Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy


David Rapp and Friends

Associate professor David Rapp discusses comics with student researchers as he examines how graphic stories promote literacy skills.

Comics to Cyberspace: New Media for Literacy

Lisa Stein
Comics to Cyberspace: New Media for Literacy

Like countless high school students across the country, a 16-year-old girl named Kaiyee sits down at her computer most days after school for some social networking on various web sites. But if you could look over her shoulder, you would see that Kaiyee (a pseudonym) is different than your average American teen checking her Facebook status.

One window on her computer shows a conversation with a local friend in Cantonese, another an exchange with a friend in China in Mandarin Chinese. In yet another window she carries on a dialogue about digital design in Shanghainese, a dialect spoken in Shanghai, from which she emigrated with her family two years ago. Now in her sophomore year, Kaiyee also communicates with her local peers in American English and hip-hop slang.

Kaiyee's impressive use of the Internet in several languages demonstrates one of the many ways students are using new media to gain literacy, whose definition has expanded along with rapid technological changes in how information is transmitted and communities formed. Literacy researchers consider Kaiyee's online pursuits "multilingual literacy," which has helped her adjust to her new life in the United States, feed her passion for learning about digital art, improve her fluency in Cantonese (a prevalent dialect in her local community), and maintain her mastery of Shanghainese and Mandarin outside her native country.

A larger literacy

"Literacy includes reading but is bigger than reading," explains Eva Lam, associate professor of learning sciences and Asian American studies, who observed Kaiyee as part of a recent study of how eight Chinese high school students used new media in their homes. "It involves the use of textual media to represent knowledge and construct knowledge. Textual media come in different forms — print is still important, but so are visual, audio and film modalities."

"In the last 10 years we've starting thinking about literacy skills that go beyond the written word," agrees David Rapp, associate professor of learning sciences and cognitive psychology. "TV, new literature and comics are other ways to present information. Through reading them students are building an understanding of how to evaluate the credibility of language, a knowledge of what authors go through in deciding what to include and what not to include, and an understanding of the creative process."

Lam, who with Rapp and SESP alumna Camillia Matuk studies new media and literacy, also points to such formats as YouTube videos, myriad social networking sites and digital anime as new and valid vehicles that can enhance students' learning of literacy, along with, of course, more traditional forms such as textbooks and literature.

New media for multilingual learning

Lam has used both individual studies (such as the one including Kaiyee) and broader research to investigate how new media aids multilingual development and learning in immigrant students. In a 2009 article in Language and Education, Lam reported on a survey of 262 multinational students in the Chicago area who had immigrated to the United States in their early childhoods and mid-adolescence; the subjects represented about 50 different languages. In addition to participating in the survey, more than 50 students were included in focus groups and individual interviews. Lam wanted to see how much these students engaged in international networking, and what she found confirmed her hypothesis that digital media encourage multilingual literacy.

Seventy-two percent of the students reported using the Internet to communicate with people in countries outside the United States, 66 percent noted that they communicate with people in their home countries and 27 percent reported communication with people in countries other than their home countries. "Even among students who came to the United States in their early childhood, almost 47 percent reported communicating online with people in their country of origin," Lam says. "Using multiple languages was a characteristic part of online activities, and students were managing a diverse set of resources."

Some of the groups showed different online tendencies. For instance, students from South Asia were more likely to communicate online with people from different countries, while others "talked" mainly to people from their own country. Some, such as students from India, reported often switching between English and their native language; others, such as Koreans, tended to stay with their first language. Most students said they obtained news from both U.S. web sites and sites created in their country of origin, which Lam says can only broaden their perspectives on current events.

Lam argues that rather than seeing these immigrant students as somehow disadvantaged as they learn English and work to find their place in American culture, educators should consider their multilingual networking skills as resources. She is currently working with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism professor Jack Doppelt on an after-school program in Chicago that teaches middle school students how to produce their own multimedia stories with both written and video components.

"We want to engage students in learning the journalistic genre and using their community, social, institutional, family and language resources to craft a story," Lam says.

Rapp concurs with Lam's assessment of the strengths that multilingual and multicultural students bring to the classroom. "Students come to the classroom with existing cultural knowledge and expectations, and it's useful to take advantage of that knowledge to encourage literacy skills."

Learning with pictures

Rapp's research includes examining how reading graphically depicted narratives, such as comics and picture books, promotes literacy skills. Last fall he completed a study with Northern Illinois University professors Joe Magliano and Kris Kopp in which college students were shown Mercer Mayer's picture book A Boy, a Dog, and a Frog with certain pages left out. When asked to summarize the book, students automatically inferred the action that occurred on the missing pages, and when asked if they had actually seen those particular pages, reported they had. "This research shows that when people read these stories they are doing a lot of work making inferences in the service of comprehending what they see," Rapp observes.

In other research with Northwestern alumnus and comic creator Josh Elder, Rapp looks at the use of comic books in school curricula. The goal of their research, done in collaboration with the nonprofit organization Reading with Pictures, is to bring comics into the classroom to teach reading skills as well as academic subjects such as biology and history. Elder goes into classrooms and conducts workshops on how to create comics and write plots, while Rapp analyzes how students read and comprehend these graphic stories.

According to Rapp, "Josh is showing students that you don't have to be a virtuoso to make these complex stories, and he's teaching them elements of story grammar and plot structure, too. You can start with just two panels: How do you create excitement? What do you leave out? So you're having kids think creatively about constructing their own fictional stories and learning literacy skills."

Gauging graphic understanding

How readers comprehend graphic narratives and fill in the gaps is also of great interest to Camillia Matuk (PhD10), now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California-Berkeley. Matuk conducted a pilot study with David Uttal, professor of learning sciences and cognitive psychology, which investigated adolescents' understanding of virology from reading graphic stories about how viruses infect the human body and its immune system response. She affirms the power of graphic novels, comic books and picture books to promote literacy because first and foremost they motivate learners to read.

Matuk interviewed 13-year-old readers of The Curse of the Treeman, a comic based on the true story of a man who became infected with the human papillomavirus and developed warts all over his body. Ironically, Matuk notes, the book shows little of the world of viruses, instead relying on a hero-villain story line and characters that permeate pop culture.

"For these 13-year-olds trying to make sense of an unfamiliar and unobservable process, thinking in these narrative terms was a useful crutch in their sense-making. For instance, being able to say that the virus was the bad guy and the white blood cells were the good guys helped them sort out the roles of the different characters in a story that may otherwise have been fairly complex and alienating," Matuk says. She adds, however, that some students misinterpreted the book's simplified message because of a lack of prior scientific knowledge, which points out the importance of a reader's prior knowledge in encountering any text.

Still, Matuk would like to see the use of graphic novels expanded in classrooms in a variety subjects, including math, science, history and sociology. "There are such rich possibilities in the combination of words, images and interactivity, especially in that it offers new ways to represent, to communicate and to think. And when you can do this, you really expand the opportunities for learners of various abilities, strengths and interests."