Reluctant readers: How comic books can help

Not all kids love to read. But experts reveal how comic books can help reluctant readers find the joy in reading.

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It was the Bone comic book series that hooked Melissa Robberts’* son, Andrew. He wasn’t much interested in reading until he encountered, at age 10, the odd-looking trio lost in the valley of dragons.

Was his mom worried? “I have no problem with it,” says Robberts. “At least he’s reading.”

Many kids, often those who aren’t enthusiastic readers of books, seem to enjoy comics, but their parents may worry that the stories are too violent, sexually explicit or scary. There are worries as well that kids who read them are missing out on good or more challenging literature.

In recent years, there has been an explosion in the genre, with graphic novels (extended and often more complex stories rendered in comic-book style) and comics geared to kids. Not only that; reading experts are beginning to find that comic books may actually be helpful in turning around reluctant readers.

Bonny Norton became intrigued by comic books when her own children began to pick up Archie comics in the grocery store. A professor of language and literacy education at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, she wanted to know why they had such appeal, and what impact they had on literacy. She undertook a study of nine- to 12-year-old Archie readers in Vancouver schools, and found that kids said they “couldn’t put them down,” and they enjoyed talking about the comics with their friends.

*Names changed by request.

Norton says one of the key reasons why the kids were so engaged was that they saw Archie and his pals as a part of their world.

“A wide range of kids read comics,” says Norton. “A good reader isn’t going to stop reading books, and struggling readers are more inclined to pick up a comic because there are more points of entry to the story: the artwork, the sound effects — those zaps and splats that pepper the page.”

“Visual storytelling allows kids to read above their literacy level,” says Peter Birkemoe, owner of The Beguiling comic book store in Toronto, who advises schools and libraries about using comics to enhance literacy. “You can skip a word and still follow the story, so that means this material is ideal for struggling readers.” It also piques their interest in book culture, he says. “Just visiting the library and taking out a book is a major step for some.”

While it’s true that some comics are inappropriate for kids, says Birkemoe, there are treasures to be found.

Companies like Marvel Comics have rating systems, Birkemoe advises against relying on them. “There is no standard rating system. Every publisher has their own.” Within 30 or 40 seconds, though, a parent will be able to gauge whether the comic is something they want their 10-year-old reading.

Talk to the staff Find a store where the employees are knowledgeable, and ask them to help. “Often they will be able to point you to material that plays to your child’s interests,” says Birkemoe.

Don’t rely on old favourites “Parents might assume that any comic about a man in a colourful, tight-fitting costume fighting crime is OK. That’s not necessarily true,” says Birkemoe. “Most Batman comics, indeed most superhero comics, are targeted at a readership of adult males.”

Look for a moral universe Part of the reason Archie gets the thumbs-up from Norton is that the world depicted is a safe place where things tend to work out. “If the moral universe depicted is one in which good triumphs through ingenuity, compassion and human action, that’s great. If there’s violence, harm and abuse, then you don’t want your children reading it.”

This article was originally published in October 2010.

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