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Hard-Copy Graphic Novels Are Vital for ESL Students

by Christian W. Chun
August 14, 2014

Five years ago I wrote “Critical literacies and graphic novels for English Language Learners: Teaching Maus,” for the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. Since that time, the increasing spread of apps on so-called ‘smartphones’ and other slightly larger handheld devices have enabled readers to view and read massive amounts of content online—at least those who have access to these expensive tools and their supporting infrastructure. These digital electronic devices make it much easier for readers to read their favorite books, all compiled, archived, and catalogued in an easily portable and quickly accessible form.

But what about those who do not have such easy and immediate access to e-readers and apps, particularly adolescents? Will they continue to fall further behind their more affluent and privileged peers in reading levels and abilities? What about adolescent English language learners (ELLs), especially those emigrating and or fleeing from much poorer societies? What types of access do they have to this content, now at the literal fingertips of those who are much more fortunate?

These days I see many a young reader immersed in their smartphones. Whether they’re walking down the street or riding the subways and buses, they’re playing Candy Crush or Farmville, texting their friends, watching the latest insipid Asian soap opera on YouTube, or incessantly checking their Facebook pages and the ‘likes’ they’ve garnered on their photo postings or status updates (but don’t we all?). I see few actually reading. Of course, this is not based on any scientific survey or careful ethnographic observation of a representative sample of adolescents over a period of time, merely anecdotal observations of their everyday behavior. When I do see teens and university-level students reading online content (other than their social media pages) on their devices, many are reading comic books and graphic novels in their digital forms.

As much as I love my electronic devices and accompanying broadband access to read content posted from around the world—newspapers based in New York, Los Angeles, or London, or blogs written by anyone from anywhere on anything—when it comes to reading certain books, I am still what one might call “old school,” unashamedly and proudly so. I have read several popular books on a smartphone, but when I read what some call “serious” books. For example, I prefer to read academic tomes and works of literature in their physical manifestations as printed bound material, preferably in paperback for their lighter weight, as academic books tend to be much heavier due to their higher paper quality. And for books featuring elaborate and imaginative illustrations, colorful drawings, photos, and figures, this is a must for me. Why? I take seriously the sensual pleasures afforded by touching the cover, opening the book, turning the pages, and running my fingertips across a page feeling its particular fiber. These tactile sensations are not to be underestimated or discounted; indeed, they are central to the pleasures of reading in addition to the textually and visually-induced ones.

The reader by now might be noting the perhaps unintended irony of this writer extolling the virtues of reading printed material on a website called Reading Today Online, but this is my point. As much as some of us entertain the notion that the Internet has connected us worldwide in countless ways, a sizable percentage of the global population does not have access to the Internet—one-third of the world, in fact. Included in this are the communities who cannot afford mobile electronic devices and broadband access in countries such as the United States and the U.K., where many immigrant ELLs reside.

Thankfully, the institution of public libraries is still intact today. Go to one and look around. You will see people from diverse socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds all engaged with reading newspapers, magazines, books, and, yes, graphic novels. Graphic novels can be quite expensive to purchase and thus out of reach for families struggling to make ends meet, but with a library card, one can read many more graphic novels than one can afford to buy. This is still an important feature of any democratic society, or at least a society that proclaims itself to be one, the free public access to information through books written to inspire our imagination and creativity. In this, graphic novels in their printed forms are much more easily available to immigrant ELLs who don’t have the material resources for expensive electronic devices.

For adolescent immigrant ELLs from these economically struggling families, graphic novels, as I argued in my 2009 article, can serve as a gateway to social networks and communities in high school that could enable them to adapt more easily to their new societies. But more than this, the availability of these graphic novels, tattered as they may be from numerous library borrowers turning those pages over and over, is of course an extremely important gateway to reading, and reading more. As I also argued, the interfaces between the visual images and illustrations of graphic novels and the textual, often sophisticated writing contained in those “speech balloons” help scaffold reading for ELLs. Additionally, reading about other immigrants struggling to adapt and live in their new societies, such as Maus and Persepolis, not only resonate with immigrant ELLs, but can also inspire them to find similar ways to survive and persist, and perhaps even triumph in small and large ways. Hasn’t that always been the aim of literature throughout the ages?

Lastly, consider this: a child or adolescent having a smartphone back in 2005 or 2006 was most likely considered “cool” by her or his peers. Now? That’s so… 2005. Many (if not almost all) middle-class kids have not only one, but multiple electronic devices. An adolescent immigrant ELL student walking into the school cafeteria carrying not another iPhone or iPad but an actual graphic novel with its colorful images prominently displayed on the printed tattered cover? Now that’s cool.

Christian W. Chun is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the City University of Hong Kong. Previously, he was on the faculty of the Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California. Drawing upon his extensive ESL teaching experience spanning nearly 20 years in Los Angeles, his research focuses on critical literacy approaches to English language education. His work has been published in Language Assessment Quarterly, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Journal of English for Academic Purposes, and Research in the Teaching of English, and several edited volumes. His forthcoming book, Power and Meaning Making in an EAP Classroom: Engaging With the Everyday, will be published by Multilingual Matters in January 2015.

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