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Graphic stories in language education

May 12, 2015 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

Graphic stories, comic books, cartoons and manga have long been incorporated in language teaching programmes, and we do not need to spend too much time on convincing teachers of the benefits of these resources. Short comic strips are present in most course books, and many teachers recommend original cartoons and comic books for extensive reading. However, there are a couple of interesting points to mention to understand the way these resources work in the classroom.

Multimodality: graphic stories and visual literacy

When we talk about graphic stories in language education, it is natural to talk about multimodality and visual literacy in language education. When we learn to make meaning in a new language, we do this through various modalities. Cartoons represent an exciting combination of verbal and visual literacies, leading us to the idea of multiliteracies. It is important that you give your students enough time to explore the images, identify the objects, the action and let them jump back and forth between the text and the images. They have to be able to read the text and the images simultaneously. This way they activate their visual understanding and their verbal understanding of the words they are reading.


"Multimodality is an inter-disciplinary approach that understands communication and representation to be more than about language. It has been developed over the past decade to systematically address much-debated questions about changes in society, for instance in relation to new media and technologies. Multimodal approaches have provided concepts, methods and a framework for the collection and analysis of visual, aural, embodied, and spatial aspects of interaction and environments, and the relationships between these."

(Source: MODE (2012). Glossary of multimodal terms. Retrieved 11.05.2015.)

Multimodal literacy

"Multimodal literacy explores the design of discourse by investigating the contributions of different semiotic resources (for example, language, gesture, images) co-deployed across various modalities (...) as well as their interaction and integration in constructing a coherent text."

(Source: O’Halloran, K. L. & Lim, F. V. (2011). Dimensioner af Multimodal Literacy. Viden om Læsning. Number 10, September 2011, pp. 14-21. Nationalt Videncenter for Laesning: Denmark” or “Lim, F.V. (2011) A Systemic Functional Multimodal Discourse Analysis Approach to Pedagogic Discourse. Doctoral thesis. National University of Singapore.)

Visual literacy

"The term 'Visual Literacy' was first coined in 1969 by John Debes, one of the most important figures in the history of IVLA (International Visual Literacy Association). Debes’ offered (1969b, 27) the following definition of the term: Visual Literacy refers to a group of vision-competencies a human being can develop by seeing and at the same time having and integrating other sensory experiences. The development of these competencies is fundamental to normal human learning. When developed, they enable a visually literate person to discriminate and interpret the visible actions, objects, symbols, natural or man-made, that he encounters in his environment. Through the creative use of these competencies, he is able to communicate with others. Through the appreciative use of these competencies, he is able to comprehend and enjoy the masterworks of visual communication."

(Source: IVLA website. Retrieved 11.05.2015.)

Double spread from Grace, Romeo, Juliet and Fred by Martyn Hobbs. Illustrated by Lorenzo Sabbatini. © Helbling Languages

Graphic stories

In the Helbling Readers series you will find a collection of readers which feature fully illustrated stories and double-page cartoon spreads. These stories are an interesting combination of illustrated short stories and cartoons. The parts with more action and dialogue are presented through the cartoon spreads, letting the reader experience the fast-spaced verbal and visual aspects of a real-life conversation. The illustrations help the readers visualize the scenes and their atmosphere.

The stories are centred around a group of six friends called the Westbourne Kids. Your students can easily choose their favourite 'friend' and identify with him or her. 

Double spread from David and the Great Detective by Martyn Hobbs. Illustrated by Lorenzo Sabbatini. © Helbling Languages

Read more about these stories here:

Graphic stories n the classroom

Research backs up teachers' instincts to suggest that when we read graphic stories in the classroom, we should not concentrate too much on their instructional value. Students (younger and older), and probably most teachers enjoy reading cartoons, comic books and graphic novels in their free time, and we should take advantage of this entertainment value instead of stifling it with too many exercises or too much focus on grammar and vocabulary teaching. Language learning will automatically happen on a deep implicit level.

1 The cartoon spreads let you analyze and understand communication on various levels. When you are reading a cartoon together, discuss the following points which are also expressed by the visual aspects of the cartoons:

  • what people think (thought bubbles)
  • what people say (speech bubbles)
  • what people do (visual narrative, sound effects)
  • what we say about these things (narration in the caption boxes)

Read more about the language of comics on this website.

2 When you are reading cartoons in class, ask:

  • What do the characters think?
  • What are they doing?
  • What objects create the sound effects?

3 Ask your students to narrate the cartoon spreads with their own words.

4 If you are using an online cartoon maker, you can leave these bubbles and boxes empty, and ask your students to fill in the gaps.

5 Create your own comic book from your own photos.

  • Students take photos with their smart phones.
  • They use a special photo editor to make their photos look like comic strips.
  • They use a smart phone application to add their captions, narration and speech and thought bubbles.
  • They can either print the comic book or present it in an online edition.


Read more about graphic stories on this Blog:

An interesting article:

Come back on Thursday for more on graphic novels! We'll be sharing a list of applications and websites you can use in class.