When I started teaching in the classroom 10 years ago, one of my sixth graders was obsessed with Baby Mouse. At the time, I did not know a lot of graphic novels for kids and figured that comic books were the territory of older boys and young men who were into superheroes. Now I know of so many fantastic graphic novel series for kids of all reading levels! Graphic novels are great “gateway” stories to get reluctant readers interested in books.
Graphic novels can be an excellent option for reluctant readers, for kids who are not reading as well as their peers, and for any kid who is looking for a fun read.
But are graphic novels “real” reading?
Graphic novels are great for developing some parts of a child’s reading skill. Having pictures to go with the story helps to develop kids understanding of plot and graphic novels could start a lot of great conversations about character development. A good graphic novel can also provide illustration for challenging vocabulary by having pictures that show what unfamiliar words mean.
I learned the word chaos from a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles episode on TV. I had heard the word before and I had read the letters c-h-a-o-s before but I never put the two together until a comic-book-style part of the show that had speech bubbles over the heads of Bebop and Rocksteady while they commented on the chaos caused by a battle in the street. It was a lightbulb moment for me to see the word in print and hear the character pronounce it. I never would have put together that letter combination with the sound of the word chaos.
Kids won’t necessarily learn to pronounce new words from reading graphic novels, but they will have the opportunity to see what the illustrator imagined when he or she read the words in the story. For that reason, graphic novels can be a great option for kids who are having trouble comprehending grade level books. They can also boost vocabulary by providing richer context than words on the page alone.
But graphic novels don’t address all parts of the reading equation. Because they usually have short sentences of text, they are not a good way for students to develop reading fluency. For that, kids should be reading connected text on a page at their independent level or just a bit above.
Graphic novels are also not usually great text for practicing sounding out words. Too often, there are enough clues in the pictures to help kids guess at words they don’t know. This can be a great support for kids who have trouble getting through a story because it has too many words they can’t read. However, it can help kids avoid sounding out words if that’s something difficult for them.
So do I recommend graphic novels? Heck yes!
But they are the snack food in a healthy diet. Eating well means having a variety of foods and striking a balance between treats and leafy greens. Graphic novels do stretch a students reading skills, and they’re certainly not junk food. But a reading diet made up of only graphic novels is not good for your child’s reading health.
Ready to give graphic novels a try?
Here are some of the graphic novel series that are capturing my students’ imaginations:
- Geronimo Stilton – Geronimo is a mouse in the newspaper business who solves mysteries and crimes with his friends. They are somewhere in between a graphic novel and a chapter book, with whole paragraphs of text, lots of illustrations, and fun fonts and text effects that emphasize the words. These are a great fit for second, third and fourth graders.
- Captain Underpants – Ugh, not my favorites, but I’m not the one who has to read them. These are silly and kind of gross and may not be a fit for every classroom or family. But they are hugely popular. These books seem to hit peak popularity in second and third grade.
- Dog Man – Another Dav Pilkey series
- Big Nate – These seem to have content that appeals to older elementary (fourth-sixth grade) readers but are written at a level that second and third graders can access. I find that younger readers in third and fourth grade don’t get all the jokes, even when they can read the words.
- Diary of a Wimpy Kid – These are one of the most popular series of graphic novels, especially now that there’s a movie. Like Geronimo Stilton, these have a mix of paragraphs of story with cartoon illustrations. Fourth grade seems to be the sweet spot for this series.
- Amulet – This series is getting passed around by a lot of upper elementary students I know. It’s illustrated in the more familiar “comic book” style you might imagine when you hear graphic novel. There are lots of colorful pages and a fantasy setting and plot that seems to appeal to both boys and girls at the fourth and fifth grade levels.
- Bone – Bone is a cute little guy who looks like Casper the Friendly Ghost, who goes on adventures through strange and engaging lands. It seems to appeal to third and fourth graders.