Teaching History Using Graphic Novels

Instructor: Sarah Mills

Sarah is an educational freelance writer and has taught English and ESL in grades k-12 and college. She has a master's degree in both Literacy and TESOL.

In this lesson, teachers will learn why using graphic novels in the history classroom is an effective strategy that helps boost literacy skills and student motivation. The lesson will include specific teaching strategies and examples of some graphic novels written in a historical context.

The Benefits of Graphic Novels

Graphic novels are novels that include illustrations and text in the form of a comic book. The difference between graphic novels and comic books is that graphic novels often feature complex plots, literary elements, and character development, which are all traits found in print novels.

Graphic novels are beneficial for students for a variety of reasons. Struggling readers can use the pictures to help comprehend the meanings of the words. Also, students tend to be more motivated to read books with interesting illustrations, so graphic novels can help boost literacy skills while improving reading comprehension.

Teaching Strategies

One way to use graphic novels is to incorporate them into the history curriculum as supplemental texts to give students multiple perspectives about a historical event, person, or time period. For example, when studying the Holocaust, use other primary sources, autobiographies, the textbook, and multimedia in addition to a graphic novel about the Holocaust in order to tell a more complete story.

You can also use graphic novels to preview the unit and activate students' prior background knowledge. For example, determine what students already know about Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address by doing a picture walk through a graphic novel about the Civil War. During a picture walk, students preview the text by looking only at the pictures.

Graphic novels can also be used as assessments to allow students to demonstrate their learning. For example, students can:

  • Convert a historical graphic novel into reader's theater, which is a script adapted from a text that students read aloud or perform
  • Create their own comic strip or graphic novel to summarize a historical event
  • Take a chapter from their history textbook and convert it into a graphic novel
  • Use the images in a graphic novel to create a visual timeline of a historical period

Examples of Historical Graphic Novels

Following are examples of specific graphic novels that are written in a historical context:

The Lewis and Clark Expedition

This graphic novel, written by Jessica Gunderson and illustrated by Steve Erwin, Keith Williams, and Charles Barnett III is appropriate for students in grades 3-4 who are learning about America's Western expansion.

Gettysburg: The Graphic Novel

This graphic novel by C.M. Butzer is appropriate for middle school readers learning about American history. It teaches students about the Civil War by depicting The Battle of Gettysburg and Abraham Lincoln's role in The Gettysburg Address.

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