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Reading Graphic Novels

...when you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face, you see it as the face of another. But when you enter the world of the cartoon, you see yourself.-Scott McCloud


Many of the texts we encounter in daily life are in fact multimodal ensembles. These texts combine written language, elements of graphic design, and visual images. Comics, picture books, and graphic novels all incorporate these elements.

Graphic novels lend themselves to being used: 

  • to launch a genre study
  • as mentor texts for author’s craft 
  • as writing prompts
  • to introduce complex themes and issues
  • as a prompt for expository writing
  • for engaging students in critical literacy
  • to encourage authentic discussions in literature circles or inquiry groups

Introducing Comics and Graphic Novels

Below, author Gene Luen Yang introduces the elements of comics and graphic novels and discusses their use with students.


What is a Graphic Novel?

Jessica Abel and Matt Maden created this comic to explain some of the conventions of graphic novels. Do a read-aloud with this text to model the ways to read graphic texts.

Jessica Abel 


Reading Graphic Novels:

Comics and graphic novels have a language all of their own. It is important that students understand the visual cues that are proposed by these graphic texts. Knowledge of some of the common elements of graphic novels allows readers to engage with the texts on a deeper level and make meaning. 


Reading Graphic Novels: Introducing Codes and Conventions


Secondary Cycle II sudents are first introduced to the common conventions of graphic novels and are then invited to read and discuss a brief excerpt from a graphic memoir.


Reading Graphic Novels: Using Conventions to Make Meaning


Secondary Cycle II students discuss War Brothers: The Graphic Novel by Sharon E. McKay. Through talk in a small group, they explore the way the conventions of graphic novels are used to make meaning.


Reading Graphic Novels: Using Conventions to Make Meaning


Secondary Cycle II students discuss Essex County by Jeff Lemire and use the conventions to discover the memoir’s big ideas.


Conventions of Graphic Novels

Splash Page

Sometimes the first page of a comic or graphic novel, a splash page is a full page panel that is often used to relate the setting, main characters, and to establish a mood or context for the narrative. Inset panels (such as the memory in the thought bubble) are sometimes used to convey another time or place.

Blankets by Craig Thompson



Transitions are used to create different effects such as slowing down an event to mark its importantce or to highlight a switch in perspective. 


Moment to Moment 

In this type of transition there is relatively little change that takes place between the panels. It is used to slow down an event and hightlight an important scene.

Blankets by Craig Thompson


Action to Action 

The actions of a single subject are shown through a series of progressive actions.

Blankets by Craig Thompson


Subject to Subject

The action transitions between different subjects of the same scene. A common transition, paricularly for conversations between characters.

Blankets by Craid Thompson


Scene to Scene

The action transports the reader across different times and spaces. Can be used to convey a flashback or a switch of perspective.

Blankets by Craig Thompson


Additional Resources


Teacher Nathan C. Phillips shares his approach to teaching with visual texts in "How to Ruin Your Students’ Reading of Visual Texts (and Still Sleep Well at Night)"

99 Ways to Tell a Story by Matt Madden can be used to encourage students to engage in multiple readings of graphic texts.

Jessica Abel and Matt Madden’s DW-WP blog is particularly offers teaching resources for working with comics and graphic novels.

Picture This: How Pictures Work by Molly Bang explaing the way visual elements can be used to tell a story.

Reading the Visual by Frank Serafini is a comprehensive guide to working with visual texts.

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud is a primer on reading and working with comics and graphic novels.