Reading Comics Won’t Cure Illiteracy

Joe Nutt
Author and Educational Consultant


Reading Comics Won’t Cure Illiteracy


Post a question online as a parent, about how to encourage a child who is a reluctant reader, and you will receive numerous encouragements to offer them comics instead of books, not from publishers of graphic novels, but from English teachers. This is especially noticeable in the early years of secondary school when our entire education system assumes a child is able to read, or at least, decode English prose at a reasonable speed and with understanding. Secondary schools are predicated on the assumption that every child can read. How else can they start to study the range of subjects on offer? Letting a child who can’t read start secondary school, is like enrolling a child with no arms or legs in a swimming club and expecting them to compete.


In the UK in 2018, 75% of eleven-year-olds reached the expected standard in the national SATS reading tests, which presumably means 25% entered secondary school drowning in words. If you look at the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) which measures reading aptitude for 9 to 10 year-olds, the latest data from 2016, shows that 86% of UK students reached at least the intermediate benchmark for reading. So maybe the figure floundering in secondary school classrooms is a little lower, but whatever stats you plump for, adult literacy figures still have the power to shock. Whether you believe the Guardian newspaper’s claim in 2019 that 9 million adults in the UK were functionally illiterate, or revert to the more trustworthy Leitch report of 2006 which estimated the number was between 6 and 8 million, it doesn’t sound like all those comics make much of a difference.


Instinctively, I find the idea that comics will help a child become a lifelong reader, counterintuitive. But I’m open to evidence so I looked into the research and although there is quite a lot of it, frequently claiming that comics are indeed a wise option, what immediately struck me was how often studies relied on a tiny sample, often a few dozen children, or just one school. The metrics are also noticeably weak. Researchers almost unanimously thinking of reading in the most rudimentary way, as nothing more than basic decoding of letters and sounds. I didn’t find anything I could place any faith in and the one study that did seem promising because it began by talking about reading in more sophisticated terms I recognised, quickly degenerated into a series of vague and often grammatically ambiguous statements, that no English teacher would accept from a sixteen-year-old.


All of which provoked me to reflect on what’s happening when we read prose, on what it really means to teach someone to read.

At its core, reading is a surprisingly paradoxical experience; on the one hand necessarily solitary and solipsistic, while on the other, an act of sublime selflessness. When we turn our back on the real world and give our undivided attention to those rows and rows of print, we simultaneously open our mind to the individual human being who authored them. They may never know it, but in a uniquely intimate act of generosity, we let them in. For that small portion of our lifetime that we dedicate to their text, to the invisible words, they caught in the air then crafted into sentences, paragraphs and chapters; we allow them to interact with everything that is in our own head: with every memory, every insight, every learned hypersensitivity, every single thought we have ever had; before that moment when we pressed down the page and started to read what’s inside theirs.


Sometimes there is a mutual understanding, as when we read a formal essay or any sustained prose both author and reader know is designed to win us over. There is a scale for this where at one extreme lie the substantial, scholarly works of some length that claim a rightful place in academic libraries and at the other, the ephemeral, hastily grasped arguments of a newspaper column. As adult readers we appreciate dramatically differing levels of commitment are involved, we even seek out media prose that we anticipate will align with our pre-existing views, a situation social media has hyper-accelerated, so that some people now find it sufficiently rewarding to read nothing more than a headline, before responding with predictable support, approval or unadulterated ire. You may think describing that as reading might be stretching things a little, but there’s no doubt many perfectly literate, even professional adults do it.


At the crucial period, usually in early adolescence, when we are learning to become readers, people who are starting to recognise and value the experience described above; the kind of prose we are most likely to be offered is fiction. The booming market in young adult fiction that has burgeoned phenomenally in recent decades, has no non-fiction equivalent. Curious when you consider that almost the entire YA genre is an unrelenting mass exercise in proselytization. Schools, parents and teachers don’t tend to use reflective, argumentative or informative prose as the key tool in transforming children into adult readers and buyers of books. They use novels. This is why you find those concerned parents seeking help online. Yet novels make even more peculiar demands on us than discursive prose.


Novels are tickets to alternative lives. The best of them create and simultaneously transport us into credible worlds. Once there, the way they spark our emotions and senses is almost imperceptible from reality. In fact, one of the ways we commonly distinguish the best is how skilfully they pull off this illusion. But the illusion is never enforced. We aren’t bludgeoned or battered into belief. We surrender, even before battle commences. And that’s the precise point at which the idea that comics are a good choice for reluctant readers, crumbles and vanishes.


The comic can never escape its graphic nature. However lurid, fantastic or marvellous, it’s a visual, verisimilitudinous narrative; a sequence of depictions of character, action and dialogue. It asks that we surrender less than the novel because it demands less of us.


This is what those no doubt well-intentioned English teachers, misunderstand. Becoming a reader isn’t about steps, it’s about sacrifice. The decision “to read” matters more than the reading material. Every hour we spend with a novel, with the author’s characters, living in their world, is an hour taken from our own. You have to be sure the price is worth paying. For many adolescents, it simply isn’t. They see nothing of value in the transaction. It is literally, a waste of time.


Thinking they might react differently just by offering them units of less demanding prose, accompanied by graphic art, and with troubled characters that in some way are meant to reflect their own, internally unstable world, is avoiding the problem, because the problem is a proper understanding of what reading entails.


Reading is first and foremost a commitment. There is absolutely no point attempting it without fully grasping what that implies. There are only two conditions reading demands; our unqualified attention and time. In the graphic world, one characterised by the fleeting image, by the fast-moving and the ephemeral, is it any surprise reading is such a hurdle for so many contemporary children and adolescents? Those two conditions run counter to every other contemporary impulse and trend. Where the graphic world screams, “Come on in, the water’s lovely,” the world of words wags a finger, shakes its head and calmly says, “Sit down…alone.”


That at least, is how I imagine those struggling readers perceive it. For them, a book is a shackle, a restraint. It holds them back and isolates them. And they believe this because no one has taught them the true nature of the bargain. They haven’t learned that those rows and rows of print put them in touch, not just with someone else’s mind, often some of the most extraordinary people they will never meet, but with someone else’s entire world or radical new viewpoint. The value of the exchange eludes them. Their senses don’t fire up at the sight of an original simile or artful metaphor, characters in novels never fully materialise. They hang suspended somewhere midway between the page and the mind, like a blurry, half-recovered memory. So if they do read fiction at all, they feel nothing. Fiction bemuses and bewilders them, while fact constantly seeks its lowest common denominator, the diagram. They end up living in literary limbo, like innocent lost souls.


Parents and teachers can expend hours, searching for and recommending books or comics, without affecting the slightest shift in behaviour unless they start to address the problem head-on. As in so many other circumstances where learning is involved; think of teaching a child to swim, dive or ride a bicycle, the individual has to commit of their own volition. Think again of how parents and teachers routinely succeed in encouraging children to attempt those milestone physical trials and it is always a matter of trust.


My youngest daughter spent much of her childhood and teenage years in a gymnasium, being trained to do ridiculous things with her body by two Russian gymnastic coaches. Each had spent six years studying at university to reach the elite level they were at. I observed both of them at work for years, in awe at the trust they inspired in all those fragile young creatures. They knew exactly how to transform caution into courage; timidity into grace and power. My daughter once told me, at any one training session, they knew precisely how she was feeling without ever asking. There was always a lot of conversation in that gym.


Parents concerned about reluctant readers, and teachers trying to help them should be looking, not for substitutes or simpler options, they should focus on who is running the conversation, on the relationship between the child and the adult nurturing them along the path to adult literacy. It’s there where the magic happens, where row upon row of printed words can populate the imagination and fire up the senses; stir real emotions and kindle ideas. Take that step successfully just once, and like swimming or riding a bike, you will always be able to do it again. You will also learn that a picture… never says more than a thousand words.


What do you think about the points raised in this article? We’d love to have your thoughts below.



Joe Nutt is the author of several books about the poetry of Donne, Milton and Shakespeare and a collection of essays, The Point of Poetry. His most recent book, Teaching English for the Real World was published in May by John Catt.

He is an international educational consultant who spent almost 20 years teaching, unusually in schools ranging from the highly selective, private sector to challenging, inner-city state schools. The second half of his career has been in business and he has implemented a number of major educational projects including the national intranet for Scotland, Glow, which won the Global Learning Impact Award in 2009.

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