Lessons in Learning

More than just funny books: Comics and prose literacy for boys

Since their debut on news stands more than 75 years ago comic books have been blamed for a range of social ills—from moral turpitude to juvenile delinquency—and have been subject to scorn and even censorship. But in recent years comics have gained an unprecedented level of recognition, being transformed into Hollywood blockbusters, popping up on bestseller lists (as “graphic novels,” the name for their more grown-up incarnation) and garnering literary accolades from the Pulitzer Prize (for Art Spiegelman’s Maus) to the Guardian First Book Award for Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan.

But have comic books and graphic novels truly shaken their stigma as “low culture”? And if so, can they play a positive role in the development of prose literacy for young readers?

Research shows us that boys are generally less inclined to read than girls and that when they do read they prefer reading fantasy, non-fiction and comic books, which may hold specific promise for improving literacy rates.

Gender differences in reading

Boys have traditionally lagged behind girls in terms of reading achievement, something that the latest large-scale research findings confirm. In 2007, the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program administered by the Council of Ministers of Education showed that 13-year-old girls out-scored boys by 23 points (the average girl scored in the 55th percentile and the average boy scored in the 46th percentile).[1] Similarly, in the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) 15-year-old Canadian girls out-scored boys in reading achievement by 32 points (the average Canadian girl scored in the 67th percentile and the average Canadian boy scored in the 54th percentile).[2]

Researchers have also found that boys do not derive the same level of enjoyment from reading as girls. A 2000 study of Canadian students found that nearly one-third (32%) of 13-year-old girls reported that they enjoyed reading “very much,” compared to just 17% of 13-year-old boys. [3] The same study shows that among girls reading enjoyment appears to increase with age; while it decreases with boys as they get older. By age 16, 35% of girls reported that they enjoyed reading “very much,” compared to 16% of 16-year-old boys.

Girls also appear to spend more time reading for pleasure than boys. Among 13-year-old girls, nearly three-quarters (73%) report spending 15 minutes or more per day reading for enjoyment or general interest compared to just over half (51%) of 13-year-old boys. By the time they reach 16, these numbers drop for both boys and girls but the gender gap remains: 58% of 16-year-old girls report daily reading for enjoyment or general interest compared to 46% of boys.

Lack of reading enjoyment can contribute to persistent reading difficulties and an increasing disparity between successful and struggling readers. Youth who do not enjoy reading are exposed to fewer written words than their normally progressing peers. This exposure normally allows children to develop reading fluency which, in turn, facilitates the development of reading comprehension. In contrast, lack of exposure to words compounds the reading deficits of struggling readers.[4]

Gender differences in reading preferences

Research has suggested that boys may report being less interested in reading than girls because their literary interests are not well-represented in school libraries and classrooms.[5], [6] Boys are much more likely to enjoy reading science and non-fiction books, informational texts and “how-to” manuals.[7], [8], [9], [10]They are also more likely to enjoy fantasy, adventure stories and stories that are scary or “gross” along with books about hobbies and things they do or want to do.[11]

Boys also tend to prefer visual media, such as the internet, newspapers and magazines, that focus on sports, electronics and video games.[12], [13] Yet, while boys show clear preferences for specific reading material these genres and media are generally under-represented or even unavailable in school libraries, a reflection of the views of teachers and librarians who judge such material inappropriate.[14], [15], [16]

One type of reading material that clearly reflects this disparity is comics. [17], [18], [19], [20] According to the Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation comic books are the second most popular reading choice for boys (after newspapers and magazines).[21] During the elementary school years the proportion of boys who report reading comics rises from 69% to 75%, while the proportion among girls falls from 60% to 50%.[22]

Yet despite their popularity with young male readers, comic books are still considered unsuitable reading material by many educators and are often associated with poor quality, cheapness and disposability.[23] Some of these enduring myths about comic books may be at the root of the negative associations that continue to dog the genre.

Debunking some comic book myths

One common myth about comics is that reading them can replace the reading of other genres. Research shows that concern is misguided. Boys who read comic books regularly also tend to read more text-based material and report higher levels of overall reading enjoyment, compared to boys who do not read comic books.[24] In fact, some evidence supports the idea that comic books provide a “gateway” to other literary genres. For example, some researchers have argued that the language of comic books can help young people make the transition from informal everyday language to formal written language.[25]

Another popular myth is that the visual element of comic books makes them more suited to immature readers. In fact, comics can help readers develop a number of useful language and literacy skills. The extensive use of images in a comic book requires readers to develop two kinds of literacy: visual literacy and comics literacy. Visual literacy is the ability to interpret the meaning of various kinds of illustrations.[26] It involves all the processes of knowing and responding to a visual image, as well as all the thought that might go into constructing or manipulating an image. Comics literacy refers to the ability to understand a sequence of events or images, to interpret characters’ non-verbal gestures, to discern a story’s plot and to make inferences.[27]

Comic books allow children to develop many of the same skills as reading text-based books such as connecting narratives to children’s own experiences, predicting what will happen next and inferring what happens between individual panels. Even before children are ready to read text, comic books can give them practice in making meaning from material printed on a page, tracking left to right and top to bottom, interpreting symbols, and following the sequence of events in a story.[28]

Comic books have been shown to be useful for beginning readers, since the reduced text makes the language manageable for new readers.[29] Comics expand children’s vocabulary by giving contexts to words that the child would not normally have been exposed to.[30] New readers can also learn story elements through reading comics. Like novels, comics have a beginning, middle and end, main characters that develop through conflicts and story climax. Comics thus introduce the concepts of narrative structure and character development.[31]

Comic books can also provide a tool for improving reading development among second- language learners, as the illustrations provide contextual clues to the meaning of the written narrative and because they present language as it is used in action.[32]

Comic books can help children with learning or reading difficulties.[33] Research highlights how a number of the features found in comics can be of benefit to those with dyslexia and similar challenges, particularly the left-to-right organization of comics' panels, the use of upper case letters, and the use of symbols and context to help with comprehension. As well, the research indicates that learners who can read well and those with reading problems are equally attracted to comics.[34]

Lessons in Learning: Using comic books in educational settings

Increasingly, educators are beginning to understand the benefits that comic books hold in teaching and encouraging early readers. In recent years a number of resources have emerged that promise to take advantage of this potential.

The Comic Book Project is an arts-based literacy and learning initiative designed by a New York City education researcher to help children develop their literacy skills by writing, designing and publishing their own comic books. Created in 2001, the program encourages students to write and draw about their personal experiences and interests, thereby engaging them in the learning process. As well, the graphic genre allows visual learners, struggling writers and English as a Second Language students to rely on the visual aspect of comic books and to make a connection between what they write and what they draw.

Comics hold great potential for presenting complex material in readable text, and can be a valuable asset in teaching subjects like science and social studies. For example, the Rothamsted Research Lab publishes Science Stories, a comics series that features real-world scientists explaining their work in engaging, eye-catching stories.

The U.S.-based Kids Love Comics is a non-profit organization made up of comics industry professionals and fans that aims to generate interest in comic books, and raise awareness of their value as an educational tool. The organization also works to make quality age-appropriate comics available to children and their parents.

Despite their controversial past, comics have become a pervasive and undeniable aspect of popular culture. It is clear that they appeal to younger readers—particularly boys—who are often resistant to reading. Although long regarded as frivolous, researchers have begun to investigate the role of comics in teaching and learning and have demonstrated their utility in a variety of contexts.[35],[36]



Comics 101: Recommended reading

Comics and graphic novels for young readers have exploded over the past few years, making the job of choosing quality, age-appropriate books daunting. The following list of recommended reading for young boys (and girls) was put together by Toronto’s The Beguiling, one of North America’s finest comic shops.

Melvin Monster by John Stanley - What Dr. Seuss was to kids’ books John Stanley is to kids’ comics. These beautifully packaged comics from the 1960’s, which are part of a series of reprints from Montreal’s Drawn & Quarterly Books, still have the power to crack up young readers with their corny puns and odd-ball characters. The two volumes published so far follow the adventures of Melvin, a young monster yearns for the unthinkable—to go to school, do homework and play with his friends.

Bone by Jeff Smith – An undisputed superstar of kid-friendly comics, Smith’s nine-volume series deftly combines epic fantasy and light-hearted comedy in a way that is irresistible to young readers. The story follows the journeys of the “Bone” cousins—Phoney, Smiley and Fone—who are separated from each other after being cast out of their town and eventually reunite to save the world.   

Sardine in Space by Joann Sfar and Emanuel Guibert – Nonsense comics of the finest kind from two luminaries of the French comics scene. Each of the six volumes collects several short stories of swashbuckling outer-space action featuring Sardine, a spirited little girl in space, her cousin Little Louie and her uncle Captain Yellow Shoulder.

Copper by Kazu Kibuishi — This charming story of a boy inventor and his talking dog began as a webcomic, but was quickly snapped up by Scholastic Books. Kibuishi, the man behind the popular kids comics series Amulet, uses a cartoony style and dry wit to tell tales of the youthful Copper and Fred, his loyal pet who gets him out of the trouble his inventions inevitably cause.

CTON’s super A-maze-ing Year of Crazy Comics by Clayton Hanmer — A collection of crazy comics, mazes and puzzles by cartoonist Hanmer taken from the pages Owl magazine. This oversized eye-catching book works for those with even the shortest of attention spans.

Food Fight: A Graphic Guide Adventure by Liam O’Donnell and Mike Deas — It can be difficult to make educational comics that also entertain, but the authors of the Graphic Guide Adventure series do it consistently well. This fifth volume in the popular series follows a gang of kids who take on a plot to take over the nation’s food supply. Brimming with action and suspense, the book also serves as a “how-to” guide about farming and the inner workings of the food supply.

Adventures in Cartooning: How to Turn Your Doodles into Comics by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold and Alexis Frederick-Frost — Equal parts adventure story and instructional guide, this comic follows a knight and an elf as they encounter monsters, dragons, panel borders, backgrounds, word-balloons—and all the other essential elements that you need to make a comic.


[1] Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, PCAP-13 2007: Report on the Assessment of 13-Year-Oldsin Reading, Mathematics, and Science (Toronto, ON: CMEC, 2008).

[2] Human Resources and Social Development Canada, Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, & Statistics Canada, Measuring up: Canadian Results of the OECD PISA Study. The Performance of Canada’s Youth in Science, Reading and Mathematics. 2006 First Results for Canadians aged 15 (Ottawa, ON: Minister of Industry, 2007).

[3] T. Gambell & D. Hunter, "Surveying gender differences in Canadian school literacy", Journal of Curriculum Studies, no. 32(5) (2000), pp. 689–719.

[4] J.K. Torgesen, R.K. Wagner, C.A. Rashotte, A.W. Alexander & T. Conway, "Preventative and remedial interventions for children with severe reading disabilities" Learning Disabilities: A Multi-Disciplinary Journal, no. 8 (1997), pp. 51–62.

[5] K.R. St. Jarre, "Don’t blame the boys: We’re giving them girly books", English Journal, no. 97 (2008), pp. 15–16.

[6] R. Doiron, "Boy books, girl books", Teacher Librarian, no. 30 (2003), pp. 14–16.

[7] T. Gambell & D. Hunter, "Surveying gender differences in Canadian school literacy".

[8] M. Sullivan, "Why Johnny won’t read", School Library Journal (2004).

[9] P. Jones & D. Cartwright Fiorelli, "Overcoming the obstacle course: Teenage boys and reading", Teacher Librarian, no. 30 (2003) pp. 9–13.

[10] R. Doiron, "Boy books, girl books", Teacher Librarian, no. 30 (2003), pp. 14–16.

[11] P. Jones & D. Cartwright Fiorelli, "Overcoming the obstacle course: Teenage boys and reading".

[12] M. Asselin, "Bridging the gap between learning to be male and learning to read", Teacher Librarian, no. 30 (2003), pp. 53–54.

[13] R.E. Cox, "From Boy’s Life to Thrasher: Boys and magazines", Teacher Librarian, no. 30 (2003), pp. 25–26.

[14] J. Worthy, M. Moorman & M. Turner, What Johnny likes to read is hard to find in school. Reading Research Quarterly, no. 34 (1999), pp. 12–27.

[15] M. Sullivan, "Why Johnny won’t read".

[16] P. Jones & D. Cartwright Fiorelli, "Overcoming the obstacle course: Teenage boys and reading".

[17] T. Gambell & D. Hunter, "Surveying gender differences in Canadian school literacy".

[18] P. Jones & D. Cartwright Fiorelli, "Overcoming the obstacle course: Teenage boys and reading".

[19] C. Hall & M. Coles, Children's Reading Choices (London: Routledge, 1999).

[20] E. Millard, Differently Literate: the schooling of boys and girls (London: Falmer Press, 1997).

[22] M. McKenna, D. Kear & R. Ellsworth, "Developmental trends in children's use of print media: A national survey", National Reading Conference Yearbook, no. 40, 319–324 (1991)..

[23] P. Aleixo & C.Norris, "Comics, reading and primary aged children", Education and Health, no. 25,4 (2007).

[24] J. Ujiie & S. Krashen, "Comic book reading, reading enjoyment and pleasure among middle class and chapter 1 middle school students", Reading Improvements, no. 33 (1996), pp.51–54.

[25] S. Krashen, The power of reading, (Englewood, Colorado: Libraries Unlimited, 1993).

[26] Geoff, Fenwick, "The Beano-Dandy phenomenon", in What’s in the picture? Responding to illustrations in picture books. Edited by Janet Evans (London: Paul Chapman: 1998), pp. 132–145.

[27] A.A.W. Lyga, "Graphic novels for (really) young readers", School Library Journal, no. 3 (1) (2006).

[28] T. Edmunds, Why should kids read comics?(2006).

[29] L. Starr, "Eek! Comics in the classroom!", (2004).

[32] T. Edmunds, Why should kids read comics?(2006).

[33] P. Hallenbeck, "Remediating with comic strips", Journal of Learning Disabilities, no. 9 (1976), pp. 11–15.

[34] M.J. Pustz, Comic book culture: Fanboys and true believers (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999).

[35] R. Burns, "Comics in the classroom", Exercise Exchange, no. 45 (1999), pp. 31–32.

[36] E. Snyder, "Teaching the sociology of sport: using a comic strip in the classroom", Teaching Sociology, no. 25 (1997), pp. 239–243.