In my teaching literature methods course last fall, we read Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese in anticipation of a lesson prepared by some of my classmates. The novel is a thick book, almost 240 pages, but it took less than 25 minutes to read it. I encountered several pages with just pictures, and pages full of words like “zop” and “boink”. When the group delivered their 40 minute lesson, they taught us how to analyze the images and lines around the word bubbles to gain meaning from the story. In other words, print was neglected and pictures emphasized.
This was my first experience reading a graphic novel– I was not a fan.
The Bigotry of Low Expectations
Through my initial teacher preparation program, I was taught that graphic novels are good for struggling readers, engaging non-readers, and tapping into “multimodal” learning. This solution makes sense. Pictures with interspersed print mitigate the issues that students may have with decoding. It allows them to rely on the pictures for meaning as the fictional three cueing system has mistakenly taught them; it allows them to skip words and look at the pictures instead of the printed text; it continues and reinforces the ingrained behaviors of poor readers. If you’re an 8th grader who has been struggling to read since the 3rd grade, and are given a book full of pictures, do you really think you’re going to spend much time attempting to decipher the code? (probably not)
My ultimate quibble with graphic novels is this: graphic novels are a band-aid for poor reading instruction. A student who struggles to decode is not going to put much effort into decoding the words among the images, and a student who reads fluently will skip over the pictures because they want to enjoy the feeling of immersing themselves in masterful language. Either way, the students are getting half of the experience of the book (and we really shouldn’t spend time teaching children to “read” images when so few students are being taught how to read print).
Even so, I get it. Graphic novels are easy. They are enjoyable (for some). Kids like them.
Is our goal as instructors to push them along, kick the can down the road, and ignore the underlying issues? Or do we show our students that they can achieve more? Our field has been demoted to one where we are no longer teaching content knowledge, but wielding to student interest to fight for their attention. It’s much easier to assign something that they can do independently than to provide the multitude of scaffolds required to read and comprehend a complex and cognitively demanding text. Do we really love our children?
Literacy or Literacies?
We must differentiate between instructional time and independent time. I would never forbid a student to read a graphic novel on their own time. Conversely, as an English teacher, I would never center images as a “text” in my classroom without a fight (art teachers, visual literacy is your thing). There are a number of students who depend on schools to provide academic knowledge. I was one of them. There are students whose parents cannot afford private tutoring, excursions, and knowledge-building opportunities outside of school. I was one of them. We can’t control what goes on at home, but we can control what goes on in our classroom. Instead of giving texts that our students could realistically read without any help, we should push and support them in achieving beyond what they can do alone. This is our duty.
You Teach High School– Why Do You Care About Early Reading Instruction?
I was lucky. Somehow in a culture dominated by Fountas & Pinnell and Lucy Calkins, I received systematic phonics instruction and time-tests for math and reading fluency at my primary school. I’ve been reading since the 1st grade and have had all of my math facts memorised since 3rd. There is now one school in my neighborhood, KIPP Academy, that “beats the odds” for African-American children; less than 40% of the school is reading on grade level. The typical range of other schools in the area is less than 20. Graphic novels and a regressive pedagogy are not the answer when we are failing to instruct children to read in the first place.
Perhaps the role of the English teacher is changing. Maybe we’re preparing our students for those coveted 22nd century skills to get them prepared for the jobs that don’t exist yet. I know that I’m a new teacher with a lot to learn, but I would rather spend my time trying to do what we know to work than reinventing the wheel and waiting for the evidence later. It shouldn’t take luck for our students to be able to learn to read.
I taught To Kill a Mockingbird to a ~130 8th graders this past spring. The reading proficiency of around 1/2 of my students was below grade level. It required significant planning and scaffolding on my part. I wrote about how I accomplished this in a few other places on my blog.