Using Comics to bridge the growing reading gender gap

The Canadian Council on Learning has released research that in their opinion shows that boys are generally less inclined to read than girls and that when they do read they prefer reading fantasy, non-fiction and comic books.

We’ve covered the concerns that others have expressed elsewhere about the falling literacy rates for young boys when compared to young girls, and it’s interesting to look at the CCL research.

GENDER DIFFERENCES IN READING AND ENJOYING READING

In 2007, the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program administered by the Council of Ministers of Education showed that 13-year-old girls out-scored boys by 23 points (the average girl scored in the 55th percentile and the average boy scored in the 46th percentile).

Similarly, in the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) 15-year-old Canadian girls out-scored boys in reading achievement by 32 points (the average Canadian girl scored in the 67th percentile and the average Canadian boy scored in the 54th percentile).

A 2000 study of Canadian students found that nearly one-third (32%) of 13-year-old girls reported that they enjoyed reading “very much,” compared to just 17% of 13-year-old boys. The same study shows that among girls reading enjoyment appears to increase with age; while it decreases with boys as they get older. By age 16, 35% of girls reported that they enjoyed reading “very much,” compared to 16% of 16-year-old boys.

Among 13-year-old girls, nearly three-quarters (73%) report spending 15 minutes or more per day reading for enjoyment or general interest compared to just over half (51%) of 13-year-old boys. At 16, the numbers drop for both boys and girls but the gap remains: 58% of 16-year-old girls report daily reading for enjoyment or general interest compared to 46% of boys.

GENDER DIFFERENCES IN READING PREFERENCES

Boys are much more likely to enjoy reading science and non-fiction books, informational texts and “how-to” manuals. They are also more likely to enjoy fantasy, adventure stories and stories that are scary or “gross” along with books about hobbies and things they do or want to do. Boys also tend to prefer visual media, such as the internet, newspapers and magazines, that focus on sports, electronics and video games. Yet, while boys show clear preferences for specific reading material these genres and media are generally under-represented or even unavailable in school libraries, a reflection of the views of teachers and librarians who judge such material inappropriate.

The CCL then decides to focus on comic books, a format that for decades has been disparaged by teachers and librarians but have recently become the subject of interest for many.

According to the Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation comic books are the second most popular reading choice for boys (after newspapers and magazines). During the elementary school years the proportion of boys who report reading comics rises from 69% to 75%, while the proportion among girls falls from 60% to 50%.

Research shows that…boys who read comic books regularly also tend to read more text-based material and report higher levels of overall reading enjoyment, compared to boys who do not read comic books. In fact, some evidence supports the idea that comic books provide a “gateway” to other literary genres. For example, some researchers have argued that the language of comic books can help young people make the transition from informal everyday language to formal written language.

An interesting point. Raise your hand if Stan Lee helped improve your vocabulary when you were growing up and reading Marvel Comics? I know as a child in the 1970s that I was certainly aware of and using (although badly mispronouncing when speaking them) words like melancholy, sardonic, reprehensible, dastardly, invulnerable, impregnable and so on.

The article goes on to discuss the importance comics play in establishing a foundation of visual literacy for beginner readers and second-language readers, not to mention exposure to concepts such as narrative structure and context.

Visual literacy is the ability to interpret the meaning of various kinds of illustrations. It involves all the processes of knowing and responding to a visual image, as well as all the thought that might go into constructing or manipulating an image. Comics literacy refers to the ability to understand a sequence of events or images, to interpret characters’ non-verbal gestures, to discern a story’s plot and to make inferences.

Even before children are ready to read text, comic books can give them practice in making meaning from material printed on a page, tracking left to right and top to bottom, interpreting symbols, and following the sequence of events in a story.

From personal experience, I have found it’s almost impossible to give an adult reader who did not learn visual literacy as a child or teen a comic book or graphic novel. They don’t understand how to read a comic book, and don’t take to them because, in essence, they must learn a new skill (visual language) to understand them.

Perhaps this is another reason why educators and librarians are willing to explore using comics and graphic novels in such a manner – most active educators and librarians grew up in a time when the market penetration of comic books was high for children (25-55 year olds were children in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s when comics were not the novelty items they are now) and the notion of comics as poor reading choices were being widely dispelled. As children, they themselves learned visual literacy, and understand the importance of the skill.

Additionally, they report that comics can help children with learning or reading difficulties:

Research highlights how a number of the features found in comics can be of benefit to those with dyslexia and similar challenges, particularly the left-to-right organization of comics’ panels, the use of upper case letters, and the use of symbols and context to help with comprehension. As well, the research indicates that learners who can read well and those with reading problems are equally attracted to comics.

The CCL mentions that selecting the right comics and graphic novels for younger readers is not an easy job, considering the amount of material that is being written for an adult audience. They mention that this year’s Harry Kremer Retailer winner The Beguiling has prepared a reading list for teachers and librarians and refer to titles such as Melvin Monster, Bone, Sardine in Space, Copper, CTON’s super A-maze-ing Year of Crazy Comics, Food Fight: A Graphic Guide Adventure and Adventures in Cartooning: How to Turn Your Doodles into Comics.

Popular children’s book series like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Captain Underpants also include comics in their storytelling process.

Anyway, now is as good a time as any to remind you that we do have a Comics for Kids award and a reference list of titles that our own team of educators, led by Eisner-nominated retailer Jenn Stewart (The Dragon), selected as being among the best work created by Canadians for younger readers aged 15 and under (French and English):

2008 Releases:

* Clayton Hanmer, CTON’s Super A-Maze-ing Year of Crazy Comics! (OwlKids)
* Susan Hughes and Willow Dawson, No Girls Allowed (Kids Can Press)
* Karl Kerschl and Serge Lapointe (with Amy Wolfram, USA), Teen Titan: Year One (DC Comics)
* Liam O’Donnell and Michael Deas, Ramp Rats – A Graphic Guide Adventure (Orca Publishing)
* Paul Roux, Ariane et Nicolas Tome 5: Les tours de Babel (Éditions Les 400 Coups)
* Chad Solomon (with Christopher Meyer, USA), The Adventures of Rabbit and Bear Paws Vol. 2: The Voyageurs (Little Spirit Bear Productions)
* Kean Soo, Jellaby Book 1 (Hyperion)
* Mariko Tamaki and Steve Rolston, Emiko Superstar (DC/Minx)

2009 Releases:

* Binky the Space Cat – Ashley Spires (Kids Can Press)
* Capitaine Static, tome 3: L’Étrange Miss Flissy – Alain M. Bergeron, Samuel Parent/Sampar (Québec Amérique)
* Laflèche, tome 02: Cobequid – Mario Landry, Marcel Levasseur (Boomerang)
* Horus, tome 1 – L’enfant À Tête De Faucon – Johane Matte (Les 400 Coups)
* Jellaby, Book 2: Monster in the City – Kean Soo (Hyperion)
* Nightschool: The Weirn Books Vol. 1-2 – Svetlana Chmakova (Yen Press)
* Scaredy Squirrel at Night – Melanie Watt (Kids Can Press)
* A Sam & Friends Mystery, Book 2: Lake Monster Mix-Up – Mary Labatt, Jo Rioux (Kids Can Press)

Canadian publishers worth looking into KIDS CAN PRESS, BOOMERANG (French), DRAWN & QUARTERLY, OWLKids.

For more information on the Comics in the Classroom project please visit: http://comicsintheclassroom.ca/

Related stories:

Comics for Kids are out there – You just need to look for them

Reluctant Readers: Getting Boys to Read