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Comics: A Multi-dimensional Teaching Aid in Integrated-skills Classes

(This article appeared in similar form in Studies in Social Sciences and Humanities, March 1997. Nagoya, Japan. Nagoya City University. Copyright @ Randall S. Davis.)


In the area of language instruction, teachers are constantly searching for new and innovative materials to enhance learning in the formal classroom environment. To meet this demand, publishers try to promote their material as being authentic, but many teachers (and more important, students) believe that no matter how appealing texts might be, they still ring of artificiality and are just a representation of the real thing. A textbook is just that material that has been altered and simplified for the consumption of the learner. That is not to say that there are not quality books out there; in fact, I am suggesting that a book be used as the core text of any class. I do believe, however, that other materials should be introduced into the class that expose students, both physically and mentally, to the outside world, particularly in EFL settings where authentic models are scarce.

Comics as an Educational Tool

One authentic material that has been explored over the past few years is the comic strip or comic book (see Davis, 1990, for a detailed bibliography). Before this form of educational entertainment emerged to the foreground, it was often believed (and still is by some social critics) that "comic books were so educationally unsound that their use would lead to mental stagnation (Ellman, 1979, p. 24; MacGregor, 1996, p. 7).

Teachers, businesses, and publishers, however, have realized that comic strips and comic books have a widespread appeal to all age groups and levels of society because they reflect authentic language and culture, for example, social commentary, human idosycracies, stereotypes, and life conflicts (Conrad, 1993; Elkins & Bruggemann, 1971), and contain a richness in story content and character development (Yoshihiro, 1992). In fact, it is one of the most widely read media throughout the world, especially in Japan where comic books accounted for 22.9% of the entire publications in 1994 (Weng Kin, 1995).

Pedagogical Reasons for Their Use

The resurgence of interest in this form of entertainment has spawned a host of texts and magazines seeking to ride the wave on using comics for educational purposes. All of these have taken advantage of the inherent characteristics that make this medium so attractive as an educational tool: (a) A built-in desire to learn through comics (Richie, 1979); (b) easy accessibility in daily newspapers and bookstands; (c) the novel and ingenious way in which this authentic medium depicts real-life language and "every facet of people and society" (Yoshihiro, 1992, p. 9); and (d) the variety of visual and linguistic elements and codes that appeal to students with different learning styles (Bangs, 1988; Davis, 1990; Kossack & Hoffman, 1987). Furthermore, many lessons can be adapted to bring the material within the linguistic reach of different levels of students.

Many native English teachers in Japan are assigned listening and speaking classes, with limited opportunities to teach the other skills areas. There is, however, a general movement on many fronts to shift this once generic class towards more content-based or ESP courses. The result has been that English now becomes more than a mere frill to a true vehicle to disseminate one's ideas. With the emergence of such a need, comics can fill this gap because of its multi-dimensional nature, combing both words and pictorial images.

Integrated-skills Classes: A Sample Project

The classes I teach generally meet twice a week for 90 minutes over 20 weeks. The underlying framework behind group-oriented projects takes root in the concept of cooperative learning, where the groups' efforts are focused on accomplishing a meaningful task with shared rewards. Here is one of a group of five projects I carry out during the year.

Purpose: To have students predict the beginning and outcome of a story.

Materials: An uncaptioned comic strip, preferably comprises of more than four panels.

Time: Four and a half hours over three classes.

Day 1: I assign students to work in small groups (preferably three to a group). For a comic's unit on sports, I give students an uncaptioned, multi-panel story from a Japanese comic book. (Any comic strip can be used regardless of language and culture as long as the story is apparent.) I ask students to take turns discussing the action in the panels, paying special note to facial expressions, gestures, setting, etc. I then have students down a list of five things they see in each frame, focusing on new lexicon. For homework, I assign each student to write down his or her own predictions on how the story begins and ends, in three sentences.

Day 2: Students exchange papers in their groups, read each other's ideas, and then vote on the best conclusion to the story. Then, I ask them to draw a first and final panel to the comic strip, write and then type their stories, and then turn in the product to me.

Day 3: I help students to put their pictures and stories up on a bulletin board outside the classroom or my office, and ask students in my other classes to select the most creative (not necessarily the best written or most plausible) story by writing the number of the story on a piece of paper and hand it in to me. The winning group receives extra credit points. This story can also be included in a class newsletter.

Other Pedagogical Uses

In addition to the uses mentioned in the summary lesson above, comic books and comic strips can be used to teach a wide variety of skills including:

  • To practice describing characters using adjectives (e.g., Garfield is a very troublesome cat);
  • To learn synonyms and antonyms to expand vocabulary;
  • To introduce culture-specific onomatopoeia«words that imitate what they represent (e.g., Drip, drip for the sound of falling rain or leaking pipes, Bang representing the sound of something crashing, etc.);
  • To practice writing direct speech (e.g., Hey, move your car!) and reported speech (The man said, "Move your car!");
  • To identify different family roles and stereotypes (e.g., Are men in Japanese comic strips portrayed as indifferent to sexual harassment as the news suggests?);
  • To improve students' listening by reading aloud the action in one of four panels in a comic strip and having students select the correct picture;
  • To identify social, political, economic, or environmental problems facing the world today;
  • To introduce paralanguage «lexical items with out a written correlate (e.g., Uh-oh, you're in trouble now for lying to Mom; Pssst. What's the answer to number five on the test; Uh, let me see). Paralanguage is perhaps the most used, yet most pervasive, language form, and many teachers are slow to introduce them because they are not aware of how much these items permeate everyday language. Fortunately, comics are rich in paralanguage content;
  • To practice formation of different verb tenses (i.e., changing the present tense of the action in the strip to the past tense);
  • To practice telling the story of a sequentially-ordered comic strip that has been scrambled up;
  • To reinforce the use of time-sequence transition words to maintain the unity of a paragraph or story (e.g., First, the boy left for school. Next, he . . .);
  • To help student recognize word reductions in written text, identify the corresponding long form, and practice these reductions orally (i.e, going to versus gonna; have to verses hafta; want to verses wanna);
  • To practice basic rules of pronunciation.

    Final Reflections

    The multi-dimensional nature of comic strips and comic books is a source of excellent teaching material, and allows teachers and students to explore language in a creative way. The more the teacher exploits comics, the greater the chance the outcome««heighten student interest and learning««will be a success. It is definitely a good way to get your students hooked on learning.

    (Some of this research came from the author's own unpublished master's thesis titled Comic Strips in the ESL Classroom: A Teachers' Activity Book to Supplement the Classroom Curriculum. Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 1991.) References


    Bangs, C. (1988). The use of cartoons in the learning of a second language. Journal of the Australian Modern Language Teachers' Association, 23(3), 10-14.

    Brown, J. (1977). Comics in the foreign language classroom: Pedagogical perspectives. Foreign Language Annuals, 5, 18-25.

    Conrad, D. J. (1993). Calvin and Hobbes and other icons of Americana. TESOL Journal, 2(3), 34.

    Davis, R. (1990, November). Comic strips: An innovative tool in the ESL classroom. Paper presented at the Intermountain TESOL Conference, Park City, Utah.

    Elkins, R., & Bruggemann, C. (1971).  Comics strips in teaching English as a foreign language. Paper presented to a conference in Kassei, West Germany. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 056 591)

    Graham, C., & Aragones, S. (1991). Rhythm and role play. Studio City, CA: JAG Publications.

    Humphries, R. (1995, November). A classroom comic book writing project. A demonstration presented at the 21st Annual International Conference on Language Learning/Teaching, Nagoya, Japan.

    Kin, K. W. (1995, January 3). In a nation of readers, manga popularity jumps. The Japan Times, p. 17.

    Koga, A., & Cane, G. (1995). Using humor in the EFL classroom: Some linguistic and psychological implications. The Language Teacher, 19(12), 4-7. Kossack, S., & Hoffman, E. (1987). Use the news: A picture's worth a thousand words. Comprehension processing via the comics. Journal of Reading, 31(2), 174-176.

    MacGregor, H. E. (1996, February 12). Japanese are crazy for their comic books. The Daily Yomiuri , pp. 7, 12.

    Richie, J. (1979). The funnies aren't just funny . . . using cartoons and comics to teach. The Clearing House, 53, 125-128.

    Schodt, F. L. (1993). The manga kingdom. In Japan: An illustrated Encyclopedia (pp. 216-217). Tokyo: Kodansha. Schodt, F. L. Manga! Manga!: The world of Japanese comics. Tokyo: Kodansha.

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