Literacy Today Logo

Reading Comics



Comic books are complicated and becoming more complicated pieces of literature not only in the plot, story and characters, but also in the reading strategies necessary to understand and enjoy them. Joshua Cole

Teaching Reading Strategies

No matter what we are reading there are effective reading strategies we call on in order to make meaning from the text. Many of these strategies can be taught with comics and graphic novels. The ones highlighted below are particularly important when reading graphic texts.

Drawing Inferences

In comics and graphic novels, perhaps more than any other text, readers must build understanding by filling in gaps. A whole world of information is left in the gutter between the panels. The comic artist expects the reader to infer the action that takes place off the page. The more complex and sophisticated the comic, the more important this strategy becomes. If the reader is not making inferences, he is lost. Understanding this strategy and using it effectively will help students read ’between the lines’ in more traditional print narratives.


Students who struggle with reading may not understand what should be going on in the reader’s imagination during reading. With comics and other visual texts, the images are there for the reader. Through comics students can be taught how to create their own mental images when reading more traditional texts.


Understanding Codes and Conventions of Comics:

It is important that students understand the visual cues that are provided in the text. Although the words and images work together to tell the story, comics are primarily visual narratives. Therefore readers must draw on and integrate some important background knowledge and understandings about visual texts, comic elements and narrative structures in order to make meaning. The more knowledge readers have about the way visual texts work, the more successful they are likely to be.


Have students look in comics to find examples of codes and conventions that are different than what they would find in more conventional texts. This activity will help students realize that comics draw on commonly understood meanings to communicate. Have them try to illustrate some concepts (heat, cold, surprise, etc.), with their own ideas.



Because comics are such a highly visual medium it is easy to find examples of symbolism. Students can explore the use of symbolism in comics. What is its purpose ? Why is it used ?





click to enlarge


Students can experiment with their own use of sound effects in a comic panel or strip by producing the same event or scene with or without sound effects.Students identify the way sound is depicted in a graphic novel or comic strip and consider how it contributes to the meaning. Students can create a dictionary of comic book words that represent different sound effects. Check out Ka-Boom ! A Dictionary of Comic Book Words, Symbols & Onomatopoeia by Kevin J. Taylor.


Younger students can compare the way some of their favourite authors, like Robert Munsch, use comic book sound effects in illustrated picture books. Students may use some of these in their own writing.

Back to top


Understanding Narrative Structure:

Comics are really a storytelling medium. The following activities will help students better understand how narratives work in comics and graphic novels.


Cut some comic strips or stories into individual panels.

Have students work in pairs or small groups to put them back into an appropriate sequence.

They can list the clues that helped them. (Many of these clues will be codes and conventions specific to comics.

The complexity of this activity will depend on the sophistication of the comics chosen by the teacher.)

Have students discuss the transitions between panels in a comic and the ways in which they contribute to the meaning of the comic or graphic novel. Click here for an excellent activity on transitions.

Give students individual panels to a comic strip but leave out the final frame. Have them create a number of possible endings. Students then share their ideas with each other saying why some of the endings are more likely than others. (This activity requires the students to consider the textual and visual cues that appear in the original frames as well as draw inferences and fill in the gaps between the panels.)


Understanding Characterization:

In more complex comics and graphic novels readers must look for clues to help them understand narrative elements such as characterization.The following activities can help students think about the way characters are developed in comics. Before having students create their own comic book character have them identify characteristics of different comic characters.


Gather pictures of a variety of comic characters.

Talk about the types of characters that are found in comic books?

Ask students to interpret the character and discuss the reasons for their interpretations.

Ask students to consider the purpose of using stereotypes in creating characters in comics. What are the pros and cons or their use?

Have students create their own comic character.

There are a number of ways to do this:

  • young students can bring in a favourite stuffed animal or action figures and photograph them in different positions and settings
  • Students can use a computer-based comic creator program or draw their own characters.

Once the character has been created students can brainstorm possible story lines, make a storyboard, and create the comic by hand or on the computer.




Teaching Critical Literacy :

Critical Literacy views readers as active participants in the reading process and invites them to move beyond passively accepting the text’s message to question, examine, or dispute the power relations that exist between readers and authors. It focuses on issues of power and promotes reflection, transformation, and action. Fieire, 1970

More sophisticated comics and graphic novels can be used to help teach critical literacy. 
  • Why was this comic written?
  • Who is the target audience?
  • What is it about?
  • What codes and conventions have been used to create the comic?
  • How do these codes and conventions help convey meaning and influence or engage the reader

These questions will help students begin to think more critically about the comics they are reading.


Additional Resources

Check out Teaching With the Power of Comics for more classroom ideas.

Some of these activities have been adapted from Teaching, Viewing and Visual Texts by Rod Quin, Barrie McMahon and Robyn Quin, published by Curriculum Corporation, 1996.

Other ideas have been adapted from Media Education in the Primary School. Carol E. Craggs published by Routledge 1992.

Back to:

Reading Picture Books

Reading Video

Reading Photographs

Back to top

Picture books offer certain unique advantages when we deliver instruction. Of all literature that lends itself to reading comprehension strategy (...)
We want our students to understand that readers are always thinking. This is true whether they are reading a novel, looking at the advertisements (...)
Long before Photoshop and other image-editing tools, artists, photographers, and composers were manipulating images. We still live in a (...)