Using Graphic Novels to Open the Gateway for Struggling Readers

The benefits of using graphic novels in the social studies classroom

The standards in current education reform movements stress the importance of strengthening students’ content-area literacy skills. This means that social studies teachers must draw on powerful texts. The problem is that many students enter our classrooms lacking an interest in reading. One type of text that social studies teachers can use to engage students is graphic novels.

Literacy Devices within Graphic Novels

Graphic novels can be thought of as a relative to the comic book. Both use words, facial expressions, thought balloons, and imagery to convey content, ideas, and emotions. These literacy devices enable students to construct meaning by using imagery and words, which is particularly beneficial for struggling readers. Also, a chronological narrative is employed in the comic panels. All of these features of graphic novels provide different ways for students to construct meaning. The graphic novel differs from the comic book in that it tends to be longer and address more adult themes (Botzakis, 2015). The content portrayed within the majority of graphic novels is thoroughly researched. In the next sections, three activities with three graphic novels are discussed.

Analyzing the Literacy Devices within Graphic Novels

Just putting a graphic novel in front of students will not guarantee that learning occurs. The teacher cannot assume that students are familiar with graphic novels. Instead, he or she must model how students can work with graphic novels.

Graphic novels allow students to explore the personality of a historical figure in depth. One ideal graphic novel to use is The Red Baron (Vansant, 2014), which focuses on the exploits of Manfred von Richthofen with the German air force during World War I. The teacher may use the first chapter to explore the personality of the Red Baron. In groups, students read this chapter and complete the graphic organizer in Figure 1, which is designed to familiarize students with some of the literacy devices used in a graphic novel.

Figure 1
Personality Questions for the Red Baron

Event on a page How does chapter one capture the personaliity of the Red Baron? What images and words do you have to support your argument? Why do you think that the writer and artist used specific words and images to cature certain aspects about the Red Baron?

After students complete this graphic organizer, the teacher should guide a class debriefing. Supporting questions need to be utilized by the teacher to get students to speculate on the reasons the author and artist portrayed certain aspects of the Red Baron. This activity gives students experience working with the literacy devices within a graphic novel. Students can see how images and words are used to represent certain ideas about a historical figure.

Building Students’ Depth of Knowledge with Graphic Novels

Social studies textbooks are notoriously bad for superficially covering a historical event. They provide a brief blurb about one event and jump to the next topic. Students need to be given opportunities to explore historical events in more depth, and graphic novels can help accomplish this goal.

Graphic novels by Nathan Hale are ideal for exploring historical events in depth, especially Alamo All Stars (Hale, 2016). This book examines events leading up to the conflict between the United States and Mexico about Texas, along with events connected to the war for the independence of Texas. Teachers can use this topic to demonstrate how historical events can have ripple effects. One historical event is inevitably intertwined with others, and our classroom instruction should enable students to make these connections.

Throughout the course of several days exploring the conflict between the United States and Mexico over Texas, the students should read different sections of Alamo All Stars. The teacher needs to ask questions that allow students to see how people’s actions and events led to conflict. For example, how could the insistence by the Mexican government that Texans convert to Catholicism create conflict? Select sections of this graphic novel may be used to set the stage for the battle at the Alamo. In groups of three, students read pages 100–110 that chronicle this battle and answer the following question: How could the events of the Alamo be used as a rallying cry for the independence of Texas? After students have read and answered this question, the teacher guides a class debriefing.

The students then assume the role of Texans that have just heard about the Alamo and want to rally others to fight for Texas independence. They make a lithograph depicting the events of the battle of the Alamo, similar to the one created by Paul Revere for the Boston Massacre ( Their lithographs need to capture the bravery of Texans fighting for a just cause where they were hopelessly outnumbered. In other words, students create a propaganda piece, much like Revere did for the Boston Massacre, to garner support for Texas independence. They should utilize words and imagery to sway a viewer of the lithograph. This graphic novel helps students to see the interconnectedness of events that led to Texas becoming part of the United States. This activity also enables students to convey through words and imagery how people attempt to influence others’ beliefs about an event.

Symbolic Imagery within Graphic Novels

Graphic novels often use symbolic imagery to capture a deeper layer of meaning with the content. Since some students will probably enter our classrooms unable to grasp the hidden meaning in certain images, teachers need to model how to work with this type of imagery.

An ideal trilogy of books to explore symbolic imagery is March. This trilogy chronicles John Lewis’ experiences in the Civil Rights Movement and provides an overview of the movement. Students may read and answer questions about the Selma to Montgomery March on pages 191–205 from March: Book Three (Lewis & Aydin, 2016). Questions students may answer in groups are:

  1. What is the message the artist is trying to convey with the imagery on pages 200–205? Please use evidence to support your reasoning.
  2. How did the writer and artist portray police officers on pages 200–201 with the violence at Edmund Pettus Bridge? Please use evidence to support your reasoning.

During the class debriefing, the teacher needs to get students to support their reasoning with evidence from the graphic novel. This discussion enables students to grasp how symbolic imagery is used within a graphic novel.

After this discussion, students in pairs create a storyboard, which is in essence one page from a graphic novel, to summarize the key events of the Selma to Montgomery March. A storyboard uses the same literacy devices of graphic novels. Within their storyboards, students need to use symbolic imagery like that seen in the pages of March: Book Three to convey the big ideas of this pivotal event. The teacher will want to discuss the expectations for students’ storyboards. Additionally, the students write a half page to full page “Director’s Cut” in which they articulate the reasoning for using images within their storyboards to convey specific ideas about this event. The teacher then brings the class together to share their storyboards and “Director’s Cuts.” This enables students to articulate their ideas about symbolic imagery while also learning from peers.


The activities in this article allow both the teacher and students to use graphic novels to discuss and explore social studies topics in greater depth. As a struggling reader during childhood, comic books and graphic novels captured my attention and sparked my desire to read. The short amount of text coupled with the images gave me the confidence that I could read. Like many struggling readers, I put roadblocks in my head that prevented me from successfully reading. Graphic novels helped me remove some of these obstacles, and I feel they can have the same benefits for middle school students in our classrooms. Social studies teachers need to put aside reservations about using graphic novels, for they can open learning opportunities for the most timid readers and can be a gateway to creating a lifelong love of reading.

Graphic Novels List

Graphic Novels Referenced

Hale, N. (2016). Alamo all stars. New York, NY: Abrams.

Lewis, J. & Aydin, A. (2016). March: Book three. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions.

Vansant, W. (2014). The Red Baron: The graphic history of Richthofen’’ flying circus and the air war in WWI. Minneapolis, MN: Zenith Press.

Additional Graphic Novels to Use in the Social Studies Classroom

  1. The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation by Jonathan Hennessey from Hill and Wang.
  2. Maus: My Father Bleeds by Art Spiegelman from Pantheon.
  3. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi from Pantheon.
  4. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang from Square Fish.
  5. Ronald Reagan: A Graphic Biography by Andrew Helfer from Hill and Wang.
  6. The Hammer and the Anvil: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the end of Slavery in America by James McPherson from Hill and Wang.
  7. Footnotes in Gaza: A Graphic Novel by Joe Sacco from Metropolitan Books.
  8. Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm from Hill and Wang.
  9. The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation by Jonathan Hennessey from William Morrow Paperbacks.
  10. The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation by Sid Jacobson from Hill and Wang.


Botzakis, S. (2015). Graphic novels in education: Comics, comprehension, and the content areas. In D. Wooten & B. Cullinan (Eds.), Children’s literature in the reading program: Engaging young readers in the 21st century (96–108). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.