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Using Digital Comics for Language Learning

By Bill Zimmerman / January 2010

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Learning should be fun.

As a kid, I began learning how to read while looking at the beautifully drawn cartoon characters in the Sunday funny pages. I was challenged to decipher the white balloons coming from the characters' mouths or above their heads. And in no time, I was reading and creating my own comics.

Comic Strip Development

My experience with comic strips as a child inspired me many years later, as a teacher of adult classes in English for speakers of other languages, and literacy programs, to use them with students as a resource to help them write, read, and tell stories in English.

About year ago I launched a free web site called Make Beliefs Comix to enable teachers, trainers and students to create their own comic strips online. There they can select among the many characters offered and fill in their talk and thought balloons.

Comic Strips for Language Learners
Telling stories by building comic strips is a way to strengthen struggling students' emerging English-language skills and make the difficult job of language learning a much more enjoyable experience.

Comic strips are a perfect vehicle for learning a language. Each strip's three or four panels provide a finite, accessible world in which funny or compelling characters live and go about their lives. And readers with limited reading skills are not as overwhelmed in dealing with the size of a comic strip as they can be with a book of many pages.

Comic strips also don't require long sentences or paragraphs to tell a good story. Only few words are required for the characters to go about their lives and reveal their stories. And, anyone who sees a blank talk or thought balloon floating over the head of a character wants to fill it in immediately; doing so is the beginning step to tell a story.

Oftentimes, before I ever created an electronic comic strip generator, I would take colorful paper comics from the newspaper, white out the words in the balloons, photocopy these wordless strips, and ask students to fill in the balloons with their own words.

Whether you use characters from a web site or cut them out from a newspaper, you want to use characters with a wide variety of emotions and looks. For example, place an angry looking character into the same panel with a surprised one, and there is an immediate graphical tension set up that the writer will want to exploit and resolve through words.

The characters become surrogates for the students. A student, for example, who might be looking for a job and wants practice interviewing, could set up a story in which one of the characters stands as a surrogate for him and the other represents the potential employer. In the thought and speech balloons, the student can practice interviewing techniques and engage in make-believe conversations that cover the ground one can expect in the interviewing process.

Similarly, a parent who expects to meet her daughter's teacher at open school night can create a comic strip in which she practices the academic vocabulary that she will use that evening. Or, a student who has been experiencing stomach pains and has scheduled an appointment with a doctor can practice the medical words he will need to express what is hurting him.

Why Digital Comics Work Best
With computer literacy so emphasized today in ESOL and literacy programs, the very act of encouraging a student to create a simple comic strip online also provides a way for students to become more comfortable using computers. As they learn to negotiate a comics generator web site and move characters and thought balloons around, they are also improving their computer skills.

Often the process of creating a comic strip involves collaboration among students, which is important not only in the classroom but also in the workplace. Other times, the use of a computer to generate a comic strip provides students with a very focused and gratifying personal experience as they manipulate characters and conceive of words that they will key into the computerized comic.

Comic Strip Development

A student thus enters her own world, the world of her imagination. Some teachers have told me that when their students are working in the computer lab and creating their comic stories, they can barely hear a sound, so involved are the students in the writing and composing process.

Some educational therapists also use computer-generated comic strips with deaf and autistic people and trauma victims to help them understand concepts and communicate. Some teachers use the strips as storyboards to help students understand books that they are reading in class. One teacher in Australia told me, for instance, that she created storyboards with comic characters to help her students better understand Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

One teacher works with autistic students says she uses the comics to create scripts to teach her students social skills, such as comforting themselves when meeting new people. Students reading a book might use a comics-generator site to extend the story by writing about a character whose life and adventures continue after the book is closed, or even to write a different ending. Better yet, they can use the online tool to write their own story. Students who have been assigned a book to read might create a comic strip or series that summarizes the book's ideas.

Educators who are teaching new vocabulary or grammatical structures might have students create a comic strip in which the characters use the new words or constructions that have been learned that day in class. It's a much more engaging way to practice a language—and creative writing—than simply writing them out as words alone on an otherwise blank page.

Versatile Across Many Age Ranges
Parents and children in family literacy programs can also create stories together, print them to create comic books, or email them to friends and family. Generating strips also becomes a tool to help parents and children work jointly and communicate effectively in creating something new. Others will find online comics a resource to be creative, calm down, and have fun—something that is needed as students struggle mightily in class to master a new language.

I have been conducting workshops both for adult students who are learning English as a second language and with those who as struggling to be literate. Generally, in showing students how to create comics, I often create with them a group comic strip incorporating their ideas. This becomes a great class collaboration. Together we'll choose a subject, perhaps interviewing for a job, or making conversation with a friend, or going on a date, or looking forward to the weekend, or planning a vacation. Another way to initiate the comic-writing portion of a course or lesson plan is to use a more imaginative theme, such as Travel to a Mysterious Place, A Day at School, Love Story, Finding Your Courage, Making Wishes Come True, or A New Fairy Tale.

When I work with a call, we'll create a story together, by first placing one or two characters in each panel. The characters become surrogates for ourselves and can be used, too, to help students work out problems or situations that are troubling them in their lives. In effect, producing the comics provides a safe way for students to deal with uncertainties or with issues that give them problems.

I might then start a dialogue in one of the talk balloons, asking the students to choose a character and suggest some dialogue. Then I'll ask for more dialogue for another character. Then we'll try to move the story along by adding another panel. Later, when students start their own comic strips, I encourage them to work with a partner at first. Such collaboration gives students more confidence and ideas in creating a story, and in working together, the students improve their language skills as they come up with words and ideas for the characters to say and execute. By working together they also check one another's work.

I remember working with a group of Chinese and Hispanic students who were first learning English. Together, they worked collaboratively online for almost three hours at one session until they had fully shaped and completed their comic story. Having to talk together and develop dialogue for the characters enhanced their communication skills.

Students love seeing the finished comic strips that they can keep in their portfolios. It's rewarding to have a physical representation of their hard effort at creating something new. Students like showing their families and friends what they've created. The creation of the comics, thus, becomes an empowering experience for many students and reinforces the learning they have accomplished.

While learning a new language can be a daunting and frustrating experience, especially for people living in a country where they don't yet speak the local language, I have yet to see a frown or a tear shed when creating and working with comics.


  • Fri, 30 Apr 2010
    Post by Irfan

    dear sir i dont know exactly how appropriate it is to ask you about ht e comment title. T explain, i need to know what should be the rules or measures that may decide giving a particular award to a person. like for example, if a person is to be awarded in the category of "GALLANTRY" and the awards are say fro example Gold, silver and Bronze then how will we decide the individual is to be awarded which medal. like wise other fields e.g art, music, public service, scientist etc etc. hope i have clarified my point. looking forward to hear from you Irfan

  • Tue, 10 Feb 2009
    Post by Lisa Neal Gualtieri

    I just read about an e-learning contest where the assessment process was specified. It is the 2009 SIGTel Online Learning Award Competition. Criteria for Assessment: Entries will be evaluated using a rubric based on the following attributes (weightings are shown as a percentage of final score): * Detailed description of the online learning activity from initial planning to the final evaluation (40%) * Description of how the online aspect of the learning activity enhanced the regular classroom program (15%) * Description of how the online learning activity was evaluated and the extent to which original aims and objectives were met (20%) * Consideration of what the entrant learned from the online learning activity in their classroom with comments and recommendations for development and involvement in future similar activities (25%) Descriptions should be sufficiently detailed to allow another educator to follow the same process, modifying it to meet the requirements of their own classrooms.

  • Fri, 30 Jan 2009
    Post by Bob Little

    Bob Little replies: I agree wholeheartedly with Judy Unrein''s sentiments. In an ideal world there would be guidelines regarding conflicts of interest – and by which everyone would abide. Moreover, any ''less than scrupulously honest'' behaviour would be known about – and publicised widely. I''m delighted that, to Judy at least, ''awards matter''. I sincerely applaud that view because I like to believe in a ''Disneyesque'' world where, despite adversity and sharp practice, virtue is always rewarded. However, when I was starting out as a freelance writer and PR consultant some 20 years ago, I asked my mentor – a man who had had some success as a film publicist in Hollywood before returning to the UK to set up his own PR agency – if he thought I should become a member of the UK''s institute for PR practitioners. His reply was cynical but experience has proved it true. He said: "If you''re a good PR consultant, you''ll get work. If you''re not, not amount of qualifications will help you." For ''qualifications'' read ''awards'' and this story applies to this issue too. As it happens, I have been a member of the UK''s Chartered Institute of PR for many years – but no potential client has ever asked me about my professional qualifications and I have never been awarded a job because of the awards that I have won. Nonetheless, as I have said, awards not only give a useful boost to producers'' egos and provide an excellent excuse for a party (the value of which, in these days of economic downturn, cannot be underestimated) but they also provide a valuable opportunity for building brand and producer recognition in the marketplace. The issue of awards'' judging criteria is highly complex. For one thing, your views depend on whether you believe that the awards are a ''level playing field'' to define excellence or have been staged to get the greatest support from the largest, wealthiest producers. For example, any fee to enter awards is usually nominal. The awards organisers make their money from the tables sold at the awards'' dinner. So they prefer to have an awards shortlist made up of companies that will take one or maybe two tables of ten people at the dinner. This always puts the small, innovative, creative but impecunious producer at a disadvantage from the start. Moreover, however ''objective'' the judges in their decision, I have known it done for the organiser to influence or even overturn this to appease the demands of capitalism - which, it must be said, we all endorse to some degree of other. I also agree with Judy''s comments on the judging criteria. Within the e-learning and related corporate development worlds, it is difficult to decide whether a project involving a large number of learners is more worthy of an award than one which uses state-of-the-art delivery technology or, indeed, whether success should be measured in numbers of learners ''processed'' or the impact of a learning initiative on an organisation''s sales and/or profitability. I would prefer not to suggest which awards I feel are the ''best structured''. I have little knowledge of the U.S. award scene but, within the UK, I can say that the judges of the E-Learning Awards are all chosen from the membership of the eLearning Network, the UK''s professional association for users and developers of e-learning. I know that they all take their job seriously and I believe that their judgement is worth having. However, the whole ''awards scene'' is a lot more complex and, perhaps, Machiavellian than the Disneyesque world view will allow. Nonetheless, speaking as a realist, faith is an important cornerstone upon which to build professional life and, for positive and not so positive reasons, awards are not going to go away. Bob Little

  • Thu, 29 Jan 2009
    Post by Tom Werner

    I direct the Brandon Hall Excellence in Learning Awards, and I certainly appreciate the concerns about whether any given awards program is operated fairly. I would say that there are a number of variables that affect the operation of any awards program: * The appropriateness and specificity of the judging criteria. (This seems obvious, but it''s challenging. For example, is this a good judging criterion for an e-learning course: "Objectives. How clearly stated are the learning objectives?") * What the entrants submit. (The bigger the submission item, the bigger the judging task to judge it.) * The available time of the judges. (Most volunteer judges can donate roughly 8 hours to judging.) * The number of judges needed. (The bigger the judging task, the fewer entries a judge can judge and thus the more judges needed. The more judges needed, the harder the task of supervising them.) * The qualifications of the judges. (This includes knowledge and experience, as well as lack of conflicts-of-interest.) Each awards program has to manage these elements. And inevitably the elements affect each other. For example, less-clear judging criteria mean relying more on the judges'' judgment. The more judges needed, the less attention can be given to an individual judge. And so forth. I think anyone can determine the fairness of an awards program by asking its director to describe its process. Then you can judge based on the clarity and transparency of the answer. I would say though that awards are always subjective in that they rely on the judgment of judges. So ''fair and subjective'' is probably a better expectation than ''fair and objective.''

  • Fri, 23 Jan 2009
    Post by Allison Rossett

    I''ve seen many awards judged and think that bias and cheating are not the problems. I see the issues, instead, in how labor intensive the application process is and how hard it is to see inside the reports. Often, I think, winners are people who had staff to prep these applications. Independent consultants or very busy organizations probably will NOT be assigning people to construction of these packages. As a judge, I''ve struggled to see quality and truth from afar. I won''t belabor it, but just leave it at admitting how hard it is and how unsure I have been. Should we get rid of awards? Nope. But I wish we could conduct the process differently. Maybe briefings with an opportunity for Q & A?

  • Thu, 22 Jan 2009
    Post by Lisa Neal Gualtieri

    People make decisions about which moves to see based on awards. But they also make vendor decisions. I was particularly interested in your opinion piece because I received an email from someone who has made an LMS decision based, in part, on an award that he thought had been bestowed by eLearn Magazine. (It was another magazine with a similar name, as we soon clarified.) But it made me realize how much weight these awards can have, a concern when the process is not transparent.