Conferring with students about their graphic novel reading

If you’re a teacher with a classroom library, your graphic novels are flying off the shelves. Your students gravitate to the same titles, wait their turns, and reread them almost obsessively. We’re all happy for young readers when they find something so engaging in a book that they want to reread it. But sometimes we wonder what they’re getting out of rereading the same graphic novels.

Are they just looking at the pictures? we think. Do they like it because it’s just easier to read? and even the best of us sometimes think Is this even real reading? As a visiting consultant and instructional coach, I’ve heard these questions from dozens of teachers. In our coaching conversations, I’ve discovered that the real questions they have are How can I find out what students are doing as readers when they read graphic novels? And What could they be doing as they’re reading graphic novels to make deeper meaning?

The typical reading conference

In reading conferences with students, teachers are generally well-equipped with a stash of powerful questions that lead students to articulating the strategies they are using to make meaning from their reading – whether it’s prose, verse, drama, or any other familiar form. Based on students’ responses, teachers guide them to fine tune their current strategies and layer in additional ones that will help them with reading challenges they’ve encountered:

Photo by Yoab Anderson on Unsplash

So you’re telling me that when you don’t know who a character is, you go back to the first paragraphs of each chapter to find their name and remember? And you say that sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t? And also that sometimes you lose interest in what was happening because it’s taking too long to find the character’s name? Can you think of another strategy we’ve learned in class that could help with this challenge?

From here, the teacher guides the student to reflect on strategies modeled in class that might be applied to this challenge. The teacher’s mind is probably brimming with so many tools and solutions she just can’t wait to share with this student: We can keep track of new characters on a graphic organizer. We can use sticky notes to mark when we encounter new characters. We can stop and think of a person in our lives or in our readings who a character reminds us of so they will stick in our minds better. We can visualize the character by using any descriptions offered in the text. We can make predictions about what will happen with this character so that we are anticipating their return into the story.

The Graphic Novel Reading Conference

But when a student brings their graphic novel to a reading conference, I’ve seen these expert teachers get a little sweaty when they try to guide the student with a reading strategy that will help them solve comprehension challenges in this seemingly simple but actually complex form. They rely on general advice like Try rereading those pages. And Keep reading and it might make sense later.

When debriefing with teachers about these graphic novel reading conferences, I discover that they struggle to provide specific reading strategies for making meaning out of visual texts because they don’t have any in their toolkit. A logical next step, given the increasing frequency of students bringing graphic novels to reading conferences, would be to learn about the complex devices at work in a graphic novel.

Next Steps

It’s particularly helpful for teachers to read about the graphic novel form through experiencing the form as a reader. I recommend Scott McCloud’s classic guide Understanding Comics – which teaches you about graphic form in graphic form (genius!). Also top on the list is the seminal guide to comics devices by renowned comic artist Will Eisner: Comics and Sequential Art – which is full of close readings of a variety of comics and graphic novels that demonstrate the technique or device he is describing.

As you read, ask yourself, what meaning are you making from the graphic page? What do you try when you encounter a comprehension challenge? If you are comprehending, what is helping you? I encourage teachers to record their responses to these questions. At their next reading conference with a graphic novel reading student, they can’t wait to truly partner with them and share specific strategies for making deeper meaning from their graphic novels, strategies that recently helped them with their own challenges.

If you are not able to read these recommended guides, you might consider the shorter, less comprehensive guide You Can Do A Graphic Novel by Barbara Slate, Graphix’s Educator Guide (specifically page 8 onwards), or Reading with Pictures Teacher Guide (which includes a history of comics written in graphic form and lesson plans).

See it first: a model video of graphic novel close reading

As teachers, we love to learn by reading, but we also benefit from explicit modeling before attempting something new in our classrooms. For an example of how a reader can apply strategies and understanding of devices to make meaning from a graphic novel page, watch me and a fellow reader closely read page six of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel memoir Persepolis:

Two readers look closely at the visual elements and texts in panels to closely analyze one page of Persepolis

When viewing this close-read discussion, note down phrases, questions, and references to devices that help the readers in the video make meaning from the page. To use this as a teaching tool in your classroom, reference this practice page to create an active viewing experience for students.

Questions to ask in a graphic novel reading conference

Before you follow the links in this post to learn more about holding meaningful conferences with graphic novel readers, you might need guiding questions for the conferences you will have today and tomorrow.

When prompting students to tell you about the graphic novel pages they have read, begin with open-ended questions that allow them to show the thinking they have already done. Prompt them to examine their conclusions by asking how they know what they know. To lead students to close reading of a page’s panels, ask them to consider how their understanding would change if the pictures or words changed in specific ways (sizes, color, background, dialogue, etc.).

When we as teachers learn something new, experience that productive struggle we strive to create for our students, we return to our classrooms with empathy, excitement, and better instructional strategies.

For more on how to teach students to closely read and analyze graphic novels, and make one themselves, visit my comprehensive post on Cult of Pedagogy.

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