We’re always hearing about how comics are a great tool for literacy (and those among us who learned to read from comics would back this up) but how are comics being accepted in the educational field? The New York Times investigates with an article that includes many yaysayers, but also the most common objections, as it looks at two rather modest programs, including the pilot program rolled out in Baltimore by Diamond and Disney Publishing.

In Maryland, the State Education Department is expanding a new comics-based literacy curriculum, after a small pilot program yielded promising results. In New York City, a group of educators applied to open a new small high school that would be based around a comics theme and named after the creators of Superman; their application was rejected but they plan to try again next year. And the Comic Book Project, a program run out of Teachers College at Columbia University that has children create their own comic strips as an “alternative pathway to literacy,” is catching on. Six years after it started in one Queens elementary school, it has expanded to 860 schools across the country.

BUT SEE ALSO: a recent issue of the New Yorker includes a modestly titled piece called “Twilight of the Books” which discusses the changes to thinking that take place in societies that no longer read:

There’s no reason to think that reading and writing are about to become extinct, but some sociologists speculate that reading books for pleasure will one day be the province of a special “reading class,” much as it was before the arrival of mass literacy, in the second half of the nineteenth century. They warn that it probably won’t regain the prestige of exclusivity; it may just become “an increasingly arcane hobby.” Such a shift would change the texture of society. If one person decides to watch “The Sopranos” rather than to read Leonardo Sciascia’s novella “To Each His Own,” the culture goes on largely as before—both viewer and reader are entertaining themselves while learning something about the Mafia in the bargain. But if, over time, many people choose television over books, then a nation’s conversation with itself is likely to change. A reader learns about the world and imagines it differently from the way a viewer does; according to some experimental psychologists, a reader and a viewer even think differently. If the eclipse of reading continues, the alteration is likely to matter in ways that aren’t foreseeable.

Expect the discussion of literacy, post-literacy and where words and pictures fit in to become even more of a topic of discussion in 2008.


  1. I am surprised how many people I talk to at work who think “reading for pleasure” is a foreign concept and can’t see the point.

  2. Stephen Krashen, one of the best-known reading specialists in the country, has done a lot of research on comics and language acquisition. I strongly recommend his book, The Power of Reading. His double-blind experiments pretty much prove (to me at least) the efficacy of comics as a tool to teach reading.

  3. What I always find curious in these sorts of articles is that naysayers are rarely pressed about their views. For example, in this article someone says: “If you’re going to use comics in the classroom at all, which I have serious doubts about, it should be only as a motivational tool.” OK, but, WHY do you feel that way? Is this advice based on hard data, logical argumentation… or just your opinion. There’s unfortunately very little hard data about the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of school curricula that includes comics, but at the very least if someone is going to disparage the idea right out of the gate, then surely the burden of proof lies upon that individual to back that claim up in some way.

  4. I’m glad to see that comics could be used as an educational tool. It may actually introduce children to the concept that reading can be FUN and something DESIRABLE. I think our educational system does a great deal to discourage reading by forcing age-inappropriate material on the kids. A friend is currently suffering through MOBY DICK — just the other day he said, “All those people who told me that they read MOBY DICK in high school must have been lying.” “Tedious” was his one-word review.

    A powerful learning tool for me was the old POWER RECORDS dramatizations of SPIDER-MAN, HULK, CAPTAIN AMERICA, and others. Good production values, although I thought their choice of stories to adapt was strange, since they weren’t typical issues of the comics.

    Comics can be educational. However, I will admit that I tended to ignore anything that wasn’t comic or superhero related for a long, long time. Use the comics to teach kids reading, but also introduce them to other types of material.

  5. Screw the Sudan! Where’s the relief effort to alleviate the suffering caused by kids being forced to read Moby Dick?

    I blame my lack of interest in not retaining my CPR accreditation to my school not making Resusci-Annie as hot-looking as she might have been.

  6. “I blame my lack of interest in not retaining my CPR accreditation to my school not making Resusci-Annie as hot-looking as she might have been.”

    That’s why I’ll soon be launching a new line of totally scorching hot “Resusci-Anime” dolls in Japanese-style schoolgirl outfits.

  7. I was trained as a school librarian (B.S.Ed. 94), and did almost all of my projects with comics, even giving a small presentation in one of the classes.
    The first place to start your research is the ERIC database, a clearinghouse of educational research maintained by the US Department Of Education. (eric.doe.gov?) I recall one paper where an instructor used Calvin & Hobbes comics to help English As A Second Language students decode the language.
    Regarding how the act of acquiring information affects ones thinking… I was reading a Wikipedia article on music notation. Some scholars feel that the western notation, which is so prevalent, actually narrows the viewpoint of musicians.
    As for Moby Dick and other oatmealish literature (good for you, but bland), many schools are using more modern titles. I would recommend Fox Bunny Funny as an excellent book to discuss Identity and how society pressures us to conform. Castle Waiting could be used in a course on feminism and fantasy writing.

  8. Why does everything have to be entertaining?

    Maybe we could continue to assign good books but after every chapter the student finishes, they would be orally pleasured and someone would cook them a hamburger.

    Mike Judge was horribly optimistic.

  9. Oops. http://Www.eric.ed.gov
    And the best use of comics is as nonfiction. McGraw-Hill offers a textbook of short social studies stories with lesson plans. Words and pictures explaini better, as can be seen in The Cartoon History Of The Universe by Larry Gonick. Schematics, maps, photos, graphs can be interwoven to create a smooth narration, which encourages the reader to become immersed in the subject. This also encourages learning, when the reader discovers something cool and wants to learn more.
    For me, that usually entails me looking up something in Wikipedia, then clicking a hyperlink, reading another article, and kevinbaconing all sorts of wonderful connections.

  10. Poor reading skills is the biggest problem in our schools. Because of this I have recently created a company totally based on the premise that comic books can really help young students learn required subject material. I firmly believe comic books can greatly improve reading skills because I grew up reading them.

    We create user -friendly materials that kids respond to because they are non-intimidating and present information in a graphic story format that is easily understood. Our unique programs make learning and skill development easier. The main obstacle we have encountered so far is the resistance by many teachers and educational supplies companies to try this radically different approach to learning – comic books! ( gasp!) . Many people do not understand or appreciate the powerful impact that comic books can have – especially on teenage boys .

    Please visit our website http://www.learnwellgraphics.com

  11. “Maybe we could continue to assign good books but after every chapter the student finishes, they would be orally pleasured and someone would cook them a hamburger.”

    good point, tom spurgeon. cause, you know, not requiring 7th graders to read ‘moby dick’ is pretty much the same thing as being orally pleasured and then served a hamburger.

  12. I’m glad you get it, because that’s the point I was making, that they were the exact same thing.

    Similarly, not being assigned Silas Marner is exactly equal to a backrub and a $50 ebay gift certificate, and skipping the textbook chapter on the Civil Rights movement for a viewing of Dog-Town and Z Boys is exactly equal to three tickets to the Wu-Tang reunion tour.


  13. I have been giving my best friend’s son a subscription to Marvel Adventures since he first started learning to read. He’s started school now and his reading levels are way above the rest of his class, he burns through the assigned books faster than any one, and is a constant visitor to the town library. His mom thinks they have comics to thank for that.

    So, I do think comics can be a useful tool in promoting literacy if you catch kids while they are young. They provide an entry way into reading, help develop reading skills and instill a sense of reading for pleasure.

    Of course, giving teenagers comics to read because they find Moby Dick too boring for their MTV addled minds is another thing entirely. There’s no guarantee that by reading World War Hulk that they’d be more likely to read Moby Dick later on. But if they are way behind the curve as reading skills go, then, perhaps, comics would provide a way for them to catch up.