Action-packed ESL: How to Use Comics for Teaching English
As a kid, I used to bring comics to school.
I’d read them when I should’ve been paying attention in class.
But as an English teacher, I used to hate comic books for the same reason.
Children and teenagers would sit in the back of my English class, reading about Batman or Spider-Man instead of doing their work.
If you’ve ever taught children, chances are you know the feeling.
What if I told you 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?
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 because they appreciate learning with new methods.
Action-packed ESL: How to Use Comics for Teaching English
Comic Book Resources to Get You Started
Using comics to teach English is a great way to teach and have fun with your class.
But you do need to spend some time planning lessons so that you can use these tools effectively.
If you’re interested in turning your next class into a comic lesson and need some ideas, here are some resources to help you.
“Why English? Comics for the Classroom”
“Why English? Comics for the Classroom” is helpful for teachers planning to teach English with comic books for the first time. The material is created by the United States Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and is designed specifically to teach American English to ESL students using fun stories and a number of challenging exercises.
With “Why English? Comics for the Classroom,” most of the lesson planning has been done for you. There are a total of 21 short comic book stories for beginner and lower-intermediate students, and each one 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
The goal of this resource is to use storytelling and sequential art as a way to teach lower-level students the basics of English. Overall, it’s a great program because it helps to challenge your students’ listening, reading and writing skills with fun and interactive comics.
Another great strategy is using short clips of comic and superhero movies to model spoken English. With a FluentU teacher account, you will be able to introduce engaging multimedia into the classroom.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
The good thing about Dilbert is that it’s a versatile comic that works with students of different skill levels. Due to the work-related nature of the comic, Dilbert is probably best suited for adults who’ve had some experience in the workforce and understand the jokes.
Provided your students can somewhat relate to the content in the comic, Dilbert is a great way to have fun as a class while learning English. It’s an excellent way to teach idioms and a little bit about working culture in English-speaking countries, but students learning professional or business English will benefit the most from this comic.
That’s because Dilbert is filled with vocabulary words that business English students need to know, like manager, finance, team building and presentation. Additionally, Dilbert comics can provide great talking points for business English students. You can hold discussions about:
- What is and isn’t appropriate in the workplace
- Which characters are efficient workers and which are lazy
- Some of the good and bad qualities about the types of workers in the comics
If you’re looking for all of those classic comics you grew up with, like Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts and Garfield, then GoComics is a digital goldmine. Here, you can find a variety of popular comics for students of varying ages that you can integrate into your lessons.
Along with the comic classics we grew up reading, GoComics has a number of lesser-known comics that are just as good. Some that you should definitely check out are:
- 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.
And with approximately 550 comics in total, you should have no problem finding the right kind of comic to keep your students entertained as they practice English.
Your Own Stash
If you’re a comic book fan yourself, you might want to think about turning 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 are interesting to the class. This works especially with hero comics, like X-Men and Superman, when you’re teaching young and teenage boys.
Alternatively, if you collect the Sunday paper, you could also use the comic strips in your lessons as well.
Let’s Get Creative: Activities Using Comics for Teaching English
Since we’ve looked at some resources for finding comics, let’s look at how we can use comics to make your English lessons explosive.
Before you start planning lessons, make sure that you’ve got access to basic materials: computer, printer, basic photo editing software like MS Paint and a scanner
If you have these items handy, adding comics into your lesson is easy. All you need to do is scan, edit and then print your material before class.
Now, let’s look at some ways to make your lessons action-packed!
Gap-fills, or fill-in-the-blanks, are exercises where you remove one or more words from a sentence and have students fill in the blank with the correct (or best) answer.
They’re great because they test your students’ vocabulary and help them learn how to properly use nouns, verbs and adjectives based on context. They can also be especially useful with comic book exercises because they give students the opportunity to use contextual clues from imagery to help them solve the problem.
The other benefit of gap-fill exercises is that they’re easy to do with comics. All you need to do is scan or download your comics, blank out specific words in the dialogue and have your students answer.
Also, when determining what words to blank out, make sure that you find a way to relate it 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. And 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 who like to move around—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 dialogues. This activity works especially well for superhero comics and other types that use detailed artwork that can influence the direction of the conversations.
The best part of this exercise is that you can modify it 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, like first-time introductions, shopping or a 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 in order to do that, 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 that you give your students a topic or general theme to base their comic on.
Also, if you’ve been focusing on a specific part of language, like types of verbs or vocabulary you need to know for specific situations (like at the shop, in the 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 do that:
- 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.)
Have Fun Teaching
Comics are great for adding a little fun to your reading activities, and they’re also a nice way to get students to explore their own creativity while they practice their reading and writing skills.
Next time you plan a reading activity and want to take a break from the textbook material, open up a comic book and start prepping.