washingtonpost.com  > Education > Maryland

Schools Turn to Comics as Trial Balloon

Novel Md. Program Uses Genre to Encourage Reluctant Readers

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 13, 2004; Page B01

There once was a time when comic books were at the bottom of the literary food chain. Children read them under the bedcovers with a flashlight, and parents and teachers decried their reliance on one-syllable exclamations: BAM! POW! WHAM!

But that was before a comic book was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, before the term "graphic novel" came into vogue as a synonym and before video games became parents' new archenemy.

A statewide project using comic books to encourage reading is the first of its kind in the nation. (The Washington Post)

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The reputation of comics has improved so much in recent decades that Maryland is planning a program that would use the books in public schools to help engage reluctant readers. Although some teachers have drawn upon comics as teaching tools, officials said the statewide project is the first of its kind in the nation.

"In America, people have loved comic books, but nobody has looked at the value of it as a reading material," said Darla Strouse, executive director of partnerships for the Maryland Department of Education. "What we're saying is, this is an outstanding approach to teaching reading."

Pilot programs are underway in some parts of Maryland. Fifth-graders at an elementary school in Harford County, northeast of Baltimore, are reading a comic book featuring Donald Duck and another about women in science. High school students in Carroll County are creating cartoons in art class and studying "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns" for an English course in mythology.

Several more Maryland counties will begin using the comic book-based curriculum in the spring, though officials have not determined which books it will use. The rest of the state's school districts will introduce the curriculum at the start of the next school year.

Officials said the project will target students from kindergarten to high school, including children who speak limited English.

"You see kids reading comic books, buying comic books, and they seem totally engrossed," State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick said. "It looks like there's really some potential here." She said comic books are not meant to replace traditional reading materials but rather to be used as a supplement.

That's quite a rehabilitation for a literary genre that 50 years ago was blamed for causing illiteracy, as well as juvenile crime and sexual misconduct. In 1954, New York City psychiatrist Frederic Wertham's book "Seduction of the Innocent" was published; it detailed his findings on the effects of comic books on American youth. As comic sales plummeted amid such criticism, the industry agreed to monitor content and attach a seal of approval to all its publications.

The comic-book genre has changed dramatically in the years since, said Charles Hatfield, who teaches a course on comics as literature at California State University at Northridge. Ever since the graphic novel "Maus" won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for relating the experiences of author Art Spiegelman's father during the Holocaust, some comic books have been recognized for their literary and artistic merit.

Many have moved beyond stories about superheroes. There are comic books on everything from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to growing up with an epileptic sibling. In recent years, a surge has occurred in the popularity of manga, Japanese comic books that frequently have dark or apocalyptic themes.

But such scholars as Hatfield are skeptical about the genre's value as a teaching tool.

"I think that comics can be a very strong lure for certain kinds of so-called reluctant readers," he said. "There's visual fascination to break up the experience of just reading lines of text. That's what many people like about comics, and that's what many educators dislike about comics."

To Hatfield, the skills needed to read comics are not the same ones needed to read traditional books. Reading comics requires an ability to piece together fragmented stories and a high tolerance for distraction, as words and pictures compete for attention, he said.

No studies have been done to measure the effect that reading comic books has on student achievement, said John T. Guthrie, a professor at the University of Maryland and director of the school's Literacy Research Center.

For years, U.S. educators have bemoaned stagnant literacy rates and a decline in leisure reading, especially among teenagers. The percentage of Americans ages 13 to 17 who read daily for fun has shrunk since the 1980s, according to a 1999 survey by the National Assessment of Education Progress.

A recent National Endowment for the Arts report, based on a 2002 survey, showed that the share of adults who have read any book has dropped by 4 percent in a decade. "The biggest problem is 'aliteracy,' not illiteracy," Guthrie said.

Maryland education officials are betting that comic books can help combat the trend by meeting children on their own turf.

Although comic book sales in the United States have dropped since the genre's heyday in the 1940s and '50s, their timeless appeal has helped make "Hulk," "Road to Perdition" and two "Spider-Man" films popular at the box office.

State officials said they are working with the University of Maryland Baltimore County to evaluate the quality of the comic book curriculum. But Guthrie said the only proven way to improve students' reading skills is to make them read lots of text -- which is often diluted in comic books.

"We want it to be legitimate," Grasmick said. "We definitely want to guarantee the quality of anything that is done."

In one fifth-grade class at George D. Lisby Elementary School at Hillsdale, in Harford, nearly all the students said they had read comic books in their free time. Superman, the Simpsons and Dragon Ball Z -- the children all said that they would rather read those features than a text-only book.

It is "something with action and excitement . . . and superheroes," Lisby student Rashard Drake, 10, said.

To Lisby reading specialist Alberta Porter, comic books are something more -- a way to tempt struggling readers and introduce them to new words and concepts.

On a recent morning, Porter opened a "Donald Duck and Friends" comic book to a page on which a student had labeled parts of the strip: "narrtive box," "thouht ballon," "speech ballon." A worksheet that accompanies the comic "Dignifying Science: Stories About Women Scientists" asks students to define the words "posthumously" and "rehabilitating" and to explain how the women overcame obstacles and how it relates to the students' experiences.

"We're trying to change some previously held concepts and thoughts that there was no place" for comics, Porter said.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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