Kleefeld On Webcomics #37: Comics As Educational Tools

By Sean Kleefeld

Many, if not most, of us who grew up reading comics can easily point to instances where the comics were part of our education. Maybe they introduced us to new words. Maybe we were shown new ideas and concepts that allowed us to see the world a little differently. Maybe were encouraged to study art by trying to copy the characters we saw. It may not have been intentional on the part of the creators -- in fact, it almost certainly wasn’t -- but comics use of both art and the written word in combination provides an excellent opportunity to engage readers, making education that much easier... and fun!

One of the inherent qualities of the internet, of course, is interactivity. We’ve looked at various ways in which webcomic creators can communicate with their readers. But it’s also possible to use that same interactivity to educate people by giving them the tools to create their own webcomics. Enter sites like Bill Zimmerman’s MakeBeliefComix.com...

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

Comic strips also don't require long sentences or paragraphs to tell a good story. Only a 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 immediately to fill it in with words and thoughts; doing so is the beginning step to telling a story.

The set-up is not unlike other comic creation software. The user is presented with some blank panels and an array of art objects to drop into them... characters, backgrounds, animals, etc. Some simple tools are available so these can be moved, resized or flipped, allowing the user to create a series of comic panels filled with completed art. Then dialogue balloons can be added with the ability to type out whatever text springs to mind. When the process is repeated for each panel, the result is a unique comic.

The basic concept is actually common enough that Scholastic created an online comics creation tool expressly for the purpose of promoting Raina Telgemeier’s Smile graphic novel. But, despite Scholastic’s deep involvement with teaching and education, Zimmerman seems to have a more directed focus on learning through comics.

Comics help children learn how to read and think imaginatively. The comic characters can became their friends and family, and they began to realize that reading can be fun and open up new worlds to them. By giving children a choice of fun animal and human characters with different emotions -- happy, sad, angry, worried -- as well blank thought and talk balloons to fill in with their written words, and some story prompts to spark ideas, youngsters will be able to tap into their creativity to tell stories and create their own graphic stories.

The best educators understand that playing is learning. Parents and teachers can use the process of creating comic strips to encourage youngsters to practice language, reading, writing, and communication skills. For those who teach young and old how to read and write or to learn English as a second language, comics can be an invaluable tool in achieving these objectives.

Zimmerman focuses on children, but it’s something that adults can use as well. Earlier this afternoon, in fact, I was chatting with someone who was telling me that her theory about the root problem of a lot of things stems from people not trying to express themselves creatively outside of their 9-to-5 job. How it’s very liberating and energizing. Pablo Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist after growing up.” The internet wasn’t around during Picasso’s lifetime, but I think it’s safe to say that he would’ve encouraged people to play with tools like these online comic creators and try to bring out that inner child again.

Related Posts:

Kleefeld on Webcomics #36: How Green Are Webcomics Anyway?

Kleefeld On Webcomics #35: Think Of The Children

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