My Child Will Only Read Graphic Novels. Help.

  • 08 May, 2021
  • 22 Comments

Teacher question:

My 8-year-old grandson is a second grader who's been reading quite a while now. However, his reading diet comprises almost exclusively graphic novels, some of them intended for much older children, and he has little to no interest in making the transition to text-only books. We were all so pleased that he was an early reader, but now it's very hard to unstick him from the graphic novels he's so fond of. I would love to know your thinking about this and what might be done to bring him to the larger world of books.

Shanahan response:

You’ve raised a great question and one for which there is not much recent research. There have been many studies of kids’ reading interests, but for the most part they focus on what kids are interested in rather than on how to broaden those interests. Those older data suggest that boys about the age of 7 fall in love with comic books (these studies were pre-graphic novels) and that this infatuation peaks at about age 12 (Davila & Patrick, 2010). In other words, this may be a passing fancy, but not one likely to pass soon. The good news is that no one has found any relationship between interest in comics and reading levels, suggesting that such reading probably isn’t doing any harm (e.g., Lamme, 1976).  In the 1940s-1950s there were anxieties about the supposed maladies caused by reading comic books (e.g., insanity, immorality, illiteracy) but none of those panned out. Given the higher quality of the more recent graphic books, I expect those bad outcomes to be even more remote today.

Often, you’ll hear teachers say, “I don’t care what they read as long as they read.”  There is some truth in that. There are decoding or fluency benefits from practice reading. No reason to expect the word reading practice in graphic novels to have any less value than any other kind of reading. Research also indicates that graphic novels introduce a lexicon a bit more sophisticated or extensive than comparable traditional books for kids (Cunningham & Stanovich, 2001). I suspect the visual elements may even help your grandchild to gain access to those challenging words, too (Rothenberger, 2019). I know many graphic novel advocates make claims for the growing importance of graphics interpretation, but I’m not convinced by those arguments. The narrative pictorials in graphic novels look nothing like the graphic displays in scientific and engineering treatises or the complicated tabulations or statistical summaries that are so common in academic and technical texts; those skills are too different to facilitate any kind of transfer.

In the past, a legitimate complaint about comic books was their narrow fictional focus. Let’s face it, kids weren’t going to learn a lot about our social or natural worlds from Archie or Superman. Graphic books, these days, are not really a genre as much as a presentation format. Despite the term, “graphic novels” these newer graphic books are of a broader nature. Kids can still read graphic stories but there are lots of other choices, as well. That means that graphic novels won’t necessarily have to narrow your grandson’s exposure to rich content.

Unfortunately, graphic novel advocates ignore what those books don’t contribute. Despite a wider scope of content, they are still pretty narrow in presentation approach. A narrative told in dialogue supported by pictures is pretty different than what kids will find in traditional texts. Likewise, one hopes their children and grandchildren would develop an ability to sustain the kinds of attention and concentration demanded by the more extensive presentations of traditional text. Reading 15 words and looking at a picture, reading 12 words and looking at a picture, reading 1 interjection and looking at a picture… is quite a different challenge than reading hundreds and even thousands of words at a run. Such intellectual stamina isn’t likely to result from lots of graphic novel reading.

Reading graphic novels may do no harm, but it’s a kind of lost opportunity. Your grandson could be building a more complete foundation for his reading future by taking on a more complete reading diet. 

As a boy, I was a passionate reader, but I focused all of my reading energy on a narrow range of texts (usually baseball and presidents). That kind of topical narrowness has tradeoffs too. In terms of vocabulary, for instance. That focus increases the number of times particular words and phrases are used and that increases the odds of learning them (I certainly understand the “infield fly rule” and know what a “delayed double steal” is all about) – but it also limits the vocabulary the reader is exposed to –Reading about baseball or any other topic is great, but constrained reading habits are a lost opportunity.

That’s what I think is happening with your grandchild. He is getting reading practice without all the benefits that are possible.

1.     Level with him. Don’t vilify the books he loves. Make sure he understands your concerns. He might love ice cream. Nevertheless, I’m sure he knows that a steady diet of ice cream is not good for him. Explain to him the range of books available and the benefits of experiencing a wider range of possibilities. Some he’ll love, some he’ll tolerate. He’ll gain insight from all of them. Letting him know about that will allow him to look out for himself in this regard.

2.     Add magazines to the equation. Boys not only love graphic novels. They often enjoy magazines. There are a bunch available these days and one of things that I love about magazines is they show up regularly in the mailbox. If he is drifting into only reading graphic novels another option shows up regularly. 

3.     Read a book together. Regular books can seem formidable. One way to reduce this sense of being overwhelmed is to make it a social activity. I think for many adults, book clubs and book discussion groups serve this function. With 8-year-olds, a parent (or grandparent) may be the best game in town. Take turns reading chapters to each other – and use it as a great bonding activity.

4.     Reward him for reading other texts. Build these rewards into the reading itself. For instance, If he reads a particular book you might have a video night (the video of that book) complete with pizza and popcorn. Or a book on ice skating or roller skating might turn into a family expedition. A book of science experiments may lead to the creation of a working volcano or a pot of slime.

5.     Gift books may help. Gift books are not always read, of course; neither are they always neglected. A gift book at holiday time or birthday should represent what you hope for him.  

6.     Broaden the graphic books diet. Make sure he is being exposed not just to graphic stories but to graphic history and science as well. 

7.     Try transitional graphic novels. I love Brian Selznick’s books… they are graphic novels, kind of. Their pictures contribute to the narrative, but the stories are not told in dialogue. I have come to think of them as transitional graphic novels. A related idea is to find non-graphic novels that are related to graphic novels, sort of “a make your own transition series.” See, for instance, https://www.provolibrary.com/blog/1769-helping-kids-transition-from-graphic-novels-to-novels 

Good luck.

 

References

Cunningham, A.E., & Stanovich, K.E. (2001). What reading does for the mind. Journal of Direct Instruction, 1(2), 137-149.

Davila, D., & Patrick, L. (2010). What children have to say about their reading preferences. Language Arts, 87(3), 199-210.

Lamme, L.L. (1976). Are reading habits and abilities related? Reading Teacher, 30(1), 21-27.

Rothenberger, K.A. (2019). The effects of reading graphic novels on the vocabulary acquisition of students with learning disabilities. Unpublished Master’s thesis. Caldwell University.

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Shawna
May 09, 2021 01:38 AM

My husband and son both read comic books and graphic novels. I was surprised to find out that the language in Marvel comics is and has always been quite sophisticated! Stan Lee made a point not to write down to kids. He felt that children should be treated the smae way adult readers were treated and that would foster their love for reading. When I used comics in literacy intervention I was so pleased that it had small bodies of text using complex words we could analyze. The people who write comic books and graphic novels are professional writers and that comes through in the story telling using concise language and graphics. Plus, the kids love it. I’m curious about whether anyone has done research on using comic books and graphic novels to build literacy skills. Sounds like a great idea to me. Peter Parker struggling to navigate the word as a teen and super hero at the same time is far more compelling for kids today than reading Shakespeare. Pictures do not indicate that the content is lacking. My son said that To Kill a Mockingbird in graphic form was still To Kill a Mocking Bird , only with pictures. He has read both and considered by his English teacher to be quite gifted. His library at home is largely comics and graphic novels. Check out the original Watchman graphic novel.

Troy
May 08, 2021 11:39 AM

I think your early reading pattern (baseball, presidents) has served you well, Tim. It was a developmental step toward becoming a highly-literate PhD. Yes, tradeoffs. But the amount of information you were absorbing, comparing/contrasting, manipulating, enlarging on certain subjects perhaps foreshadowed your what you are doing so well today? I'm glad no one got in the way of your early reading passions. I bet, in time, they broadened on their own?

Kathleen Coyne
May 08, 2021 05:14 PM

I love your suggestions !
Your commentary also makes me wonder how limiting it is to restrict early readers to just decodable texts

Timothy Shanahan
May 08, 2021 05:15 PM

Troy--
It's definitely a tradeoff. There are benefits to reading intensively (in terms of subject matter choice), but there are valuable benefits to reading extensively as well. What is true for subject matter content (and vocabulary) is less true for something as specific as reading information presented in dialogue and pictures. Thus, if you told me that a student only wanted to read about robots, I wouldn't have much concern about that (at least for a year or two), but if you told me that he only wanted to read comic books I'd be a bit more concerned. Even in that case, however, I wouldn't ban or even severely limit that independent choice -- though I would definitely encourage its expansion. My concerns about narrowness are not limited to kids' choices either. When I see teachers teaching reading with a steady file of novels and short stories, I push for more expository textual experiences.... bring on the social studies and sciences, please!
thanks.
tim

Melinda Dow
May 08, 2021 05:43 PM

Graphic novel are used in the high school setting for reluctant readers, poor readers, etc.

Once we get the student engaged in books...graphic novels included then you teach them the skills needed to advance/transition over to more complex reading material.

Chunking those skills is a necessary step in learning.

Timothy Shanahan
May 08, 2021 06:15 PM

Kathleen-
I have no problem with decodable texts being used within a phonics lesson to provide students with some concentrated practice with the skills being taught. However, I have written about the dangers of limiting children's reading to decodables, research evidence does not support the idea of limiting children' reading to those texts.

thanks.

tim

Tim Shanahan
May 09, 2021 01:51 AM

Shawna
There is more to reading than vocabulary. The words in comics are often sophisticated but the syntax rarely is and telling a story through pictures and dialogue is structurally a rarity in academic text. I guess it depends what you’re preparing kids for.

Good luck.

Tim

Shawna
May 09, 2021 01:57 AM

My husband wanted to add, “ A picture is worth 1,000 words.” If a story can be told with a stick figure that would take 1oos to describe, who wins? Conveying another person’s thoughts is the goal.

My son pointed out that reading isn’t for endurance reading is for knowledge. He said that for people who do not visualize well while reading graphic novels fills that need, he has Ef challenges. My husband is dyslexic and he pointed out that the context of pictures provided meaning to the words he read. He has read all of the classics but it was slow going for him. He understood them he doesn’t have difficulty with concepts or complex thought he has difficulty reading the words. He said he reads in context to the words around the word he doesn’t know. It really is difficult for a dyslexic person to enable a non-dyslexic person to understand how the experience of reading is different for them. That is why so many go into artistic, entrepreneurial, or engineering based careers. Many dyslexic people think in pictures and in those professions that is an asset.

Tim Shanahan
May 09, 2021 01:59 AM

Shawna—
That’s backwards... what science shows is that people visualize when they read words... they don’t need to visualize when pictures are provided.

Tim

Kelly Gould
May 09, 2021 12:36 PM

As an educator who has worked with young learners for many years, I feel like one thing that can be overlooked is providing the opportunity for students to find their passions. Allowing students to choose their own content or genre for independent reading is a small way that we can allow them to "deep dive" into areas of interest. I do agree about exposures to other areas through text as well. What a great way to help support them in finding their next passion!

Andy Biemiller
May 10, 2021 06:36 PM

In my youth, I enjoyed comic magazines (e.g., Classic Comics, Disney's monthly, etc. Also Captain Marvel and others, up to about age 12. In addition, I read "children's books" by A P Terhune and others. My mother continued to read to me in evenings to age age 13, when we moved from Milwaukee to Bethesda, MD. That was a change of life. (My parents reunited at that time.)
I do think my mother's reading helped forward my education. She read everything from Kipling to Sherlock Holmes to a book on ancient history.
Cheers, Andy Biemiller

Andy Biemiller
May 10, 2021 06:36 PM

In my youth, I enjoyed comic magazines (e.g., Classic Comics, Disney's monthly, etc. Also Captain Marvel and others, up to about age 12. In addition, I read "children's books" by A P Terhune and others. My mother continued to read to me in evenings to age age 13, when we moved from Milwaukee to Bethesda, MD. That was a change of life. (My parents reunited at that time.)
I do think my mother's reading helped forward my education. She read everything from Kipling to Sherlock Holmes to a book on ancient history.
Cheers, Andy Biemiller

Timothy Shanahan
May 10, 2021 07:07 PM

Andy--
I was happy to hear how your mother allowed you to enjoy your comics while she expanded your opportunities to enjoy other kinds of books (and I suspect your vocabulary).

thanks.

tim

Joe Mentesana
May 11, 2021 04:20 PM

Tim -
Please say more about visualization, if you could! While visualization gets a lot of mentions in literacy, I don't know if it's fully appreciated as a comprehension strategy or even as a life skill. I've found it to be transformative on both fronts personally, and always tried to get students to draw and discuss their visualizations while reading. What are your thoughts? Am I overestimating this particular strategy?

Joe Mentesana
May 11, 2021 04:20 PM

Tim -
Please say more about visualization, if you could! While visualization gets a lot of mentions in literacy, I don't know if it's fully appreciated as a comprehension strategy or even as a life skill. I've found it to be transformative on both fronts personally, and always tried to get students to draw and discuss their visualizations while reading. What are your thoughts? Am I overestimating this particular strategy?

Joe Mentesana
May 11, 2021 04:20 PM

Tim -
Please say more about visualization, if you could! While visualization gets a lot of mentions in literacy, I don't know if it's fully appreciated as a comprehension strategy or even as a life skill. I've found it to be transformative on both fronts personally, and always tried to get students to draw and discuss their visualizations while reading. What are your thoughts? Am I overestimating this particular strategy?

Melissa
May 11, 2021 04:26 PM

Dr. Shanahan, I am a regular reader of your blog and always appreciate your honest answers that clearly delineate between which of your statements are research based and which are your educated opinion! My one beef today is that I would say that a varied diet of text is critical but you can absolutely learn a lot about our world from graphic novels and comics--even superhero ones. They reveal much about our world today, who we are, and who we are striving to be.

Timothy Shanahan
May 11, 2021 07:37 PM

Melissa--

My point isn't that graphic novels have no value, that certainly isn't the case. However, they provide students a very narrow lens through which to explore their world and expanding children's horizons beyond that lens makes sense. Not replacing it, but expanding it.

thanks.

tim

Timothy Shanahan
May 11, 2021 07:42 PM

Joe--

Visualization has been found to be an effective reading comprehension strategy. Guiding students to try to "see" (with their mind's eye) what is happening in the texts that they are reading can improve understanding and recall of information. To be effective, students need to do the visualizing however. There are studies that compare watching a story on television and reading that story and the readers evidence much greater brain activity than the viewers; presumably in part because they have to conjure up their own images for what is going on. Graphic novels do this work for the readers -- which reduces the effort needed (but also alters the processes needed when one is reading other kinds of text).

thanks.
tim

Jen Greco
May 12, 2021 06:23 PM

Amazing article! What do you think about using phonemics for early reading as young as two? I saw an interesting video about it: https://bit.ly/3obKmCl

Dr Luke Jackson
May 13, 2021 11:49 AM

Dr Shanahan,

I really enjoyed reading your post, and feel like you bring up some great points about the value of traditional texts as well as some of the potential befits of reading graphic novels. Nevertheless, I feel like your appreciation for graphic novels as a form is a bit limited. There are a few reasons I say this. I am currently investigating graphic novel construction using a literary geography methodology. I am also a teacher of high school literature, and a writer of both graphic novels and more traditional novels.

The other night, I was talking to my 8 year old daughter about texts (a topic we've discussed since she was old enough to speak, and a reflection of my own obsession with narratives in all forms). We were discussing the idea, quite popular in research about digital games, that there is such a thing as active and passive texts. The reasoning goes that, on one side, we have texts such as novels and films, over which the reader had no control and which are therefore considered relatively passive, while on the other we have games, which can be viewed as falling anywhere on a spectrum of interactivity, and which are therefore considered active.

It was at this point, however, that my daughter stopped me, and pointed out that novels are not passive. She mentioned that, when she reads, or when I read to her, she has to use her imagination to picture the characters and setting. Of course, she was quite right, and this describes the visualisation you referred to in a couple of your messages to other respondents. I would add that she is also making predictions, deductions, sifting what is literally true from what is meant metaphorically or even ironically, comparing this story to others with which she is familiar, and so on. There is no reason, however, to draw the distinction, as you have, between the value of one text type, in this case novels, and another, such as graphic novels/comics.

In your response to your reader's question, you likened graphic novels to ice cream, the implication being that they are akin to a sweet treat lacking nutritional value ... that they cannot constitute a meal in themselves. This view is one that many felt was put to bed when Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize for 'Maus' in 1992. You also write, 'Let’s face it, kids weren’t going to learn a lot about our social or natural worlds from Archie or Superman', a claim that does not take into account the capacity for a reader, along with an engaged and informed other (parent/teacher/mentor) to engage thoughtfully with the subject matter or to question the views and values it presents.

'Superman' can be viewed as an allegorical tale for immigration, and can elicit conversations about inclusion/acceptance and their opposites; while 'Archie' can be viewed as a snapshot of post-War American values and critiqued accordingly. Both can be compared and contrasted with works of their respective subgenres, using a thematic approach, in which the reader (as young as primary/elementary school age) can explore how the world has changed, and how it has remained the same, according to comics. Or these can be approached from a more formalist standpoint, with the kid introduced to the correct language used to describe verbal/linguistic, visual, and structural features, and encouraged to describe these features. These approaches and others have been shown to be successful tools in getting young readers to read and even write multi-modal texts. When doing so, the child is demonstrating higher order thinking abilities.

Due to their relative accessibility, such books can act also as an engagement strategy for readers who don't come from backgrounds where their parents have bookshelves filled with classic novels. In a project I co-ran with colleagues in Australia and the United States called Comics Go Global, we worked with kids from all different backgrounds, some with learning delays, to analyse comics in this way, before the kids collaborated and created comics of their own, sometimes working in multiple time zones as one wrote the story, another drew the characters, and a third wrote the dialogue. It was amazing to see the insight and creativity shown by the students, and the breadth of the issues and topics they chose to depict in their own works. This pilot project was presented to the Geographical Society, and saw more than 100 kids 'graduate' with a greater appreciation of how to read, write and draw comics over its 4-year run.

What I'm saying, essentially, is that I think having conversations in which we promote the idea that there is a hierarchical model of text types, with novels at the top and other texts beneath, is ultimately doing our kids a disservice. I would never question the value of getting young people to read novels, but nor would I steer them away from other text types. Instead, I would like to see our conversations about these texts change from a deficit model to one that recognises them as a legitimate and complex forms of literature unto themselves.

All the best,

Luke

Timothy Shanahan
May 13, 2021 05:06 PM

Luke--
You make a very good case for the quality of graphic novels. Nevertheless, I would still try to expand kids' horizons beyond them. I don't know what you mean in this context by a deficit view, but I definitely believe that encouraging kids to only read one type of book (or to engage in only one type of cultural activity) may create very real deficits in the long run. I admire Maus as much as anybody (just as I admire Joyce's Ulysses), but I think there is more to reading than either of them -- and I wouldn't turn them over to my 8-year-old grandkids. You kept your comments to literary texts and I think that, too, is a mistake.

Good luck.

thanks.

tim

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My Child Will Only Read Graphic Novels. Help.

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