TeachWrite NOLA

July 23, 2008

Comics in the ESL Classroom (or any classroom)

Filed under: Demo Lesson — jessdbd4 @ 12:48 pm
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Here is a demo on using comics in the classroom.

Writing Humor into the ESL Classroom: Creating Comic Strips

“In second language education, teachers and students know the truth of the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. In fact, … the right picture at the right time may be worth several times that many words.”
Stephen Cary, Going Graphic: Comics At Work in the Multilingual Classroom, p. 23

Garfield, Charlie Brown, Blondie, Doonesbury, The Far Side… millions of Americans read these beloved comic strips daily on their morning commute or over a cup of coffee. Why? They’re funny. A simple reason, yet powerful enough to motivate and engage students who would rather do anything than read or write in school. For ESL students, the visual aspect of comics can be a non-threatening and easily understood way of building reading and writing skills. They also provide a familiar medium for many of these students. Many countries outside of the U.S. have high comic readership. Between 90 and 95 percent of literate Japanese read comics, and in Mexico, 70 percent of readers read comics. (Cary, 2004).

For ESL students struggling to adapt to American society and schools, comics can provide a humorous and familiar escape. They can also motivate students to become more skilled at reading and writing, especially if given the chance to interact with and create their own comics. Stephen Cary, author of Going Graphic: Comics At Work in the Multilingual Classroom, suggests that because most “comic conventions are universal across languages, conventions learned with first language comics makes reading comics in the second language easier” (p. 64). In teaching writing to ESL students, beginning with comics helps build confidence in writing and communicating in English. Writing comic strips can engage even the most reluctant and/or non-verbal learner.

Stream of Curriculum
Popular media such as movies, video games, cartoons, and comic books can serve as a frame of reference in thinking about narrative structure (Ranker, 2007). As students develop their own comics with specific story elements (characters, setting, conflict, resolution), they can incorporate these elements into other narrative forms, such as personal narratives or fiction stories. Comic strips also easily fit into the writing workshop model. Students can use graphic organizers to plan their comic strip – both written dialogue and captions as well as illustrations for each panel. When revising, students can literally cut their comic strips apart to add or delete panels. Teachers can use comics to teach mini-lessons on grammar, punctuation, or editing techniques. Comic strips also help students organize their writing logically, as most proceed in a chronological fashion.

Theoretical Foundations
Second language acquisition and proficiency is a complex process. Important factors in this process include the language learning environment, student’s age, cognitive development, home and school cultures, and proficiency in the native language, according to Suzanne Peregoy and Owen Boyle, authors of Reading, Writing, and Learning in ESL (2005).  Teachers can combat these factors by incorporating an array of learning modalities in the classroom, especially through visual, verbal, and print cues. Peregoy and Boyle, among other researchers, support the use of scaffolding strategies to help ESL students organize thoughts (Gray & Fleischman, 2005). These strategies include teacher modeling, visuals/graphics, and hands-on learning – all of which are compatible with using comics in the classroom.

Lesson Directions

Students will identify narrative story elements in a graphic novel (characters, setting, problem, & solution).
Students will create their own narrative story elements using a graphic organizer and illustrations.
Students will write and illustrate a comic strip using narrative story elements.

1. Participants write and/or illustrate their favorite cartoons, cartoon characters, and/or comic strips. Participants then pair up and share their favorites.
2. Teacher reads comic aloud to group – listen for and identify the key narrative elements (characters, setting, problem, solution).

Guided/Independent Practice
1. Teacher and students discuss the key narrative elements and fill in a graphic organizer based on the comic. Teacher also reviews speech/thought bubbles and author’s use of different colored dialogue bubbles to distinguish between speakers.
2. Model using the graphic organizer to create a superhero character and story elements.
3. Participants use the fruits and vegetables to create superheroes and outline stories. Participants can use art materials to physically “create” superheroes (markers, glue, felt, eyes, pipe cleaners, etc.)
4. Teacher models using graphic organizer to create comic strip. Include and point out story elements.
5. Participants use their graphic organizers to write comic strips independently or with a partner.
6. Pair-share, if time allows
7. Revisions, if necessary/time allows. Show how to cut comic strip apart and add/delete panels.

1. Author’s Chair
2. Questions, discussions, extensions.

Favorite Comic frame
Narrative Story Elements frame
Graphic novel, comic strips, etc.
Large pictures of popular cartoon/comic characters (Spongebob, Dora the Explorer, Spiderman, etc.)
Oversized dialogue bubbles (different colors)
Fruits and vegetables
Name cards for fruits and vegetables
Art materials (markers, glue, felt, eyes, pipe cleaners, etc.)
Various comic strip panels
Materials for modeling (overhead projector, chalkboard, chart paper, easel, etc.)

1. Give a pair of students a wordless comic (or one with the speech bubbles deleted). Have students “script” the comic by adding speech bubbles that fit with the events in each panel. Students can also write descriptions for each panel or orally describe what is happening.
(Cary, Going Graphic: Comics At Work in the Multilingual Classroom, p. 81)

2. Students can take a comic strip and add a panel (or several). Students must write and illustrate what would happen next in the comic. Another option is a “class strip.” One student adds a panel and then passes it on to another student. The expanded comic strip circulates around the room with each student reading, writing, and drawing what would happen next.
(Cary, Going Graphic: Comics At Work in the Multilingual Classroom, p. 74)

3. In pairs or small groups, give students a comic strip with one panel missing (preferably in the middle). Students must read the remaining panels and discuss what they need to add to the comic strip for it to make sense. As they create these “replacement” panels, students need to pay attention to what comes before, after, and what makes sense. They also need to focus on their grammatical choices, making sure verb tenses and antecedents, for example, align with the remaining panels.
(Cary, Going Graphic: Comics At Work in the Multilingual Classroom, p. 88)

4. Comic Creator at http://www.readwritethink.org is an excellent interactive tool. Students can create and/or publish their comics. This site also offers several lessons based on the Comic Creator tool.


Cary, S. (2004). Going Graphic: Comics At Work in the Multilingual Classroom. Porthsmouth, NH:

Gray, T. & Fleischman, S. (2005). Successful strategies for English Language Learners. Educational
Leadership, 84-85.

Morse, S. (2008). Magic Pickle. New York: Scholastic, Inc.

Peregoy, S.F. & Boyle, O. F. ( 2005). Reading, Writing, and Learning in ESL. (4th ed.). Boston: Pearson
Education, Inc.

Ranker, J. (2007). Using Comic Books as Read-Alouds: Insights on Reading Instruction From an English as a
Second Language Classroom. The Reading Teacher, 61(4), 296-305.

Graphic Novels, Comics, Etc. For Use in the Classroom
∑ Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey
∑ Sticky Burr by John Lechner
∑ Bone the Dragon Slayer series by Jeff Smith
∑ Nancy Drew graphic novels by Stefan Petrucha and Sarah Kinney

Additional Resources

Teaching With Comics
This site provides comic strip/panel templates, as well as lesson ideas and evaluation rubrics. Students can learn step-by-step how to sketch cartoon figures and backgrounds.

ESL and Archie Comics
Students can view an Archie comic while listening to a podcast of the comic being read aloud. Students can also listen to an explanation of the comic and learn definitions of key terms in the comic.

Everything ESL: Interactive Web Sites for ESL Students
Various literacy based sites with interactive games, read alouds, and books that can be downloaded.

Activities for Using Comic Strips
Ideas for incorporating comic strips into lessons.



  1. A simple but very effective way to use comics in education is through ToonDoo, an online comic strip creator which is easy to use and packed with a lot of cool features that your students will love learning with. Do check it out at http://www.toondoo.com

    Comment by Meera — July 23, 2008 @ 2:05 pm | Reply

  2. A great site for ESL students is AIDtoCHILDREN.com.

    AIDtoCHILDREN.com is a dual-purpose site for building an English
    vocabulary and raising money for under privileged children in the most
    impoverished places around the world.

    Check it out at http://www.aidtochildren.com

    Comment by Gordon Hunt — July 25, 2008 @ 5:45 am | Reply

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    Comment by Cristine — June 1, 2013 @ 2:10 pm | Reply

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