Scholarly article on topic 'Using Comics with Novice EFL Readers to Develop Reading Literacy'

Using Comics with Novice EFL Readers to Develop Reading Literacy Academic research paper on "Languages and literature"

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Abstract of research paper on Languages and literature, author of scientific article — Ivana Cimermanová

Abstract The study concentrated on the possible effects of using authentic comics with EFL learners. It examined the strategies applied by novice readers in reading comics with the special focus on lexical guessing using context. The data for this illustrative qualitative case study were collected from observations, discussions, verbal report and in some cases students’ writings. The results indicated possible positive effects in vocabulary development and motivation to reading and overcoming linguistic barriers in reading authentic material using the context and prior knowledge.

Academic research paper on topic "Using Comics with Novice EFL Readers to Develop Reading Literacy"

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Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 174 (2015) 2452 - 2459

INTE 2014

Using comics with novice EFL readers to develop reading literacy

"Ivana Cimermanova" *

"Institute of British and American Studies, Faculty of Arts, University of Presov, 17. novembra 1, Presov 080 01, Slovakia"


The study concentrated on the possible effects of using authentic comics with EFL learners. It examined the strategies applied by novice readers in reading comics with the special focus on lexical guessing using context. The data for this illustrative qualitative case study were collected from observations, discussions, verbal report and in some cases students' writings. The results indicated possible positive effects in vocabulary development and motivation to reading and overcoming linguistic barriers in reading authentic material using the context and prior knowledge.

© 2015Publishedby ElsevierLtd. This isanopenaccess article under the CC BY-NC-ND license


Peer-review under responsibility of the Sakarya University

Keywords: reading; comics; reading strategy, case study

1. Introduction

Digital era has indisputably changed our lives, no matter whether we are digital natives or digital immigrants. Even the resistant people have to change their habits, practices, routines to function in the contemporary world. Even though one may be reluctant to use computers, digitalization is everywhere (TV, phones, wireless devices, self-cash machines).

The way we receive and perceive different types of information has changed significantly, similarly as information search (some of us are in a real trouble without having an access to internet and Google). We have problems to read "classical maps", we do not remember phone numbers; young people have problems to read train timetables at the stations as they prefer to use internet search on their mobiles or tablets that they take everywhere.

* Ivana Cimermanova. Tel.: +421-51-7570762 E-mail address:

1877-0428 © 2015 Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license


Peer-review under responsibility of the Sakarya University


No matter what strategies and techniques we use it is undoubted that reading comprehension is still the skill that is inevitable and crucial for and in our lives.

2. Reading comprehension

The various studies indicate that readers using internet (even in case of e.g. reading newspapers online) read differently (use different techniques and strategies) compared to the readers of printed material. They tend to search for information rather than scan the text to find the answer, they tend to pass, wander from one text to another what might be the reason of their inability to concentrate on the texts that are longer and they tend to look for further (deeper) information about what they are interested in immediately as the hypertext enables the "plunge" to the problem very easily.

The fact young generation does not read has been already discussed in numerous studies but we have to underline how important it is in their life and it hardly can be substituted or compensated. Reading helps to develop vocabulary that is crucial for communication, it has also positive effects on grammar mastery, especially its understanding in context, as a result it positively influences the quality of writing and speaking as well. Reading is a tool for learning, survival but we also have to speak about the aesthetic value of literature (often transferred to audiobooks nowadays).

Reading picture books in the childhood belongs to one of the first encounters with creating stories supported by images. Even though most of them are topic-based - Animals, In the farm, Toys... we usually do not rely on simple description but we try to create a story associated with an image. This is the moment where we inspire the kids to be creative, to create their own stories and to use their imagination.

In juvenile years many kids (the researches show that more boys than girls) read comics, or probably more accurately said, cartoons. Many journals bring regularly the series of cartoons.

Reading at schools is regular activity and the special attention is paid to reading during language classes. During language classes we do not read to learn, however, often we learn to read, i.e. we need to teach our learners how to read, to use reading strategies.

Bornmann and Munby (2004, p. 4) (based on R. Oxford) identify the following reading strategies:

• "Compensation strategies - guessing intelligently, using linguistic and other clues

• Cognitive - analysing and reasoning deductively

• Affective - encouraging yourself and taking risks wisely".

Eddy (2011) claims that cognitive style as well as personality play an important role in the process of foreign language acquisition, of which reading literacy is a part.

Oxford (1990) divides the strategies into two categories - direct and indirect and each of these are subdivided into 3 subcategories - the direct strategies include memory, cognitive, and compensation while indirect strategies include metacognitive, affective, and social.

Limited vocabulary can be discouraging and pupils are demotivated to read, yet successful reader uses reading strategies. Guessing can be based on prior knowledge and context. We have to admit that there are several studies that describe the researches in which poor results were gained and guessing strategies were assessed as unproductive (See Dycus, 1997). Strakova (2012, p. 158) states that "Within the area of second language development the early language production in general means that the child depends heavily on context, produces, words in isolation, verbalizes key words, and responds with one or two words or short phrases, points, draws, or gesture responses".

In 2006, Nation published a paper in which he described the results of research conducted with Hu in which they "examined the relationship between text coverage and reading comprehension for non-native speakers of English with a fiction text" (Nation, 2006, p. 61). The measures used in the research were first „trialled with native speakers before they were used in the study with non-native speakers. With a text coverage of 80% (that is, 20 out of every 100 words [1 in 5] were nonsense words), no one gained adequate comprehension. With a text coverage of 90%, a small minority gained adequate comprehension. With a text coverage of 95% (1 unknown word in 20), a few more gained adequate comprehension, but they were still a small minority". That means that for EFL learner it is naturally difficult to read an authentic novel and needs an intensive support, that might be provided, e.g. in a form of pictures and the readers have to apply different learning strategies, including guessing strategies.

3. Comics

Scott McCloud (1994) defines the term comics as "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence intended to convey information and/or to produce aesthetic response in the water". Harvey (2005) does not support this definition and claims that "McCloud's definition relies too heavily upon the pictorial character of comics and not enough upon the verbal ingredient. Comics uniquely blend the two. No other form of static visual narrative does this. McCloud includes verbal content (which he allows is a kind of imagery), but it's the succession of images that is at the operative core of his definition. I hasten to note, however, that regardless of emphasis, neither sequence nor blending inherently excludes the other."

Many adults consider comics to be books for young children, in US full of superheroes, in Czechoslovakia known especially thanks to Foglar's Rychle sipy, however in Japan^ it is also spread as literature for adults. The prejudice that comics are cheap substitutions of literature, written especially for kids can be easily refutated.

3.1 Comics in teaching English as a Foreign Language

Rudolphe Topffer (1845, In: Scott, 1994) points out that "the picture-story, which critics disregard and scholars scarcely notice, has had great influence at all times, perhaps even more than written literature" but at the same time he adds "... in addition, the picture-story appeals mainly to children and the lower classes. ". Williams (1995) summarises the advantages of using comics in language teaching:

• cartoons have a permanent visual component (unlike movies)

• characters interact in here and now (you and me not the him and her of narrative)

• characters share many of the paralinguistic aspects of interaction

• language lies about halfway between real spoken English and "written" English

• the language represents one man's idiolect and so is rich in fixed collocations which come round again and again indifferent contexts. (Williams, 1995).

A lot of research has been done on the effects of the extensive reading on foreign language learners, however the topic of using comic books or graphic novels to develop students' English language proficiency has not been discussed so widely. Still, the result of several studies indicate the positive effects of "light" reading: on motivation, studies have shown that readers of comics are also avid readers of more advanced texts, and the use of comic book style graded readers does not hinder motivation to seek out other literature (Cary, 2004, In: Jones, 2010, p. 229)

Marsh (1978, 778) presents the results of the research conducted and describes "four major purposes for which different comics were useful: (1) vocabulary and expressions; (2) grammar; (3) conversations and compositions; (4) culture; also pronunciation, intonation and listening comprehension". Yang (2003) claims that comics can be used as step to more difficult ideas, Carry (2004) suggests that comics can be used to help students develop their writing skills, especially of story writing.

National Council of teachers of English website (2005) reports the research results brought by Shelley Hong Xu who claims that comics and graphic novels "can teach about making inferences, since readers must rely on pictures and just a small amount of text".

Cary (2004, p. 18) describes the Wright and Sherman's research who determined the readability grade levels of over six dozens daily comics based on the number and range of words per strip. This research was based on the readability for native English speakers, nor foreign language learners. He stresses the importance to consider both the amount and level of the text but also the pictures, their details and how (or whether) they support text understanding.

Basol and Sarigul (2013, p. 1625) bring an interesting a comment - they conducted research comparing the used of traditional and graphic novels in EFL classes. They used the Paul Auster's City of Glass and found out that "in the traditional text format of the novel, related with the postmodern style of the author, it was sometimes hard to

^ „It was in Japan where comics developed in relative isolation, spawning a host of unique approaches to making comics" (Scott 1994, p. 210).

distinguish the reality and delusions in the novel; however, in graphic novel format, the balloons and images that clearly represent the story line helped students a lot to connect the panels".

The studies show that the issue of comics is not new and the results of different studies proved a positive effect not only in motivation and reading but also writing and possible uses to develop vocabulary and grammar.

Using comics to support foreign language teaching we need to teach our students, comics readers, to read both pictures^ and words; however, brain based learning and natural environment should be provided (Sepesiová, 2013). (This is also important in case we want to use it for e.g. creative writing.)

Nikolajeva and Scott (2001, p. 7) bring a concise summary of different categorisations of interactions between words and pictures in the books. They quote Golden (1990) who identifies 5 types of interrelations:

a) The text and pictures are symmetrical (creating redundancy)

b) The text depends on pictures for clarification

c) Illustration enhances, elaborates text

d) The text carries primary narrative, illustration is selective

e) The illustration carries primary narrative, the text is selective.

Similarly to the above categorisation, Liu (2004, p. 226, defines 5categories that are based on their function :

• Representation: Visuals repeat the text's content or substantially overlap with the text. (a above)

• Organization: Visuals enhance the text's coherence. (c above)

• Interpretation: Visuals provide the reader with more concrete information. (b above)

• Transformation: Visuals target critical information in the text and recode it in a more memorable form.

• Decoration: Visuals are used for their aesthetic properties or to spark readers' interest in the text.

Nikolajeva and Scott add two more (they call it) extremes, clear-cut categories - text without pictured and a wordless picture books.

Kelley (2010) stresses (quoting Vygotsky) that „Humans typically express thoughts in the form of language, and students' responses to images, though perhaps cognitively silent, still help students utilize language" (Vygotsky, 1978; Vygotsky, 1986 In: Kelly, 2011). He supports the idea of using graphic novels in education, including language teaching.

Several authors bring suggestions (using particular comics) that can be applied in language teaching. These can be very useful especially for teacher who believe in the comics value and want to try it in their teaching. The y may either use the lesson plans and handouts suggested by their colleagues or simply can be motivated by their work and to create their own.

E.g. Cary (2004) suggests activities that can be used in multilingual classroom but these can be also used in EFL class. Similarly, the motivation for using comics in the multilingual class can be applied in EFL context. Cary warns that comics are not suitable for all settings and the teacher has to be careful in his decisions. Some lessons can be found on the ReadWriteThink Web site at

4. Objective and Method

The objective that has guided the research was to find out to what extent language learners apply reading strategies, namely previous knowledge, vocabulary, syntax and context in reading new texts. The study describes results of illustrative case study that was realised in July 2013 - February 2013 with four students, including 3 females and 1 male individually for 2 months (e.g. subject SA - July-August). The one-to-one teaching that involved using comics as reading material took place irregularly, but approximately once - twice a week, what means students worked 8-12 lessons. The translation was used to check full understanding and the discussions about the techniques students used to translate the unknown words were led. The website

^ Symbols to express "an unprintable obscenity that could make a sailor blush" (Cary, 2004, 62) lines to indicate the movement, the tools to indicate invisible object or people, use of colours etc. was also used to motivate learners and to let them think how to create context that enables understanding of the text, what later helped them to read effectively.

We realise that case studies present potential drawbacks (a) unsystematic procedures, (b) the influence of biased views on the direction of the findings and conclusion, and (c) an insufficient basis for scientific generalization (see Yin, 2008).

Different cartoons and comics were used to develop reading strategies. The decision to use comics, cartoons and graphic novels was based on the presumption that it might be easier to read the context with the support of image (or from the image) what can lead to positive feeling and higher motivation of readers.

To assess the level (difficulty) of the text we use the tools in lextutor website ( to make sure the text coverage is appropriate and to decide how to work with the text (especially the necessity to pre-teach vocabulary).

5. Sample

Four students were involved in the study. The characteristics is summarised in the following table. We give also some information about L1 reading as we agree with the Paran's (1996, p. 30) statement who claimed that "if L1 readers possess attributes in reading which L2 readers do not, then it is the task of the language teacher to develop ways of encouraging the development of these attributes".

Table 1. Sample characteristics.

Subject Age Language Reading efficiency in mother tongue Reading in mother

proficiency level experience tongue/target language

SA 10 B1-B2 Reads fluently with some hesitations (sometimes pronunciation mistakes -negative transfer from EL). He started to read in both languages-being Slovak and living in English Speaking country since he was 3. He has some vocabulary problems (especially with archaic words and diminutives - applied different wordformation rules - difference of the languages analytical vs. synthetic). Reads in both, mother tongue and English language/ more in English /especially comics

V 10 novice Loves reading, she reads fast and clearly, understanding of more difficult vocabulary is supported by pictures or she simply ignores them. She prefers reading stories about kids at her age, she has never read comic books before. She reads only in Slovak.

M 16 A2 Even though she likes reading, at her childhood she had to be "forced" to read. Until these days she reads with the hesitations when reading aloud unknown and long words, but her attitude towards reading is positive. Reads usually during holidays, she reads only in English language, but started to watch mini-series in English with Slovak or English subtitles.

ST 20 B2 Started to read at the age of 4, at that time she preferred reading encyclopedia and she did not want to read stories. At the age of 7-8 she read Dahl's Matilda and that was the moment when she started to read the imaginative literature. She reads efficiently, using different strategies. She claims to have excellent Slovak language teachers at elementary and secondary schools leading the students towards reading with understanding. Reads a lot, both fiction and non-fiction literature. She started to read books in English authentic material but never finished. During her studies she read several graded readers books.

6. Data Collection and Analysis

The subjects worked for two months (not at the same time). Data were collected throughout the 2-month treatment period and were gathered through the following three methods: (a) observations made for each reading session, (b) interviews related to the reading strategies applied and approach.

Even though the language of comics can seem to be easy, one can find a lot of cultural-based items and also a lot of idiomatic expressions, similarly as onomatopoeia expression what can cause problems in understanding.

In the lessons the following comics and graphic novels were (selectively) used:

Meet the Somalis -

Balsa Boy

Kinney, J. (2008). Diary of Wimpy Kid: Do-It-Yourself Book, London: Penguin Books

Tan, S. (2003). The Lost Thing. Sydney: Hachette Australia

Tan, S. (2012). Novy svet. Praha: Labyrint (graphic novel, not comics)

7. Results and discussion

All subjects liked reading literature. For them it was something natural, however only ST clearly realised and used the strategies they can use in reading (she was not a novice reader, she was a part of study for the ability to make comparisons between the novice and experienced readers). With subject M (16, developed abstract thinking) we used comics in Czech language once. She used to have and partly has a "block" that she is not good at language learning. The situation has partly changed when she started to visit evening classes and filled in the "gaps" she had at elementary level. Now she progresses better, reaches better results, what leads to higher motivation and positive attitude towards English. She is also motivated by her sister (subject St) who is her "idol" and reads a lot and watches movies in English. In her case we used Czech language for presenting reading strategies. Slovak and Czech languages both belong to Slavonic language and people usually understand the languages without problems, however there are some lexical difference that might cause a problem. Nevertheless, people overcome the linguistic barriers intuitively and without hesitation. In case of English Langue, a foreign language for Slovaks, people when they come across an unknown word, they got stuck and had a need to understand and guessing is not enough for them. Reading Czech comics we analysed the processes and strategies she automatically intuitively applied and let her apply them later in reading English texts.

She mostly relied on visual, pictorial context and then started with the analysis of the unknown word (started with the root of the word, affixes, and position of a word in a sentence).

Subject ST. whose prevailing intelligence is logical-mathematical, started immediately with the linguistic analysis.

Interestingly V. (similarly as ST. logical-mathematical type of intelligence) relied fully on images and was not ready to think about the unknown words what was quite understandable considering her age and ability of abstract thinking and not understanding the language system.

SA. had no problems in reading, he had no problem to read interjections (what was problem for V. who is the same age, but different language background). Linguistic barriers were overcome automatically, with no hesitations, only sometimes he asked for translation. The amount of unknown words was clear only during the translation phase as he was able to answer comprehension question. That was not truth about subject V. who stuck immediately when she came across the unknown word.

The following table summarises the strategies applied by the subjects. Even though we dealt with the translation of the words, the context was significantly important and thus evaluation of reading strategies are more appropriate in this case.

Table 2. Use of reading strategies.

Subject Strategies applied

SA SA used mostly visualization, ha had no problem to make mistakes, he was not willing to think a

lot about the particular words, he was satisfied with understanding the general meaning and had no need to understand every single word (It was interesting to observe how frequently he intuitively used intralanguage principles).

V Relied on the pictures, at the beginning she was afraid to say her guess or deducing loudly but in

the second half of the study period she became more confident (She, in contrast to Sa, relied also on phonetic associations and the attempts to apply interlanguage, however frequently incorrectly).

M Started to use guessing strategies at the second meeting, she was ready to take risks and make

mistakes, especially when she saw the teacher was ready to explain why she was wrong in her guesses, she usually used the context and the previous knowledge to guess the unknown words. She also used a course context (she used forward and backward context to identify the word).

ST Used lexical inferencing strategies, she applied her linguistic knowledge (she frequently

considered the affixes and their meaning similarly syntactic knowledge). During reading graphic novel (Lost Thing) she considered the images, colours, fonts etc. how these supported the meaning of the text.

In relation to the students' attitudes they all expressed positive perception, in the discussions they expressed raised confidence in reading foreign texts. Based on observing we can claim that our subject used metacognitive strategies during the reading meetings as well. They monitored and assessed themselves and we could see how positively motivated they were. They were all asked to create one scene (using 3or 4 panels using the website for comics creation) based on what they read. The level of production varied but they enjoyed the activity and it was challenge for them to read the texts further to compare their stories and the original ones.

The sample was incoherent and we applied different strategies and techniques that were practiced with the subjects - with V and SA we focused more on development of visual literacy and its use to understand the text compared to M and ST where we focused more on understanding the textual context (supported by images) to understand the meaning of the words, even though (or moreover) as mentioned earlier subject ST. was strongly involved by the graphic novel (no problems with text understanding) and in the discussions she focused mainly to the interpretation of the images and the relation between the text and image.

Generally we can say, that all subjects stated they feel more confident now even though not understanding all the words; they are ready to guess, deduce the meaning, and perceive the textual and graphic details to infer the meaning.

8. Discussion and Conclusion

We believe that regular reading and gradual development of the reading strategies leads to automatic overcoming of linguistic barriers but there must be a careful selection of text to make sure the text is still understandable and it will not be demotivating as it happened to ST who was expected to read authentic books without appropriate proficiency level.

It has not been mentioned, but it is significantly important to consider also the fact that using comics and graphic novels leads to the development of visual literacy what as Kennedy claims (2010) is "the ability to construct meaning from images. It's not a skill. It uses skills as a toolbox. It's a form of critical thinking that enhances your intellectual capacity".

If learners are trained in exploiting images, visual, fonts they are more sensitive to reading the textual context what enables their reading skills and the use of reading strategies what will lead to the increase of autonomy. . Language teachers must be familiar with such strategies and teach them to their pupils to help them take the responsibility for their own learning. Using reading strategies leads to more effective reading (learning) and supports positive motivation.


This article presents partial findings collected while working on project KEGA 006PU-4/2012 Rozvoj citatelskej kompetencie v cudzom jazyku prostrednictvom citatelskych programov that is supported by Ministry of Education, Science, Research and Sport of the Slovak Republic.


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