Closer Readings Commentary

Using Comic Books and Graphic Novels in ELA and Social Studies Classrooms

As Superheroes, a recent NEH-supported PBS program demonstrates, comic books and graphic novels are such integral parts of our culture that they have taken over our language and our television and film history. They also mirror the vast changes in American society and values over eight decades. Yet this medium was not considered part of “serious” literature until the publication of Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1991). The first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize, Maus showed us that even one of the most terrible crimes of the past century could be handled in this format.

For students, comic books and graphic novels are appealing resources that allow them to formulate and grasp new and challenging ideas and opinions while developing their creativity. For teachers, comic books and graphic novels offer new ways to engage students and assess their facility in understanding and analyzing content. They provide a chance to build literacy and critical thinking skills by helping students develop a deeper and more complex understanding of what they read.

Why should I use comic books and graphic novels in the classroom?

Recent research pinpoints how comic books and graphic novels help students gain and/or grow their literacy skills. (Rapp 2011) They:

  • allow students to follow a plot;
  • help them predict what the characters or the story is going to do next; and
  • help them build complex understandings of how to decipher the actions and thoughts of the characters and place within the context of the entire story.
  • Moreover, students who struggle with reading texts can use comic books and graphic novels when assigned texts that are difficult for them.

Many classic novels are being turned into comic book or graphic novel form, and the combination of visuals and text make the story easier to follow for some students. More advanced students can go further and compare the original texts with the graphic novel versions in order to understand how ideas can be interpreted. Take a look at a recent graphic rendition of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself at the NEH-funded Young American Heroes website. One of the many ways you might use this resource is as a review of the major points of the narrative before implementing one of EDSITEment’s lessons on the 1845 autobiography.

Comic books and graphic novels also play a role in helping students grasp key understandings of content. They not only provide an alternate way of approaching biographies and other forms of literature, they can also be used in history and social studies classes to give an introduction to important sources such as the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Gettysburg Address (each of which has been turned into a graphic novel). Since the Common Core mandates and the SAT will test for an understanding of these founding documents, graphic interpretations can prove useful in many types of classrooms.

You can create an engaging and rigorous classroom by having students create comic books and graphic novels to convey their understanding and mastery of concepts (see examples below). Students do not need to be artistic. They can use software like Word and/or PowerPoint and free programs on the Internet to create an excellent project.

Comic books and graphic novels give students and teachers the opportunity to build those literacy skills, interpret and critically evaluate different resources, and express ideas in a creative way fundamental to achieving the Common Core. The list goes on and on. Some examples of corresponding standards (and there are many that can be found across all grade levels) are:

  • ELACC6W3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.
  • ELACC6RI4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings.
  • ELACC9-10RI7: Analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums (e.g., a person’s life story in print and multimedia), determining which details are emphasized in each account.
  • L9-10RH6: Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts

Real classroom examples

Here are two widely divergent examples of how I have used the graphic format in my classroom.

Comic Book Characters and Grammar: Students created superheroes to represent the different types of sentences. Their bodies were in the shape of the corresponding punctuation and their dialogue had to fit into the parameters of that type. This activity can be paired with a gallery walk that allows students to display their work and allow for peer review.

World War I: When finishing our unit on World War I, students were asked to create a portfolio about the history of this conflict. One of the sections was about the four main causes of WWI. Students had the option of creating a comic book or strips detailing the causes instead of writing a report. One resource to use when doing this assignment is the program and website for the NEH-supported The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century.

Another resource, Chronicling America, an NEH partnership with the Library of Congress, is a free database of historic digitalized newspaper. By using the search tool, I selected the date “1914” and “cartoons” and found this article about how artists and cartoonists on both sides of the conflict were enlisted in the war efforts.

The possibilities are endless.


Rapp, D. N. 2011. Comic books' latest plot twist: Enhancing literacy instruction. Phi Delta Kappan 93.4:64–67.