Graphic novels as a gateway to literacy for struggling readers

My principal has fully-supported the choice reading time that I give my students at the beginning of class each day.  In fact, she’s supported it so much that’s she’s asked the 6th and 8th grade English Language Arts (ELA) teachers to begin implementing a similar approach to their classrooms as well.  This week, an 8th grade ELA teacher found me at buses after school after her first day of trying this new strategy; in short, she was frustrated.  She relayed that only half the kids read, and she spent the majority of the 10 minutes fighting the other half to read something.  Apparently, if students weren’t interested in a book in her classroom library, they could read a NewsELA article.  Now, I’m a HUGE NewsELA fan.  I regularly use it in my classroom when I want to level the informational texts that we read.  But I’d never force it upon students during independent reading time. Maybe a few would be interested, but I’m guessing not many.

I then suggested that she could offer graphic novels to the reluctant readers.  She looked surprised and stated that she didn’t want her students reading graphic novels because they “weren’t real books”. Yes, she said this.  I briefly tried to explain to her that they could be a good option for a struggling reader, but she disagreed.  Although I wanted to continue this conversation with her, I had to run to get to a meeting that was a 20-minute drive away, so this blog post will have to suffice.

If I didn’t have the meeting, I would have argued vehemently that graphic novels are most certainly books, as much as any other books are books.  My room is filled with graphic novels like American Born Chinese, Awkward, Drama, Sisters, Smile, Persepolis, March, Cardboard, Roller Girl, Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, and I Am Alfonso Jones.  These books examine a host of universal themes: friendship, family, acceptance, equity, determination and persistence.  They contain complex characters that develop and grow throughout the story.  They offer unique perspectives that encourage students to explore varying viewpoints that promote empathy, kindness and relationships.  Graphic novels expose students to story arcs: rising action, climax, conflicts, resolutions.

In addition, graphic novels give struggling readers the boost they need to begin to see themselves as readers.  I’ve had countless struggling readers complete a graphic novel in my class and beam as they tell me it’s the first time they’ve read a book from cover to cover.  That is HUGE. Reading feels far less daunting to a kid when they gain the confidence that comes from knowing they can read a book in its entirety.  I have an English Learner in one of my classes that seems determined to read all 26 volumes of the Dragon Ball Z box set, and I’m all for it.  Those books contain thousands of words.  Why wouldn’t I want him to devour them?

Teachers are always going to have a handful of students that enter their classrooms at the start of the year with an indifference to reading.  It may not be many kids, but inevitably, there will be a few.  I try to get a graphic novel into the hands of these students as soon as possible. Once they complete a graphic novel something inside them clicks.  It almost never fails. Then they read another graphic novel.  And then another.  Guess what eventually happens?  These same students start choosing chapter books that they never would have dreamed of attempting to read when we first met in August.  This happens EVERY SINGLE YEAR.  The graphic novels are a gateway to literacy for students who haven’t had a positive relationship with reading in the past.  They offer these kids an opportunity to realize that they are in fact capable of engaging with a book on a deeper level on their own.

I’m constantly adding to my classroom library. Like many teachers, I probably spend too much money on books. But also like many teachers, I will continue to buy more engaging texts that I think will captivate my students, and I will most certainly continue purchasing graphic novels.


5 thoughts on “Graphic novels as a gateway to literacy for struggling readers

  1. Hi 🙂 I’m Alicia and I’m a first-year ELA teacher. My ENL co-teacher and I started doing independent reading with our students, all of whom are tenth-grade ELLs, and I’ve noticed how much graphic novels can engage students who otherwise want nothing to do with reading. Any advice on helping students choose graphic novels appropriate for their reading levels?


  2. Hi Alicia! If you know the students’ lexile levels, then you could use to check to see if the graphic novels are within range. I also sometimes just skim through the graphic novel myself to assess the vocabulary and whether I think it will be accessible to them or not. I think your ELL students will acquire a lot of new vocabulary using graphic novels because of the illustrations that accompany the words. Just talk to the kids about the books they are reading too – “How would you describe a character? What do you think will happen next? What’s a choice the character made and why did he/she make that choice?” The answers to those questions will probably let you know pretty quickly if the book is appropriate for your student or not.

    Good luck on your first year of teaching! I taught only ELL students in my first two years that were all refugees, and I absolutely loved working with them!


  3. Thanks for the advice! I don’t know my students’ lexile levels, so right now everything’s just kind of done by self-selection. Also, if you don’t mind my asking another stupid first-year teacher question – when/where do you ask students about their books? I guess it would be reasonable to ask one student while everyone else is reading independently, but it was such a push to establish that independent reading time is when we all be quiet and focus, and I’m nervous that if I start having a conversation with one student, then other people will take that as an invitation to put down their books and start fooling around.

    Yeah, teaching ELLs has been a good experience for me so far! I can imagine that teaching refugees would come with its own challenges but also some worthwhile rewards.


    • I talk to one or two students quietly at their desks while the others are reading. If you are nervous about these discussions disrupting your classroom dynamic, then you could probably find another time to have them. I assure you that your classroom management will improve dramatically from year 1 to year 2 (as mine did), and by next year you’ll be having these book discussions whenever you want.


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