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Picture Books and Graphic Novels: A Healthy Addition to Any Reading Diet
I remember as a child my parents constantly asked us to read. Read books, magazines, packaging, road signs, subtitles, cartoons, you name it. Anything with print was fair game. I was lucky because they were able to make reading a challenging game. Mom once said she wouldn’t be surprised if she read the inside of a roll of toilet paper. I replied, “But mom, there is nothing printed on the cardboard roll.” She laughed, but you watched and you should. She was right. Now my job is to instill this reading curiosity in these children.
As a teacher of what our state calls at-risk teens, I face the problem of woefully underprepared students. Students for whom reading is a chore to be avoided at all costs. These students come into my eleventh grade class with only the basic reading skills of a fifth or sixth grader. Now I face the same problem that many teachers face with the realization that their students simply cannot read and understand the materials that are to be mastered. They simply do not want to and will use any ploy to circumvent a teacher’s attempt at class-oriented reading exercises. So what can we do?
Obviously, we need to teach these children to read well enough to grasp the materials that are put in front of them. We can’t leave it to the reading teacher who has more students than she can probably handle effectively. But if we focus on teaching reading, what about content area materials? Integrating content with reading instruction is often a herculean task. After all, how much reading do we have in a math class. Catch 22.
Many teachers will tell you that they are not reading teachers, and rightly so. In most states, additional courses and certifications are required to qualify as a reading teacher. But even without this qualification, teachers must be willing and able to identify students’ reading problems and be willing to help them reach their potential. More and more states are requiring all teachers to take additional courses to ensure they are able to address this issue.
I have been deeply involved in this issue for some time and have learned that graphic novels or picture books, when used in conjunction with other materials, can increase student understanding and promote a sense of achievement that in in turn allows him opportunity to succeed in the classroom.
When a child comes to my class with limited reading skills, I use supplemental materials that fall into the graphic novel category. For example. One of the first books we read in my Language Arts class is War of the Worlds by HG Wells. As I looked at several struggling students’ faces, I knew they wouldn’t even try to open the book. I was lucky enough to be able to find a graphic novel version of this classic, one of the reasons I actually chose it, and gave each student a copy. Suddenly, the faces of these students changed as they began to flip through the book. A few even questioned. “You mean we can read a comic book?”
In fact, the students didn’t realize that these graphic versions actually presented a more challenging reading experience, as most graphic novels do, but by changing the perception of the material and offering an alternative, I was giving these students an opportunity for success that many had not experienced for a long time. The condition attached to this book was that it was not a replacement for the original novel, but a study aid. They still had to read the novel, but the graphic version would help them with some of the more difficult parts. Of course, my “good readers” complained about this and I had to reassure them that it was an option and that the rating would equalize for all.
In addition, class discussions, the use of visual technology and other tools were also incorporated, but it seems that the greatest success came from the incorporation of these picture books. If you think about it, your first experiences with reading were probably with picture books, picture books, and later comics.
This concept can also be applied to math and science with a little imagination. Teachers who have good computer skills may find that they can create materials that align with their subject areas and provide a similar graphical version of lessons. For example. I use a story about a maintenance man who is faced with the task of figuring out how much material he needs to renovate the school stadium. By using pictures with captions, students are suddenly solving word problems using more advanced math concepts or algebra and geometry when they previously struggled with simple fractions.
As the year progresses, students ask if they can do reports and other projects with graphic novels. I have developed some guidelines, but the affirmative has resulted in about 72% of my challenged readers, those who enter at the 6th grade reading level, will pass the 10th grade basic skills tests by the end of the year. It works, but why?
One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that reading ability is cyclical. Success brings more success and an increased desire to read more. Reading more improves reading skills and as skills improve, desire increases and more reading occurs. Round and round it goes. And the same happens in reverse. Students with reading difficulties struggle with required reading. They quickly come to “hate reading”. They avoid reading and their skills deteriorate.
Technology has perhaps done a disservice to reading skills. We hope to learn things with images, especially moving images. Students today are plugged in, and in many cases, the school classroom where they spend much of their day is not. These students are getting bored and the teachers are becoming more entertainers than teachers. Students do not have time to read and do not want to read. By incorporating the graphic novel or picture book, we are drawing them in with something they can visually connect with.
Often this is just the catalyst needed to show students that a world full of words is more open to them than they previously believed. They gain the desire to continue as each success is measured and turned into a desire for more success. The negative cycle is broken and success begins. All thanks to a picture book.
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