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Improving literacy through comics

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BOOK: The inside of a graphic novel about Patrick Henry uses photos to assist with storytelling about historic events. Not all comic books are fiction. Many of the library’s collection are based on true stories, and there is even an adult comic book section.
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TALK: Rosemarie Felts addresses the group of tutors about her experience learning English through comic books.
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COMICS: Dawn Schmidt puts away a “Superman” comic book after a presentation to encourage local tutors to use graphic novels to increase literacy in Huntington County.

by Andrew Maciejewski - amaciejewski@h-ponline.com

Rosemarie Felts survived Nazi-occupied Germany.

She remembers scavenging the war-torn city for nettles to eat. She survived the Russian invasion in which soldiers bombed and burnt everything they could.

As she often does, she persevered.

When her husband wanted to move to rural Huntington County near Zanesville, she passed time by reading the encyclopedia, from A to Z, but understanding English proved difficult, until she found a unconventional tool.

For six weeks, she and her future husband dated without having an “intelligent conversation.” On their first date, Rosemarie invited her friend who knew English to come along to translate, but after a few weeks she realized the trio couldn’t continue forever.

“It’s gotta be just you and me, buddy,” she said.

She’d never seen a comic book before, but that is how she learned her first words in English: “Wonder Woman.”

“My future husband and I sat down one time with a comic book, but of course I couldn’t read what they were saying,” she said. “So through playing charades and sign language, my husband taught me to speak each word and explained what it meant, but the pictures really helped.”

Felts went on to use graphic novels as a tool to teach students in India how to speak English properly. She said the comic books give more context to a story than words can, since the Indian students could see how the characters dressed, what they looked like and other aspects of their culture through the pictures.

Huntington City-Township Library literacy specialist Dawn Schmidt wanted to tap into the library’s large collection of graphic novels, commonly referred to as comic books, to improve literacy, so Schmidt invited Felts to speak to a group of local tutors to share her testimony and to share a recent article published by ProLiteracy about the benefits of teaching through graphic novels.

The publication shows that comic books can be used to educate learners of all ages by increasing motivation, improving reading comprehension, helping understand dialogue, improving writing skills and increasing vocabulary.

Schmidt said when students come into the library, tutors will now know how to properly tap into comic books to encourage reading and comprehension.

“You want to make it interesting and fun without going off base too much,” she said.

Comics and graphic novels are not just about superheroes. The library has a full set of classic novels that are now reimagined with storyboards of graphics to entice readers. Felts said she would use graphic novel versions of The Bible to teach, and the library even has graphic novels about historic figures like Patrick Henry.

Comics are also not just for kids, the article published by the National Reading Organization says the benefits help any age group, and there are even 800-page adult graphic novels about famous authors and their classic works.

The article explains how comics don’t overwhelm readers with a lot of text, which improves motivation by acting as a stepping stone to longer, more complex texts, and researchers say comic books improve reading comprehension because readers must read between the lines by interacting with both text and imagery to fully visualize the story.

The graphic novels also help readers understand basic elements of stories, such as setting, characters, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution.

The big benefit of comic books is how it improves vocabulary, since the pictures and corresponding words help a reader put together clues to fully understand a new word or object. For example, if they didn’t know a verb like shove, they can use clues from the image to understand that shove is similar to push.

Even outside of language arts, Schmidt said graphic novels can benefit anyone.

“Sometimes it’s hard to get a student to begin thinking outside of the box or tapping into that creativity that we all need,” she said. “I think that the pictures help with that. Also, maybe they’re a future artist. You never know what is going to inspire an individual.”