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Harnessing the Power of Visual Storytelling

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With screen technology becoming ubiquitous at home, school, work, and everywhere else, our world is increasingly visually oriented. The definition of literacy itself is being expanded to include the ability to analyze visual media. According to the National Association for Media Literacy Education, “Today’s information and entertainment technologies communicate to us through a powerful combination of words, images, and sounds. As such, we need to develop a wider set of literacy skills helping us to both comprehend the messages we receive and effectively utilize these tools to design and distribute our own messages” (NAMLE, 2019).

A study published in the journal Science in 2013, as reported by Scientific American, confirmed what many bookworms already knew in their hearts: reading literary fiction increases empathy. As opposed to reading nonfiction or plot-driven genre fiction, or not reading at all, reading character-driven literary fiction significantly increased empathy in the study participants (Chiaet, 2013). Literature, then, can be a great tool for teaching empathy—one of the five major competencies of social-emotional learning—that is both highly effective and easy to work into an existing curriculum.

The popularity of graphic novels has exploded in recent years, taking this unique literary and art form from an overlooked niche market to classrooms and school libraries across the country. Graphic novels are increasingly accepted by once-skeptical parents and educators as “real” reading and more than just a novelty. The form offers many specific benefits, particularly in teaching social-emotional skills to middle school students.

Keeping all levels of readers engaged

Librarians embrace graphic novels for one simple, important reason: kids love them. Graphic novels often appeal to students who don’t already love reading books (as well as those who do). While a middle school student might scoff at an ordinary picture book, thinking it is for younger kids, they will see an age-appropriate graphic novel as something different, fun, and appealing.

Librarians embrace graphic novels for one simple, important reason: kids love them.

The bright, eye-catching artwork in a graphic novel will draw in a reluctant reader, who will then get the same benefits as they would from reading a text-only book—and they might even develop a love of reading that could last a lifetime.

Kyle Redford of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity calls graphic novels the “grand equalizers” because they appeal to all kids in his fifth-grade class library. Visual cues can help a dyslexic reader to continue to follow a story even if they are struggling to read the words (Redford, 2017).

At the same time, a high-quality graphic novel contains layers of complexity in the characters and plot that will challenge a more advanced reader and hold their interest. Additionally, in a surprising finding from the University of Oregon, as reported by Parents Magazine, comic books contain more complex words (53.5 per 1,000) than children’s books (30.9) or even adult books (52.7) (Lindenfeld Hall, 2019).

Expediting reading comprehension for English language learners

Graphic novels improve reading comprehension for all students (Jennings, Rule, & Vander Zanden, 2014), but they are especially helpful for English language learners. Seeing visual representations that match the text helps students grasp the meaning of the words more quickly. The medium is so successful in teaching English to nonnative speakers that many authors, illustrators, and publishers are taking the relationship a step further and publishing immigration stories in graphic novel form for students of different age groups. These books can bring the immigrant experience to life in the classroom for both American-born and immigrant students (Maples, Cianca, & Maloy, 2016).

Teaching empathy to students with autism

Graphic novels can also be used to teach empathy to students on the autism spectrum. Having words and pictures together that convey the same information about how a character is feeling, particularly in the simplified and exaggerated style of comic artwork, can help a student with autism learn to better interpret others’ facial expressions and body language and thus to empathize with them more easily (Rozema, 2015).

Embracing our diverse world

The beauty of stories and their power to evoke empathy in us lies in their ability to entice us to place ourselves in another’s shoes—in the case of written stories, to see ourselves on the page. Contemporary graphic novels are being written by, and about, a greater diversity of people than is found in the traditional Western literary canon—and they are colorfully illustrated. Selecting books by diverse authors and about diverse characters will help students from underrepresented groups see themselves on the page, meeting and conquering challenges head-on along with the characters—an inclusiveness which is important for developing self-esteem. Reading books with more inclusionary characters will also help children who are not members of these minority groups develop empathy for their classmates and community members.

An imprint of Center for Responsive Schools, Avenue A Books creates and publishes picture books and graphic novels designed to teach social and emotional skills to students ages 4­–14. These engaging, moving, and laugh-out-loud-funny stories are written and illustrated by a diverse group of children’s book authors and illustrators.


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