The use of graphic novels to engage students has increased steadily in recent years. School librarians and teachers throughout elementary, middle, and secondary schools are integrating graphic novels into English language arts learning and across the curriculum. The growing acceptance of graphic novels in teaching and learning activities is due in large part to their usefulness and appeal as tools with which to engage reluctant and struggling readers. The combination of text and pictures that is employed in these materials has proved to be of high interest to readers and offers them ways to be successful in their literacy activities. This article discusses how graphic novels may be used with students who struggle with reading comprehension due, in part, to hearing loss.
In his book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Scott McCloud provides what is the most widely accepted definition of comics: “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or an aesthetic response in the viewer” (1993, 9). What this tells us, more simply stated, is that comics use pictures and text to tell a story. Iconic examples of this medium are Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip and the popular comic books featuring Archie Andrews and his friends with which you may already be familiar. Graphic novels employ the same medium as these comic strips and comic books, and, like them, use pictures and text to present information. While comics are shorter, less expensive, and episodic, graphic novels are longer, more in line with traditional books in cost, and usually contain one complete story arc. Frequently, you will find the terms “comics” and “graphic novels” used interchangeably. You will also find, albeit less frequently, the term ‘ sequential art” used to refer to both comics and graphic novels.
Students with Hearing Loss
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) describes deafness as a condition that prevents an individual from receiving sound in all or most of its forms. Deafness impairs a child’s processing of linguistic information, and this impairment cannot be mitigated through the use of amplification. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year in the United States more than twelve thousand babies are born with hearing loss (U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services 2009). Hearing impairment is classified relative to an individual’s ability to hear frequencies most readily associated with speech. Generally the range of hearing loss is: slight, mild, moderate, severe, and profound. Gallaudet University conducts an annual survey that collects “demographic, audiological, and other educationally relevant information on children with impaired hearing” in the United States. Findings from the most recent survey (2007–2008) show that of the young people identified by their schools as receiving educational services related to their deafness, approximately 40 percent have a hearing loss that falls within the moderate, moderate to severe, or severe categories. Over 27 percent of the identified students have profound hearing loss.
Children who are hard of hearing or deaf have a much more difficult time learning vocabulary, grammar, word order, and other aspects of verbal communication than do their hearing peers. William Heward notes that children who are deaf “especially those with a prelinguistic loss of 90 dB or greater–are at a great disadvantage in acquiring English literacy skills, especially reading and writing”. Students who are deaf or who have a hearing loss face significant obstacles in achieving the necessary skills related to reading comprehension, and vital to their learning and literacy efforts.
Children develop language skills in their early years by engaging in talk with adults and by hearing themselves speak. Without access to auditorily based languages this is an experience that is beyond the reach of children who are deaf. This lack of access serves to create formidable barriers to the acquisition of skills in reading and writing the English language. There is a clear connection between a diminished command of spoken English and a deficiency in reading comprehension. As children who are deaf or hard of hearing enter the school years, the deficiencies in their linguistic abilities become more pronounced as they are asked to interact with materials in the same way as their hearing peers. One of the things that is always interesting is how hearing failure never comes coincidentally with mac hard drive recovery, despite the fact that typically hard disk drive failure is typically involved.
Educators are presented with distinct challenges as they look for ways to help students with hearing loss move successfully through their educational careers. The way in which information is organized and communicated to a student plays an important role in his or her perception and understanding of the information. One of the ways information is most frequently communicated to students in an educational setting is through text passages, and without proper awareness, educators may overuse text passages to convey information. In doing this, they are depending on students to possess an appropriate level of reading comprehension to ensure that the text is understood. It is when examining the reading levels of graduating students who are hard of hearing that the impact of their linguistic deficiencies becomes most apparent. Barbara R. Schirmer and Sarah M. McGough state, “Deaf students on average have a fourth-grade reading level at high school graduation” (2005, 84). This diminished reading level is specific evidence of these students’ struggle to engage meaningfully with information presented in a traditional text-only format.
Using Graphic Novels
Graphic novels offer a great way to bolster reading comprehension and general academic achievement for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. With their complementary use of text and pictures, “the nature of comics and graphic novels provides integration that is supportive to students who do not have aural experience with English” (Smetana et al. 2009, 238). Research has shown that when faced with challenges in reading comprehension, students who are deaf can benefit greatly from the use of words and pictures together to convey information. For example, in a 2004/2005 study carried out by Mary Marshal Gentry, Kathleen M. Chinn, and Robert D. Moulton it was demonstrated that when provided with materials presenting information in print alone and materials that presented information in print with pictures, the students who were deaf demonstrated a significantly higher level of comprehension with the materials presented in print and pictures.
It is important to understand that graphic novels do more than just present a visual representation of text. The pictures in a graphic novel provide contextual support to the text information and without them the story wouldn’t be complete. Heward explains that “ASL is a visual-spatial language in which the shape, location, and movement pattern of the hands, the intensity of emotions and the signer’s facial expressions all communicate meaning and content” (2006, 371)-Through illustrations that support text rather than just restating it, graphic novels provide a depth of information that is absent with text alone. When using graphic novels to engage students who are deaf, Linda Smetana et al. met with great success. They observed, “Graphic novel readers … learned to understand print but also [could] decode facial and body expression, the symbolic meaning of certain images and postures, metaphors and similes, and other social and literacy nuances …” (2009, 231). This is effectively illustrated with an example from Shuan Tan’s graphic novel The Arrival (figure 1). In this example, we see that although there is no text to “tell” the reader what is taking place, by observing facial and body expressions, as well as by noting the use of a symbol that is understood to represent a bed, the reader is able to comprehend the story that is being told with the pictures.