Action-packed ESL: How to Use Comics for Teaching English
As a kid, I used to bring comics to school and read them when I should’ve been paying attention in class.
But as an English teacher, I hated them for the same reason—students would sit in the back of my English class, reading about Batman or Spider-Man instead of doing their work.
That’s until I realized that you can actually use those comics to teach an exciting English lesson for students of all ages.
- Why Use Comic Books to Teach English?
- Comic Book Resources to Get You Started
- Creative Activities Using Comics for Teaching English
Why Use Comic Books to Teach English?
The truth is that comics are actually a very effective tool in the English teacher’s classroom. You can use them for…
- Building vocabulary
- Teaching students various idiomatic expressions
- Providing a visual element to reading exercises that traditional books don’t have
- Entertaining your students with funny, culturally-relevant material
Also, most students really seem to enjoy comics—either because they’re comic book fans or just appreciate learning with new methods.
Comic Book Resources to Get You Started
Using comics to teach English is a great way to create fun lessons for your class.
But you do need to spend some time planning those lessons so that you can use these tools effectively.
If you’re interested in turning your next class into a comic lesson, here are some resources to get you started.
“Why English? Comics for the Classroom”
This collection is specifically designed to teach American English to ESL students using fun stories and interactive exercises that challenge your students’ listening, reading and writing skills.
Plus, most of the lesson planning has been done for you! Each of the 21 short comic book stories for beginner and lower-intermediate students comes with the following material available for download:
- A PDF of the comic
- An MP3 file for listening practice
- A teacher’s activity guide with discussion topics, vocabulary, pronunciation and role play activities
- A create-your-own-comic component
This comprehensive resource makes it easy to use comics to teach English and keep your students engaged in the lesson.
Calvin and Hobbes
If you’re not familiar with it, this comic is about the adventures and antics of Calvin, a very clever and imaginative six-year-old boy, and Hobbes, his stuffed tiger.
The comic touches on topics such as philosophy, public education and environmentalism in a light-hearted fashion that has helped it become one of the most popular comic strips ever.
The good thing about Calvin and Hobbes is that it’s a versatile comic that works with students of different skill levels. It uses both simple and complex vocabulary and illuminates a parent and child’s perspective on the same situation.
RealLife English has a nice breakdown of some Calvin and Hobbes strips, complete with words to know and commentary to help readers understand the storyline and jokes.
If you’re looking for all of those classic comics you grew up with, then GoComics is a digital goldmine.
Here, you can find a variety of popular and lesser-known comics for students of varying ages that you can integrate into your lessons. These are definitely worth checking out:
- Adult Children — Comics about regular adult life, from the perspective of people who still enjoy having fun and goofing off.
- Strange Brew — If your students love the awkward style of humor found in comics like The Far Side, they’ll love Strange Brew.
- Aunty Acid — The comic’s cynical and funny view of adult life and responsibilities make Aunty Acid a perfect resource for adult learners.
With approximately 550 comics in total, you should have no problem finding the right one to keep your students entertained as they practice English.
Your Own Stash
If you’re a comic book fan yourself, you can always turn some of your favorites into English lessons!
Since they’re your personal comics, you’ve probably got a good understanding of the storyline and can come up with discussion topics that will interest the class. This works especially well with hero comics, like X-Men and Superman, when you’re teaching kids and teenagers.
If you collect the Sunday paper, you can also use its comic strips in your lessons.
Creative Activities Using Comics for Teaching English
Before you start planning lessons, make sure that you’ve got access to the basic materials: computer, printer, basic photo editing software like MS Paint and a scanner.
Once you have these, adding comics into your lesson is easy: just scan, edit and print your material before class.
Now, let’s look at some ways to make your English lessons action-packed!
These exercises are great because they test your students’ vocabulary and help them learn how to properly use nouns, verbs and adjectives based on context. Teaching with comics allows students to use contextual clues in the imagery to understand what’s being said.
To create these exercises, all you need to do is scan or download your comics, blank out specific words in the dialogue and have your students fill in the correct (or best) answer.
When determining which words to blank out, make sure you relate them to the overall theme of your lesson. For example, if you’re covering descriptions, remove adjectives from the dialogue. If you’re teaching actions, remove action verbs.
Make sure to include a word bank with your exercise if you think your students will have a hard time using the comic artwork for clues.
Take your comic strip and cut it out frame by frame. Then, have your students work as a group to piece the strip together in the correct order so that the dialogue in the comic makes sense.
Because this activity requires students to move around and interact with their classmates, it’s perfect for learners with high energy—especially younger children that have basic reading comprehension.
Create your own dialogue
Delete the text in the speech balloons and have your students come up with their own dialogue. This activity works especially well for superhero comics and other types that use detailed artwork which can influence the direction of the conversation.
You can modify this exercise to work with virtually any type of lesson. Just give your students a topic and vocabulary words to use when coming up with their dialogues. Here are some ideas to help you get started:
- Beginner: Come up with a dialogue of two people having a basic conversation, such as a first-time introduction, shopping trip or visit to the doctor’s office.
- Intermediate: Have students practice more advanced grammar structures by using different verb tenses, including perfect and continuous tenses.
- Advanced: Advanced students should be able to express themselves clearly and extensively on most topics. But first, you need to come up with themes that interest them! Try centering dialogues around topics that they can relate to, like areas of study, politics and careers.
Make your own comics from scratch
If you’ve got a classroom full of artistic students, have them turn their doodles into an English lesson by creating comics of their own. Simply download and print comic strip templates for your students to work with.
This type of activity works best with a bit of structure, so make sure to give your students a topic or general theme on which to base their comic.
If you’ve been focusing on a specific part of language, like types of verbs or vocabulary needed for specific situations (at the shop, hospital, etc.), you might also want to give your students a list of words and phrases to include in their comic.
Discussions and debates
Like most multimedia resources, comics are great for creating discussions and debates in class. I recommend having a conversational component at the end of every comic lesson. Here are some ways you can set this up:
- Ask students questions based on the comic’s dialogue and story.
- Talk about the positive and negative qualities of characters in the comic.
- Hold a debate about which superheroes would win in a fight. (Check out Comic Vine Battles for information regarding superhero matchups.)
Use video clips from comic book movies
Another great strategy is using short video clips of comic and superhero movies to model spoken English. Because these types of movies are usually quite visual with a universal storyline, they can work well in an English lesson.
With a FluentU teacher account, you can introduce your classroom to engaging material like this while using the program’s interactive subtitles and accompanying vocabulary lists to help your students practice.
Using these short clips allows you to explore characters, vocabulary, grammar structure and other components in a modern setting. You’ll be able to bring the comic world to life in your ESL class!
Comics are a great way to add some fun to your reading activities, and they get students to explore their own creativity while practicing English.
Next time you plan an ESL activity and want to take a break from the textbook material, open up a comic book and start prepping!