The Internet TESL Journal

Using Comics with ESL/EFL Students

Justine Derrick
derrick_justine (at)
Salisbury, Maryland, USA


Comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels can be used in ESL and EFL classrooms to encourage students to read.  They can also form the basis of several classroom activities that will engage students and generate discussion.

Second Language Acquisition, Reading, and Comics

In all theories of second language acquisition, input plays a role (though the role varies in importance in each of the different theories).  One important form of input is reading.  Reading can aid in vocabulary development, and “[…] Nagy, Herman, and Anderson (1985) argue that picking up word meanings by reading is 10 times faster than intensive vocabulary instruction” (Krashen, 1993, p. 15).  Reading can also aid other skills, as “several studies confirm that those who read more in their second language also write better in that language (Salyer 1987; Janopoulos 1986; Kaplan and Palhinda 1981)” (Krashen, 1993, p. 7).  Therefore, reading can and should play an important role in the second or foreign language classroom.

The most important factor in the development of reading skills is the amount of time a student actually spends reading (Cummins, 2003, p. 20).  One of the ways that ESL/EFL teachers can increase the amount of time their students read is by using comics and graphic novels, which can be especially useful in second language classrooms.  Not only can they provide language learners with contextualized comprehensible input, they can also engage the learner and lead him or her to explore more graphic novels or books, magazines, newspapers, and other reading materials.  
Graphic novels and comics deal with spoken language differently than books do.  Usually, comic book writers attempt to capture spoken language as it really occurs, complete with gaps, hesitations, and slang.  In fact, “[...] comic strips [can be used] as a means to help students deal with ‘the ambiguity, vagueness and downright sloppiness of spoken English’” by introducing “language learners to ‘ellipsis, blends, nonwords, vague lexis, confirmation checks, contrastive stress, new topic signals, nonverbal language, mitigators, [and] routine/ritual phrases’” (Cary, 2004, p. 33).  These are aspects of spoken language that English textbooks might not deal with or, if they do, only as an afterthought.  Comics, on the other hand, put each of these into context and make them relevant to second language learners.
Comics, specifically comic strips, usually deal with humor.  They can be useful for introducing language learners to the culture and humor of English-speakers.  Cary (2004) responds to the question: “Do the jokes in lots of comics make them too difficult for […] beginning second language learners?” by stating that “If read alone, yes, even with a good bilingual dictionary at the ready.”  He recommends “A teacher-facilitated discussion of a ‘buddy read,’ where beginners work with native speakers or more advanced L2 learners to get the jokes, [which] can turn a comic that would have been an impenetrable and frustrating read if processed alone into something understandable, funny, and meaningful” (Cary, 2004, p. 69).  In this case, not only do comics lead to laughter, they also lead to productive and relevant discussions in the second language classroom.
On the other hand, not all comic books and graphic novels are light reading.  Over the past several years, more and more graphic novels have appeared that address more serious topics, such as family relationships, war, coming of age, and current events.  Several of these graphic novels have won major awards, such as the Pulitzer Prize, the Hugo award, and the World Fantasy Award.  As they have matured, graphic novels have moved from the realm of children and can appeal to and be used with adult students.

Visual Literacy

Just as reading a book or magazine requires a certain set of skills, so does reading a comic book or graphic novel.  Comic books and graphic novels call for “visual literacy,” where  students need to learn to recognize certain symbols and decode their meaning, much in the same way they do while reading texts.
In the case of comics and graphic novels, elements of visual literacy include the visual symbols and shorthand that comics use to represent the physical world.  For example, two or more wavy lines rising up from something indicate smoke.  With flies added, they indicate a bad smell.  Lines trailing after a person or a car indicate movement.  Text bubbles change their form to indicate if a person is thinking, speaking, or shouting.  Also, comic book artists sometimes use a dashed or dotted outline to show invisibility or Xs in place of eyes to represent death.
ESL/EFL students who have read comics in their native language will probably be better able to decode the visual symbols in comics.  For example, “they know that large, non-bubbled text is typically a sound effect and that a string of nonsense symbols like #?”@?#*?! isn’t nonsense at all but an unprintable obscenity that could make a sailor blush” (Cary, 2004, p. 62).  On the other hand, comics from different countries have developed their own visual code.  Asian comics sometimes use different symbols than their North American and European counterparts.  While students might be able to inductively discern the meanings of most symbols, teachers should be aware that some symbols could potentially cause confusion for their students. 

How to Use Comics and Graphic Novels in the Classroom

These activities can be used as stand-alone activities, or they can be used to prepare students to read an entire graphic novel or comic book. 

Activity 1: Understanding Visual Symbols

Before using comics in the ESL/EFL classroom, it is a good idea to prepare students to interpret the visual symbols they might encounter in the comics.  Put students into pairs or small groups and ask them how they would represent, in pictures and without using any words, the following concepts: a bad small, a telephone ringing, shouting, thinking, a ghost, and heat.  After the students finish, distribute examples of the above concepts from comics.  The students can then discuss the differences between their ideas and the ones the comic writers used and which they prefer.

Activity 2: Reading Order in Comics

Comic strips follow an order, left to right, that mirrors how English is read.  Certain graphic novels, however, do not always follow this same straightforward pattern.  Maus, by Art Speigelman, and Palestine, by Joe Sacco, are two such graphic novels.  Their authors often indicate a certain mood or state by not strictly following a left to right order.  Students can look at excerpts of these two graphic novels (or similar ones) and discuss the order in which they should read the page, how they know to read it in that order, and why the authors chose to present their stories in such a manner.   

Activity 3: Comic Jigsaw

This is a quick activity that can be used to put students into pairs for another activity, to introduce a topic, or to provoke a discussion on humor.  First, find several one panel comics.  Next, separate the text from the panel.  This can be done by copying the text onto a different piece of paper and then blanking out the text from the comic.  Finally, distribute these items to students, making sure that each student has either some text or a panel.  Students will need to talk to each other and try to match their panel to text or their text to a panel.  When students have found their match, they can sit down together.

Activity 4: Fill in the Text

This is an activity where students must generate text based on pictures.  Choose a comic strip or a scene from a graphic novel or comic book, then cover the text in the speech bubbles and make photo copies.  Distribute these copies to your students, and have them write text in the blank speech bubbles.
This activity can be used to encourage use of new vocabulary or expressions or as a continuation of a lesson (i.e., in a business English class, students can read and discuss Dilbert comics, then create their own).  Students can work separately or in pairs to create their comics, then can have a competition to see who has created the funniest comic.  Students who worked in pairs on comics that have two characters can even perform their comics in front of the class.

Activity 5: Creating Pictures

This activity is the opposite of the previous activity.  Instead of creating text, students have to draw pictures to accompany text.  The text can come from comics or can come from a book or even a poem.  This activity is not only for younger learners, as it can force adults to examine the subtexts of speech and determine how to represent it pictorially. 

Activity 6: Putting Panels in Order

In this activity, students are given comic strip panels that have been cut apart, and they must work together to put them in order.  Students must use their knowledge of joke structure or conversation patterns to put the images in order.

Activity 7: Creating Comics

Particularly creative or open students can be given the task of creating their own comics.  After completing other activities with comics or after reading and responding to comics, students can work together or individually to create their own comics on a given theme, either by drawing them or by cutting and pasting pictures from a magazine or newspaper.


Comic Strips are as close as the nearest newspaper; they can also be found on the internet at  Also on the internet are Archie comics with definitions and discussion questions geared towards ESL students (    McCloud has created an interactive comic which can be accessed at, and Marvel comics can be accessed (for a monthly fee) at

There are several graphic novels that can be used with adult students.  Friedrich’s Roadstrips is an anthology of short comics created by various artists in different parts of the United States.  Nakazawa’s autobiographical Barefoot Gen series tells the story of life in Japan after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.  Sacco has written several journalistic graphic novels, including one on Palestine and several on Bosnia and Sarajevo.  Satrapi’s Persepolis recounts her life growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.  Speigelman’s Maus is about his father’s experiences during the Holocaust.  Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan examines the relationship between a father and son.  

For additional ideas, Gravett’s Graphic Novels examines several graphic novels and comic books, dividing them by genre and providing short excerpts of some.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XIV, No. 7, July 2008