Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Comic Books and Reading Development

If you have a young son, like I do, you are probably familiar with what I call the “superhero phase.” We are just in the beginning stages at my house, but the idea of superheroes, “good guys” vs. “bad guys,” and all things Superman has taken over my son’s imagination. As a corollary to this, he has also recently been introduced to the comic book. At a recent play date outing to a restaurant, the kids received little comic books with a cow-themed superhero as the main character. It has really made an impression. He doesn’t even care that the superhero is a cow; he loves me to read it to him over and over. This made me wonder, however, if comic books are really considered useful reading when it comes to helping young children development literacy skills. Let’s turn to some research and see what the experts have learned.

University of Illinois researcher Carol Tilley has found evidence that reading comics helps increase students’ vocabulary and instills a love of reading.  Although in the past some parents and teachers have dismissed comics as “fluff” reading, Tilley and others argue that they can be just as complex as any other form of literature. Readers of comics must combine pictures and words in a logical fashion to understand the story. All of this helps them learn visual literacy and vocabulary. Researchers point to worldwide reading assessments which show high reading scores for students in countries where comic book reading is common. For example, Finnish children received the highest reading scores on a recent assessment and typical nine-year-olds there read a comic book almost every day.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence for comic book reading is how it can help boys overcome the gender gap in reading proficiency and enjoyment. Most of us are aware that girls tend to outscore boys on reading assessments and generally are found to enjoy reading more than boys. Researchers say this is due in part to the fact that boys prefer reading more non-fiction or informational texts, along with books centered on fantasy and gross details. These types of text, unfortunately, are not always as common in school libraries as traditional fiction texts that tend to appeal more to girls. Comics, along with their longer counterpart graphic novels, seem to be a possible way to engage boys more in reading. Research is showing that boys who read comics do tend to make the “leap” to other types of reading, and just as importantly, they grow to enjoy reading more than boys who do not read comics.

Anecdotally, it also seems that comics have a way of inspiring a lifelong love of reading and writing. Some of the country’s most prolific authors, such as Ray Bradbury and John Updike, have noted their love of comics as children.

So parents take heart; if the only thing your son seems to enjoy reading is comics, go ahead and add to his collection. Hopefully this love of comics will be just the spark to fuel a love of reading that will benefit him for a lifetime.

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