English Language Learners + Graphic Novels

Beginner’s Mind

Recently I had a powerful if uncomfortable experience. I spent a month in Italy taking Italian language lessons. Although I’d studied the language off and on before, I was placed in a situation where I felt over my head and frustrated. Voglio dire pìu che quella posso dire. I want to say more than I can say. It was humbling for an extrovert, and at my age, to be placed in a beginner’s mind situation. My facility with English did not translate to this new language. Sometimes my head literally hurt from thinking. I worried my sentences sounded like a three-year-old’s, or maybe that was a stretch. I immediately thought of my English language learners and how they must feel when suddenly immersed in an alien culture and language. In contrast, I’m continually amazed by how quickly these new students become fluent in English.

 Learning a New Language

These English language learners are an integral part of our library program. Their ELL teacher sends them to the library frequently, and they are avid readers of graphic novels. Graphic novels are perfect for English language learners because they are high interest, and the images can fill in, giving clues when they don’t know a word. Rather than stopping to look up the meanings of every few words, they can intuit meaning. It is commonly said that it takes  about seven years to learn a new language. If that’s true, then our students are certainly quick learners. The most rapid advances I’ve witnessed in language acquisition are in my frequent readers of graphic novels. In fact, if only Raina Telgemeier (graphic novelist of Smile, Sisters, Ghosts) could write a novel a day, my students might become fluent in just weeks! Please take a moment to listen to these testimonials from my former students.


Stephen Krashen and the Input Hypothesis

Once again, our library and literacy champion, Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus, University of Southern California, has supplied the research to support what I observe in these students. Dr. Krashen developed five hypotheses on language acquisition, summarized as the input hypothesis. Rather than focusing our efforts on direct language instruction, Dr. Krashen’s research revealed that comprehensible input, in the form of spoken or written language, results directly in language acquisition and competence. Krashen believes that most language learning is unconsciously acquired and also dependent on the interest level (compellingness) of the input, both aural and written. In fact, his case study of Ramon (see notes below) illustrates what I witness in my students every year.

Graphic Novel Collections  

When I became a middle school librarian fourteen years ago, our graphic novel section was limited to a few Simpsons comics and Calvin and Hobbes. One of my goals has been to grow the collection, and the timing couldn’t have been better. After binging on purchasing many Japanese Manga series, I noticed that so many more talented writers were working in the genre: American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang and the Persepolis books by Marjane Satrapi to name but two notable additions. Now Jason Reynolds has added his latest: Miles Morales: Spider-Man, featuring a half-black/half Puerto Rican young Spider-Man. Although it’s not a graphic novel but a regular one, it serves as a perfect bridge for comic readers to try out more conventional text. Another recent purchase has gotten positive reviews: Rickety Stitch and the Gelatinous Goo: The Road to Epoli by Ben Costa. And of course the gorgeous, illustrated Snow White by Matt Phelan. I’m thankful to these graphic novel artists and writers who make language more accessible to our dormant readers and to our students who are English language learners.


Henkin, V. and Krashen, S. 2015. “The Naruto breakthrough: The home run book experience and English language development.” Language Magazine 15(1): 32-25, published as “The Home Run book experience.”   http://www.sdkrashen.com/content/articles/2015_henken_krashen_naruto_breakthrough.pdf


Author: Sara Stevenson

I’m a reader, writer, swimmer, and a public middle school librarian. I love all things Italian. I was honored to be Austin ISD’s first librarian of the year in 2013.

Categories: Blog Topics, Collection Development, Community/Teacher Collaboration, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

1 reply

  1. thank you so much
    this experience of yours really helped me as i am research scholar from India and working on graphic novels. would love to learn more ,thank you.

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