I attended an interesting conference recently on Comics and Contemporary Literacy http://werklund.ucalgary.ca/ldlp/schedule . The speakers were all people who write and draw comic books or graphic novels and the purpose of the conference was to raise awareness as to the strengths of comics as a type of literature that has its own unique characteristics.

The first speaker, Richard Van Camp, spoke about how his comics are used to communicate serious topics in a way that people would be interested in reading about them. This is an important point for people who are working with adults who enjoy comics, but it might be a challenge for those of us who work with students who might think of comics as books for children. However, the story line of many comics is definitely aimed at adults and one should not be thrown off by the co-existence with pictures.

It is the interaction between pictures and words that makes comic book readers think, says Jillian Tamaki, the second speaker from the conference. Action occurs between the panels and it is not uncommon for part of the picture to overlap another or be off the panel. While this makes the comic challenging, it is not a challenge at the level of the words, so ESL readers who bring with them life experience, can make sense of the pictures, which in turn helps them to understand the text.

Nick Sousanis, an academic whose dissertation was written as a comic book, pointed out that many of us are already familiar with the way comic books communicate without having to be told. We know that larger panels mean more important events, sharper color contrasts and sharper edges to objects draw our attention and thoughts are expressed with bubbles while speech is portrayed with an arrow toward the speaker. In a workshop, he gave us a chance to try our hand at our own comics. My favorite activity, and one which you may wish to try with your students is as follows:

  • Provide each student with a blank piece of paper and pencil and ask them to outline the panels of the story. They can choose how many fit on the page, what shape they are and what order they are in. The page might look something like this:

blank comic panel







  • Have each student pass the paper they drew on to the right. Taking their neighbors paper, they can now add captions, and dialogue to the empty frames. However, they do not add the drawings.

comic panel with dialogue








  • Pass the paper to the right again. Now the student has to draw in the panels to make sense of the dialogue given.

full comic








  • Finally, share the stories with the class. How do the final stories compare with what each person had in mind when creating the panels or the dialogue? Put up the stories on the wall and create a comic gallery for all to see.


In his book The Power of Reading, researcher Steven Krashen points out that comics provide enjoyment, which are a motivator to reading for adults and children alike.  Consider trying your hand at adding comics to your repertoire of ESL teaching strategies.


Dr. Roswita DresslerDr. Roswita Dressler, Ph.D