Comic Comprehension

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of working with teachers on conferring. While in the room, I conferred with a few students that were reading graphic novels. When I approached the reader, the teacher said, “I can have him read a real book if that would help.” I graciously declined and proceeded with the conference. At the end of the reading conference, the teacher remarked that she didn’t know so much thinking work was possible in a graphic novel.

Since then, that experience has resonated with me and I have taken note of student-teacher interactions with graphic novels. Most of the conversations consist of the teacher wanting the student to push themselves with their thinking, not realizing the gem that was sitting in front of them. Some teachers have even asked for something to help them with this newer and quickly growing genre. This post is a quick introduction to help you get started with working in this genre.  Most of the information comes from a wonderful book I began with work with called Adventures in Graphica: Using Comics and Graphic Novels to Teach Comprehension, 2-6 by Terry Thompson (Twitter: @TerryTreads).

Windows of Information

The first major thing in graphic books we need to look at are the panels. Panels, outlined below in green and yellow, are similar to paragraphs in regular text books.  Like text, we read panels left to right, top to bottom. Panels, sometimes called frames, come in many shapes and sizes. The shapes and sizes are not random. Sometimes panels are inlaid in other panels. All of this is the craft of the author/illustrator.  The do it on purpose. Our thinking task as a reader is to figure that out.  This is something we can explore with our students as they read. The sample on the right hand side below shows inlaid panels. In this case, the panels change the point of view to look at things from the perspective of the character that is upside down.  I might explore with the reader, why the writer of the book might of done that.  It is would probably be more of an inquiry conference to help the reader discover why the writer chose to make the panels like this as opposed to the normal way.  After the discovery process, I follow up with an explicit teaching strategy, giving a what, why, how, and when to use it, such as:

Readers notice when panels change shape because the writer wants to understand something important. When we notice a change in shape or a panel inlaid within another we stop and ask:

  • What is happening right here?
  • How is this important to the story?

The answers can give us clues about the character or help us figure out what is really happening.”


Read Between the Panels

Gutters are the spaces between the panels. They have major inference work in them that readers do without even realizing it.  For instance, take the example below. The gutter is the indicated by the red arrow. It is the spot for the reader to figure out, or infer, what happens between the two panels. In this case, the mouse in the red took the information from the mouse wearing orange, processed it, stopped digging, grabbed the paper out of the orange mouse’s hand and started running. All of this happened in the gutter. Students usually complete this process unconsciously. It is our job to help make this thinking conscious and grow it.


Voice Overs

Narrative boxes (outlined in green below) move along the plot line or show a shift in setting similar to a narrative voice over of a nature show on TV. Sometimes they are even used to summarize one or more panels. These boxes are a wonderful thinking opportunity for the reader to keep track of the plot and setting.  They are meant to be noticed and used to maintain meaning within the text.


Fluency Work

Another area we can work with students on in graphic novels is fluency, more specifically expression. One of the things I teach readers is to read dialogue in a way that matches what the character is feeling. Graphic novels are great tools for this work. Look. at the panel below from a Rosen Publishing graphic biography. When we first read the speech bubble, as an adult reader, we can infer that the character is worried about something and will insert that feeling of worry into the text. With our growing readers, that process is not automatic. I would have the reader look at the character’s face and infer what he or she is feeling.  When reading the dialogue, say it like the character is feeling.  It makes a big difference with the expression and comprehension.


Mood Panels

In graphic novels, we can also delve into more complex comprehension areas such as mood. In graphic novels, everything is done on purpose, including the color.  Color can give us great insights into the mood of a scene.  Take for instance, this panel:


Looking at just the colors in this picture, I notice that there is a lot of dark and blue colors.  This suggests that something negative has happened or is about to happen. When I look at the narrative box, my thought is confirmed because something did not go smoothly. I also see a shining light in the picture as well that makes me think that the situation may turn out okay.  The light gives the character hope. All of this deep and complex thinking work is just from the one panel.  From this point you could extend the work to plot, foreshadowing, ex cetera.

Just the Beginning

This work is a great way to start students working in this genre of book. To explore further, I highly encourage you to read Terry Thompson’s book, Adventures in Graphica. This a genre full of rich thinking work just waiting for you and your students to explore and grow as readers.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s