Comics Literacy in the Classroom

24 Oct

by Lars Wallner

Comics as Narrative Tools[i]

Comics are a narrative form combining text and image in surveyable sequences (McCloud 9). In Sweden, comics are common reading for children, young readers and adults, even though comics reading among young people seems to have lessened, as have all types of reading—see, for example, Statens Offentliga Utredningar (231). Despite what these reading trends seem to indicate, publication of comics for children has grown in the past few years (The Swedish Institute for Children’s Books 25). Throughout my dissertation study (Wallner, Framing Education), I came in contact with many teachers from different levels of schooling who were interested in using comics in their classrooms. These contacts indicated not only an interest on the part of teachers, but also an interest on the part of students wanting to read, and to benefit from reading, comics in school.

Comics are also a prime material for studying how students engage in conversations on reading and writing—that is to say, literacy—especially because of how comics combine text and images. Because of this, a study of the use of comics in a school context can contribute greatly both to our knowledge of literacy construction with comics and to a better picture of what literacy entails.

In order to study this ongoing practice in the classroom, I made video recordings of three classes in Grade 3 (age 8-10) and one class in Grade 8 (age 13-15). In total, 77 students and 6 teachers, in two different Swedish cities, contributed to this study. 15 lessons were recorded with work in whole class, pairs and groups. As a researcher, I had no influence over the settings or materials: the teachers had already chosen the amount of time to be spent on comics, the material that they wanted to work with for each lesson and how they wanted to use said material. My role in the classroom was merely to film the activities that they planned and carried out.

Comics Literacy

The most important contribution of this study is the elaboration on the meaning of the term “comics literacy”. This is not a new term in itself: both Matthew Pustz (112) and Heidi K. Hammond (42) have previously used it, albeit in a slightly different form from how I understand and utilize the concept. In the present study, comics literacy is the social and contextual meaning making with comics—both how we view comics as a form of literature and how we make meaning with those comics we have in front of us. This work has resulted in a discussion on two aspects: what characterizes comics literacy and how comics literacy is constructed by classroom participants.

What Characterizes Comics Literacy

Comics literacy is most recognizable through the combination of image and text—how these aspects are used together in sequential narratives and how this affects the reader’s meaning making (through speech bubbles, sound effects, etc.). Comics are primarily a visual form of literature made up of, for example, images, symbols and framing structures. Participants in my study use different comics but images are an important component of all their work. Thus, it could be argued that comics should be viewed through the lens of text and visual literacy (see, for example, Hammond 43). However, my analyses demonstrate that it is the combination of image and text—and how participants construct this combination as literacy—that is central to meaning making with comics. In the following example, the teacher Jonna (all names used here are pseudonyms) demonstrates how letters and bubble shape are combined:


Figure 1. “Heart”.

In Figure 1, meaning making from a speech bubble is constructed through the combination of different modes of meaning (Kress 8). Hanna (in the bottom right corner) suggests a connection between the love heart bubble drawn on the board and an emotion. Through communal meaning making, Hanna then suggests putting a written message—“I’m in love with Minnie”—inside the love heart bubble. The combination of shape and text would then indicate that something is expressed lovingly. Hanna’s initial expression in the first panel is rather monotonous, but when the teacher, Jonna, repeats this, she adds a loving tone (shown here through love heart symbols in the transcription). These additions put extra verbal and symbolic meaning into the visuo-textual message of the speech bubble. In order to further illustrate this difference to the class, Jonna also slowly rocks her body back and forth. Thus, the meaning making done here is not only tied to the understanding of the words, nor only to the visual aspect of the love heart but also to how the text, the shape of the bubble and the group’s understanding of the emotions are all put together.

This demonstrates the ability of comics to tie images to words and to use this to convey emotion and sensation in the way that Jonna expresses here. However, it also demonstrates how, in a school context, this is not necessarily automatically understood, but rather a meaning making that needs to be done in order to construct this practice as common knowledge (Edwards and Mercer 62-63).

Constructing Comics Literacy in the Classroom

Besides the combination of image and text, comics literacy is also signified by participants’ construction of discourses of comics as part of literary practices. Comics are a part of readers’ personal literacy that is to say, their reading experiences and their views on literature (see, for instance, Allen and Ingulsrud 266). How readers view themselves and how they view comics in relation to other types of reading matter to their meaning making with comics. Literacy researchers like Paulo Freire (Freire and Macedo 120) and Brian Street (Street 8; Street et al. 191) have demonstrated how literacy is used to assert power and how academia or governments can use terms such as literate/illiterate to benefit certain groups.

In this study, literacy is understood as non-binary, socially and contextually constructed meaning making. Pustz (112) argues for comics literacy as a material aspect of comics—the cultural understanding that arises as comics reference other comics and the knowledge readers need in order to understand comics because of this. In the present study, I argue for a view of comics literacy as relating not only to the discourses that readers construct socially around comics and the knowledge that comes from comics, but also their understanding of what comics are and their value for certain types of activities and certain types of people. Participants’ experience and knowledge of comics culture and history is made relevant in their meaning making with comics in the classroom. They relate to comics through construction of different discourses around comics usually based on different visual and textual aspects. For example, participants in my study ask whether Gary Larson’s Far Side is a comic at all, since it generally only consists of one panel. They ask if Donald Duck is appropriate for children due to Donald’s violent and aggressive tendencies. The answers depend on the readers’ previous experiences of reading comics as well as the reasoning of others around them and a common knowledge of comics—a discourse of comics—is constructed. For example, teachers’ attitudes to comics and the discourses constructed in and through this sometimes collide with students’ attitudes and comics discourses. When this happens, these sides meet in order to make meaning around comics and either produce new discourses or strengthen existing ones. Because of this, the common knowledge constructed around, for example, discourses of narrative and style, is an important tool in meaning making around comics literacy. When a class of 8-10-year-olds and their teachers discuss the narrative processes involved in combining different panels into a sequence, they negotiate the discourses around what a story can be, what logic it needs to follow in order to make sense, and what needs to be done to convey this story to a reader.

Working with Comics Creates Something New

Working with comics in the classroom is a literacy practice where participants use text, image, movement and sound to make meaning around a literary material in the form of comics. The use of comics for storytelling affords these students certain narratological qualities. For example, in Wallner (“Gutter Talk” 6), participants work with narrative structure by using ten separate comic panels (see Figure 2).


They move these panels around and negotiate the intersubjectivity of the panels, in order to create a logical story sequence. Unlike writing a text, where students often create linear stories one line after another, having access to physical parts of the story—in the shape of comic panels—encourages participants to move these panels around in the process of telling their story. This practice of putting parts of a story together is discussed here for its potential to create an idea of time and place in the comic and how participants construct narratives with gaps that cannot be too large or too small. This shows the great strength of comics narratives in educational practices, as this makes it easier for students who still have not mastered text reading or writing.

The study also demonstrates how participants can work with speech and thought bubbles and how teachers’ use of body language, voice, image and text can convey the emotion and sensation of speech bubbles, as well as other visual-textual aspects of comics (Wallner “Speak of the Bubble” 186). This is also used to construct narrative perspective in comics—how somebody’s voice is made public or private. Thus, this work enables students to visualize narrative techniques in dialogue or monologue—how different modes of expression are displayed through the use of text and image.

Both students’ and teachers’ personal experiences of comics are used in the construction of discourses around comics. Despite having previous positive experiences from reading Donald Duck as a child, one of the teachers in Grade 3 argues that the present-day comics that the class is reading are too complicated for her students, who are 8-10 years old. She reconciles these two views by arguing that modern comics have developed since her childhood and have become more difficult to read. On the other hand, the students in Grade 8, who are 13-15 years old, also read Donald Duck and argue that the comics are appropriate for children as young as 5 years old—also based on their own reading experiences. Thus, the discourse of whether comics are easy reading depends heavily on the reader’s personal experiences as well as their reading of the visual, textual or visual-textual aspects under discussion. These separate classroom discussions show that the construction of what comics are as well as what they should be is ongoing in the practice of literary meaning making. The classroom is the front line where students and teachers actively battle over the discourses of comics. Thus, it is important that we, as researchers, are right there watching and learning.

Lars Wallner is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of Behavioral sciences and Learning (IBL) in the Section for Pedagogy and Didactics at Linköping University, Sweden. His research interests include all types of fiction and storytelling, but there is a special place in his heart for comics.

Works Cited

Allen, Kate, and Ingulsrud, John E. “Reading Manga: Patterns of Personal Literacies Among Adolescents.” Language and Education, vol. 19, n. 4, 2005, pp. 265-280. doi: 10.1080/09500780508668681.

Bokprovning på Svenska barnboksinstitutet: En dokumentation [Book Tests at the Swedish Institute for Children’s Books: A Documentation]. Stockholm: The Swedish Institute for Children’s Books, 2016.

Edwards, Derek, and Mercer, Neil. Common Knowledge: The Development of Understanding in the Classroom. London & New York: Methuen, 1987.

Freire, Paulo, and Macedo, Donaldo. Literacy: Reading the Word & the World. South Hadley: Bergin & Garvey, 1987.

Hammond, Heidi Kay. Graphic Novels and Multimodal Literacy: A Reader Response Study. Doctoral dissertation, University of Minnesota, 2009.

Kress, Günther. Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication. London & New York: Routledge, 2010.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: William Morrow Paperbacks, 1993.

Pustz, Matthew J. Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.

Statens Offentliga Utredningar [Swedish Government Official Reports]. Barns och ungas läsning: ett ansvar för hela samhället [Children’s and Young People’s Reading: A Responsibility for the Whole Society]. Stockholm: Kulturdepartementet, 2018.

Street, Brian V. Literacy in Theory and Practice. Cambridge, New York & Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Street, Brian V, et al. “Multimodality and New Literacy Studies.” The Routledge Handbook of Multimodal Analysis, edited by Carey Jewitt, New York: Routledge, 2011, pp. 191-200.

Wallner, Lars. Framing Education: Doing Comics Literacy in the Classroom. Doctoral Dissertation, Linköping University, 2017.

—. “Gutter Talk: Co-constructing Narratives Using Comics in the Classroom.” Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 2018. doi: 10.1080/00313831.2018.1452290.

—. “Speak of the Bubble – Constructing Comic Book Bubbles as Literary Devices in a Primary School Classroom.” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, vol. 8, n. 2, 2017, pp. 173-192. doi: 10.1080/21504857.2016.1270221.

[i] This article is a summary of my dissertation Framing Education: Doing Comics Literacy in the Classroom.


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