Comics: A Useful Tool For English as a Second Language
by Natsuko K. Chow

Living in a strange country, surrounded by sounds of incomprehensible language is nerve-wracking for anyone. In order to adjust, one is required to master the language of the new environment, which can be a daunting task. One wish for both students and teachers of English as a second language is to make language learning a less threatening and frightening experience. To achieve that, comic books/graphic novels can be a practical addition to your ESL lesson plans, for everything from basic instruction to vocabulary development to cultural knowledge.

  •  Basic Instruction: Second language learning is very similar to learning your first language, especially for beginners. Typically, we all started reading with a picture book because pictures are more appealing than streams of unknown words. This is also true for ESL learners. By using comics, students are able to associate pictures with the action in a book thus helping them comprehend the meaning of the story and familiarize themselves with new words.
  •  Vocabulary Development: Comics also play a crucial role in expanding the student’s vocabulary. In fact, comics can introduce them to non-standard words and phrases which are not typically found in traditional text books. For example, comics tend to utilize daily language commonly used in conversation such as slang, idioms, onomatopoeia, abbreviations, etc. Mastering these aspects of the English language is important for assimilating into a new culture.
  • Cultural Knowledge: For an ESL student, understanding the culture is just as important – if not more so – than learning the language itself. In that case, comics are valuable because they can portray certain aspects of one’s culture. For instance, a comic book set in a typical American high school can represent traits unique to American teenagers. Intermediate to advanced students can use such comics to compare and contrast with their native cultures, stimulating discussion in the classroom.

The universality of comics should be taken into account as well, when considering using them for ESL purposes. Comics are widely read all over the world in many forms – the odds are good that your students have already read comics in their native language. Take advantage of this fact by having students bring in their own comics to translate into English. Moreover, if a translated edition is already available (either an English translation of a non-English comic book or a non-English translation of an American comic), they can compare and contrast both versions. This technique may be particularly beneficial in a one-on-one tutoring session or bilingual classroom where the students share the same native language.

Be sure to see “References & Resources” for websites and books that can help you with comics and ESL.