The term “graphic novel” was coined in 1964, and these texts have grown in popularity ever since. Beloved by readers of all ages, graphic novels have inspired a great deal of debate amongst parents and educators. Certainly no one will deny that any reading is better than no reading, but many parents would prefer that their children read the kind of chapter books that they grew up with. I’ve never been a huge graphic novel fan, with the exception of some of the works that transcend genre like Alan Moore’s Watchmen, but having spent much of my life encouraging children to read, I’ll happily take any tool available to me. I completely understand the concern that since graphic novels replace so much of the text with images, they appear to require substantially less “reading.” But for any parent on the fence about the value of graphic novels, let me offer some advice on how this medium can play an important role in developing the emerging reading skills of young readers.
When evaluating your children’s reading abilities, there are two broad skills that are important: reading fluency and reading comprehension. Reading fluency is built by learning the basics of phonics and sound blending and then practicing those skills, with appropriate corrections where needed, until they are automatic. Traditional novels have substantially more words and thus more opportunities to practice reading fluency. Reading comprehension, however, is a much more nebulous skill, the most important component of which is reader engagement. A child with absolutely flawless reading fluency could read every single word of the most punishing Dostoevsky novel without having any idea what the book is actually about. Graphic novels present a wonderful opportunity to help your children build their reading comprehension skills precisely because these stories contain far fewer words. For children whose reading fluency is still emerging, it can be incredibly difficult to simultaneously worry about comprehension. Graphic novels can be a great tool to help your children develop their ability to understand what they are reading without the stress that reading fluency can often bring.
Adopt The Child’s Mindset
My brother’s oldest son has reached the age where he’s venturing out into the world and is delighted by much of what he sees. There’s no switch that he doesn’t want to flip, and there’s no greater joy in life than identifying which chain controls the light and which controls the fan. When you tell him something, he’s never satisfied; he always wants to know why? This kind of rampant curiosity sometimes fades as children grow a little bit older and a little bit wiser. But it is exactly this kind of inquisitiveness that we should be encouraging in kids whenever they read anything, whether it be a graphic novel or a weighty, pictureless tome. When you’re asking your children about the graphic novel that they’re reading, adopt their mindset: constantly ask why. This superhero is the most powerful. Why? That character is really mean. Why? I’m scared that something bad is going to happen to this person. Why? Asking open-ended questions encourages children to think critically. What is it exactly that makes one character stronger/meaner/more likable than another?
One of the most important things children can do to help build their ability to read and understand is to make predictions. When your children are reading a graphic novel, ask them what’s happening in the story and then challenge them to make a prediction about what they think will happen next. Once they’ve hazarded a guess, ask them why? So many of the skills important to reading require a myriad of deductions that most adults make subconsciously. We observe or read about a person taking a series of steps, and through a combination of simple deductions, familiarity with archetypal plots, and countless other factors, we’re able to predict what will happen next. Like all skills, that skill must be practiced. So, challenge your children to predict what will happen in the next few pages, and even more importantly, try to identify what allowed them to make that prediction. If they think that the main character is nervous for an upcoming event, can they identify the clues that indicated that the protagonist was nervous? Were there sweat beads drawn on the character’s face? Did his facial expression suggest something about his tone? By challenging your children to identify these clues, you’re helping them build the ability to recognize evidence and make deductions. And perhaps more importantly, you’re subtly reinforcing to them that they should be reading actively.
Reading all of the words in War and Peace and understanding nothing will do much less for the reading comprehension of a 7-year-old than throwing themselves completely into reading the graphic novel series that they love. If your children love graphic novels, consider encouraging them to use these texts as an opportunity to learn to read actively.