Keeping Reading Fun

September 18, 2008

This has been bugging me for a while now, and I’ve got to say something.  It was spurred by an article in The Oregonian, and pointed out by Brigid Alverson of Good Comics for Kids.  The gist of the Oregonian article was teachers incorporating comics into the classroom, through the Comic Book Project, a joint effort by Dark Horse Comics and Columbia University of New York.  Included in the article was the following quote:

Some educators are skeptical, worrying Superman will replace Shakespeare and that comics dumb down lessons.

“If children want to read comic books, that’s their prerogative,” Diane Ravitch, a professor at New York University and a former U.S. assistant secretary of education, said in an e-mail. “But they are not good ‘tools’ for teaching reading.”

Comics use limited and superficial vocabulary, and they fail to teach children to read and think at the same time, she said.

Not good tools for teaching reading?!  I would think anything that inspires a child to want to pick up a book would be a good tool!  I’ve shown on this blog how the subtitles in fansubs helped improve my youngest daughter’s reading.  No amount of pleading, cajoling or punishment made a difference in her effort.  But give her a show she wants to see that isn’t available in English, and suddenly her reading proficiency sky-rockets!  You want to improve vocabulary, go read a dictionary!  Comic books don’t fail at teaching kids to think any more than the Goosebumps, Magic Tree House or Harry Potter books do!  I don’t see those books getting condemned.  Lessons can only be “dumbed down” if the teacher does so.  It’s not the material, it’s the instruction.  And we’re already seeing lessons being “dumbed down” with the emphasis on teaching to state tests.  There is no teaching to read and think, just pass the tests so the school’s scores don’t drop.

Just because a book isn’t meant to be used for instruction, doesn’t mean it can’t be used for that purpose.  I write reviews of Eagle: The Making of an Asian-American President, and compare it to the current presidential campaign.  That isn’t the reason the book was written.  It wasn’t even written to be compared to the 2000 presidential campaign.  It’s meant to entertain, not instruct.  I chose to do the comparison while I was reading the first volume.  I’ve read comics since I was in elementary school, and never read Shakespeare.  It didn’t impair my ability to think and read.  Why would introducing comics suddenly start to do so now?  Kids haven’t gotten dumber in the last 30 years, have they?

There is nothing wrong with wanting to inform and entertain.  Reading should not be turned into a chore.  If we make kids think reading is just more homework to hate, and not something to be enjoyed, then we have failed them.  With all the other things they can do now, such as TV, video games, and the internet, reading has some tough competition, and it’s losing.  Studies have shown a drop in reading by teens in such things  as magazines because of the aforementioned.  If comics can help engage kids again, and get them picking up a book over staring at a screen, I think we should do all we can to encourage them.

Reactions to comics in the classroom, such as the quote above, seems more like a knee-jerk reaction than any kind of thoughtful consideration. Because in the past, comics were more pulp and “tights and capes”, therefore all comics today must be same and unworthy of any consideration.

It’s time to join the 21st century.  Despite attempts to stunt their growth with the “comics code”, comics have evolved and become more sophisticated with both character and plot.  They can and are written to both educate and entertain.  Kids today live in a completely different world, and their needs have changed from 50 years ago.  Educators need to keep up with these changes and adjust their methods to better accomodate these needs.  Just as there is more than one way to skin a cat, so there is more than one way to teach a kid to read.  Isn’t better to have all those options available, than to have kids slipping through the cracks and missing out on all the worlds reading can be showing them?  I sure think so.

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4 Comments for this entry

  • Topsy-Techie says:

    I so agree! Graphic novels, comic books, interactive online stories, audio books, word games…they are all there to provide reading outlets for people with various learning styles. While auditory learners might enjoy an audio book, visual learners love graphic novels and comics, and kinesthetic learners tend to like interactive books and games. It takes all kinds of reading to make the world go round…

  • There is no inherent difference between comics and books other than comics are illustrated. You can have the same kind of intelligent prose in comics as in books and the same kind of stupid, childish nonsense in books as in comics, one is not inherently better than the other. Anyone who says otherwise is simply ignorant of the facts.

    Unfortunately, you get a lot of people who pretend to be intelligent who really don’t act like it when it comes to preconceived notions.

  • Esther Keller says:

    Thanks for the link, I saw the comment from Diane Ravitch and wondered about the source. I think she’s way off on this one and in Brigid’s post quoted Kylene Beers who write the exact opposite… comics have the highest rate of ‘rare’ vocabulary next to scientific articles.
    OTOH, the study about teens reading less and citing online use as one of the detractors forgets that teens are reading a ton online. The nature of reading is changing. It’s comics, online, and books are still popular as well.

  • Esther, I do realize about the changing habits of kid’s reading. I did want to say more about that, but he words weren’t flowing right. A new study has now shown that gaming is good for kids as it’s become another social activity.

    The point I wanted to drive home, is that kids have some many other things to do, that we shouldn’t make reading books a chore. My oldest daughter spends a lot of time online chatting with her friends, but she couldn’t wait to read the new Pokemon Diamond and Pearl manga she bought while we were out. She wanted to start reading it in the car! I was really glad to see her anxious to read, since I rarely see her do it. But then again, I rarely see her at all, being in her room all the time.

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