructs. Teaching Educational Psychology, 3, (2), 1-11.
Hall, L.A. (2006). Anything but lazy: New understandings about struggling readers, teaching, and text. Reading Research Quarterly, 41, (4), 424-426.
Huang, S. (2006). Reading English for academic purposes – What situational factors may motivate learners to read? System: An International Journal of Educational Technology and Applied Linguistics, 34, (3), 371-383.
Kondo-Brown, K. (2006). Affective variables and Japanese L2 reading ability. Reading in a Foreign Language, 18, 55-71.
Krashen, Stephen D. (2002). The Power of Reading. Portsmouth, New Hampshire, US: Heinemann
Maryland State Department of Education. (2007, May 3). Comic Book Project Proves to be Effective Learning Tool. Retrieved May 20, 2007, from http://www.marylandpublicschools.org/MSDE/pressrelease_details/2007_05_03a.htm
McIlroy, Megan. (2007, May 2). State to Expand Comics in the Classroom. The Examiner.
Mendez, Teresa. (2004, October 12). ‘Hamlet’ too Hard? Try a comic book. The Christian Science Monitor.
Takase, A. (2007). Japanese high school students’ motivation for extensive L2 reading. Reading in a Foreign Language, 19, (1), 1-18.
Scott Peters teachers business classes at companies and kids/teens classes at schools in and around the Suwa, Nagano area. He is interested in student motivation and extensive reading and can be reached online at email@example.com. If you have any questions on finding the right comic book for your class please feel free to contact me for some information.
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