4 Surprising Ways Comics and Graphic Novels Can Benefit English Language Learners

Friday, July 7, 2017
4 Surprising Ways Comics and Graphic Novels Can Benefit English Language Learners

English language learners face a variety of challenges as they develop literacy skills in a new language. In addition to learning clear-cut vocabulary and grammar rules, ELL students must also become proficient in understanding cultural context, expression, and figurative speech in English. With all of these considerations, it can be difficult to find materials that help ELLs develop crucial reading skills while also covering subject matter in an interesting and age-appropriate fashion.

Luckily, comics and graphic novels have found their way into the classroom as an effective learning tool for ELLs. Here are four surprising ways reading comics and graphic novels can benefit English language learners.  


1.  They explain figurative language
In an article on figurative language instruction for the English language learner, teacher Barbara Palmer and her colleagues explained that idioms, metaphors, and other figures of speech can be extremely difficult for ELLs to decode. However, the illustrated panels of comics and graphic novels provide a wealth of visual information that give helpful context. For example, students can more easily infer that the phrase "Penny for your thoughts" is an idiom if a panel shows two characters having a discussion rather than literally exchanging money.  

2.  They explore complex, age-appropriate interests
Since graphic novels have the length to support well-developed plots, storylines, and characters, they can be used to teach complicated subjects that are appropriate for older students. For example, Dawn Wing taught her 11th-grade ELL students using Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel, "Maus," which describes the experiences of a Holocaust survivor. The literacy lessons Ms. Wing taught using the graphic novel were much more accessible than a textbook and even inspired her students to further their own studies about the Holocaust. Using illustrated mediums such as graphic novels encourages older students to learn about subject matter that is interesting and relevant to them while also providing visual support for decoding.  

3.  They demonstrate punctuation and emphasis
Although literacy skills often focus on silent reading or writing, oral reading skills are just as important. On the bilingual education site Colorin Colorado, Karen Ford explained the relationship of fluent reading and oral development in English for ELLs. "As students practice reading English text accurately, automatically, and prosodically, they are gaining valuable information about the sounds and cadences of spoken English," said Ford. The dialogue and writing style used in comics can be useful in this capacity, as many comic strips use frequent punctuation and the bolding of key words to demonstrate how a phrase would be said aloud. The accompanying illustration gives additional visual clues to how the dialogue should be read. Consider asking ELL students to read aloud from comics or graphic novels to practice their oral language development and reading fluency.

4.  They denote unfamiliar cultural norms
For ELL students, challenges may arise not only from the complexities of learning a new language, but from learning a new culture as well. A policy research brief produced by the National Council of Teachers of English noted that ELL students may be facing a variety of socio-cultural factors that affect English language learning. Unlike text-only passages, the visuals that accompany comic panels show how speakers use facial expressions, gestures, and position when they speak. As in traditional novels, short stories, and poetry, comics and graphic novels reinforce cultural values, such as how children are expected to relate to their parents and peers, and how to handle a wide range of social issues. The visual nature of comics and graphic novels helps students make inferences and connections to their own daily lives in a way that text-only resources cannot.


Comics and graphic novels may not be traditional classroom texts, but they offer a wide range of opportunities for English language learners. Whether studying concrete literacy concepts (such as inflection, emphasis, and punctuation) or more abstract ideas (such as complex social issues, innuendo, and cultural norms), comics and graphic novels provide engaging visual support for students. In your classroom, look for age-appropriate comic strips or longer graphic novels to help ELLs decode new information, make inferences, and learn more about an unfamiliar culture.

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