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Picture Books and Graphic Novels: A Healthy Addition to Any Reading Diet
I remember as a child, my parents constantly pushed us to read. Read books, magazines, packaging, road signs, legends and cartoons, whatever. Everything printed was fair game. I was lucky because they were able to make reading a difficult game. Mom once said she wouldn’t be surprised if I read the inside of the toilet paper roll. I replied, ‘but mom, there is nothing printed on the roll of cardboard.’ She laughed, but you looked and would have. She was right. Now my job is to instill that reading curiosity in those kids.
As a teacher of what our state calls at-risk teenagers, I face the problem of woefully unprepared students. Students for whom reading is a chore to be avoided at all costs. These students come into my eleventh grade classroom with only the basic reading skills of a fifth or sixth grader. Now I am faced with the same problem that so many teachers face with the realization that their students simply cannot read and understand the materials that need to be mastered. They just won’t and will use any ploy to circumvent a teacher’s attempt at classroom-focused reading exercises. So what can we do?
Obviously, we must teach these children to read well enough to be able to grasp the materials presented to them. We can’t leave it to the reading teacher who has more students than he can probably handle efficiently. But if we focus on teaching reading, what about the materials in the content area. Integrating content into 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 don’t read teachers, and rightly so. In most states, additional courses and certificates are required to qualify as a reading teacher. But, even without this qualification, teachers must be willing and able to identify reading problems in students and ready to help these students 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’ve been deeply entrenched in this issue for some time now and have learned that graphic novels or picture books, when used in conjunction with other materials, can increase student understanding and foster a sense of achievement which, in turn, allows the student the chance to succeed in the classroom.
When a child comes to my class with limited reading skills, I use accompanying materials that fall into the category of graphic novels. For example. One of the first books we read in my language arts class was War of the Worlds by HG Wells. As I looked at several faces of struggling students, 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 picked it up, and handed out a copy to each student. Suddenly, the faces of these students changed as they began to leaf through the book. Some even wondered. “You mean we can read a comic?”
In fact, the students didn’t realize that these graphic versions actually presented a more difficult reading experience, as most graphic novels do, but by changing the perception of the material and providing an alternative, I gave these students a chance at success that many hadn’t experienced in some time. The condition attached to this book was that it did not replace 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 it and I had to assure them that it was a choice and that the rating would be equal for all.
Additionally, classroom discussions, the use of visual technology, and other tools were also incorporated, but the greatest success apparently came from the incorporation of these picture books. If you think about it, your earliest reading experiences were probably with picture books, picture books, and later comic books.
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 material that matches their subjects and provide a similar graphical version of lessons. For example. I use the story of a maintenance man who has to figure out how much material he needs to renovate the school stadium. Through the use of pictures with captions, students suddenly solve word problems using more advanced math concepts or algebra and geometry when they previously struggled with simple fractions.
As I progress through the year, students ask if they can do reports and other projects using graphic novels. I have developed some guidelines, but the affirmative has resulted in about 72% of my challenged readers, those entering at grade 6 reading level, passing their grade 10 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 the desire increases and more reading occurs. It spins around. And the same applies in reverse. Students with reading difficulties have difficulty with required reading. They quickly come to “hate reading”. They avoid reading and their skills deteriorate.
Technology may have done reading skills a disservice. We expect to learn things from imagery, especially moving images. Today’s students are wired, and in many cases the classroom they spend so much of their day in isn’t. These students are bored and the teachers become more artists than teachers. Students don’t have time to read and don’t want to read. By incorporating the graphic novel or picture book, we entice them with something they can connect to visually.
Often, this is just the catalyst needed to show students that a word-filled world is more open to them than they previously believed. They acquire the desire to continue as each success is measured and transformed into a desire for more success. The negative cycle is broken and the successful one is started. All because of a picture book.
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