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Graphic Novels Enter the Science-Literacy Conversation

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A new paper from the New England Reading Association Journal explores the usefulness of graphic novels and other nontext-only media for encouraging adolescent struggling readers across subjects. A predilection for graphic novels is just one of many "out-of-school literate activities" that offer educators the opportunity to meet students halfway, engaging them in media and social milieux with which they're already comfortable. While graphic novels may seem at first blush to fit best in art, English, or history classes, the authors of this paper offer an example from the science classroom.

The paper was co-written by William G. Brozo of George Mason University and Melissa Mayville, a teacher at Metz Middle School in Manassas, Va., from whose personal experience the classroom narrative is drawn. Mayville's middle school chemistry class used graphic novels as companion volumes to school-issued textbooks, working back and forth between the two through a series of activities. Of the formal attributes of the chosen graphic novel, Mayville writes, "The drawings are vivid; the vocabulary-rich text is broken into frames and supported by insets that reinforce vocabulary and important schema." She advocates using graphic novels in conversation with official textbooks as a way to help new concepts "stick."

Mayville offers anecdotal evidence of higher test scores in chemistry following the unit that included graphic novels. But perhaps the more interesting outcomes are the improved level of engagement among "a handful of the students who are generally indifferent to class activities and assignments," and that the majority of culminating student assignments incorporated visual narrative elements. Graphic novels had proven a useful medium for both comprehension and expression.

Sarah Sparks of edweek.org's Inside School Research blog recently noted the work of Robert Hampson, a neuroscientist and proponent of graphic novels and science fiction for introducing students to new concepts in science. And, as Erik Robelen wrote in Curriculum Matters, a new federally funded initiative is set to help develop projects linking science learning and literacy. Educators developing common core-aligned curriculum in the sciences may find themselves looking for "high quality informational text" in unexpected places. Teen-friendly media like graphic novels seem poised to fulfill this need.

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