The three literacies of comics

Updated: Here’s the recording of the webinar on comics and literacy held on 10 September. This post introduces some of the ideas and resources discussed.

Comics are often misunderstood. Many people, when they think of them at all, think of them as being the preserve of superheroes and three panel gag strips in the newspaper. Comics embrace works of all genres and they are increasingly finding a place in classrooms around the world.

A commonly used definition of comics is “sequential art.” Images, when viewed in order, give a sense of the passage of time.


Image source:

This simple two-panel comic from Scott McCloud, the author of Understanding Comics, demonstrates this point. By “reading” the placement of these images as a time sequence, we build a narrative.

The art form of comics imposes no boundaries on genre, content, or indeed artistic merit. Art Spiegelman’s Maus, telling the story of his Holocaust survivor father, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Reading comics is an engaging experience that embraces traditional literacy skills, but also brings other skills into play as well.

Literacy skills

Most comics have words, in the form of speech, captions, or both. These written elements become uniquely engaging through their embedding in the comics medium.  Many of the core concepts of literacy learning can be explicitly addressed. Sequencing and ordering of ideas is at the very heart of comics, and inference and deduction from context are also well supported by the inclusion of visual imagery. This additional visual support provides another way in to a story, and can provide an often much-needed boost to visual learners.

The use of comics in literacy teaching is finding increasing support in academic circles, as these studies show:
Comics Are Key to Promoting Literacy in Boys, Study Says
For Improving Early Literacy, Reading Comics Is No Child’s Play

Visual Literacy

Comics not only have to be read as literary texts, they also have to be read as visual texts. The artistic choices made in producing a comic shape the experience of the comic. To appreciate a comic fully requires an understanding of the elements and principles of visual design.   These elements provide a common vocabulary to talk about images that can be used across the curriculum. This allows students to think about the composition of an image in the same way they consider the composition of a written text. This idea can be expanded by considering individual panels of a comic like shots in a movie. What is visible in the shot? How is it framed? Why were these choices made?

Comics literacy

Comics are constructed in a particular way, and they use their own grammar and syntax. Each image in a comic is called a “panel”, and the space separating them is known as the “gutter”.  Speech is enclosed in “balloons” and internal dialogue is often placed in “thought bubbles”. Panels are read in the same direction as usual reading order, which can often come as a surprise to first-time readers of Japanese comics!

Most of us are so familiar with reading comics that these procedures become transparent, but they are learned skills, and a vital part of reading comics.

Tools and resources

Given the place comics can have in class, here are some online tools and resources to help you and your students make their own:

Comic Life – one of the most popular comics makers, which is now bundled with EduStar for use in public schools. A simple drag and drop interface allows you to create comics with your own images.

ToonDoo – free online comic creator. Use images from the site, share your creations, and view comics made by others

A great site for news and reviews about comics is No Flying, No Tights, which as the name suggests, looks well beyond the usual superhero fare.



Create interactive stories with Inklewriter

Many of you would remember the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books which were incredibly popular in the 1980s and 1990s. These novels gave the reader the option of choosing a path through the story and the narrative unfolded in a different way depending on the option selected. This style of fiction was then replicated in some of the early text based adventure games on home computers, however these games tended to be frustrating to play and hard to make. But now writers can easily produce interactive narratives with Inklewriter.

Inklewriter is a non-linear story writing tool which lets you define options for your reader after each section of your story. These options then link to different story sections, so you could end up writing many different stories within the one piece. You can define options which could be as simple as making a character turn left or right, or a much more complicated situation like a conversation with many different options. Pictures can also be added to the story and your writing can be shared.

Inklewriter is quite easy to use and helps you build different story options. You are presented with a first paragraph, and then you can define choices for the reader. Each option links to a new paragraph or can also be linked to an existing paragraph you’ve written. Even a simple story can actually become quite complex once you add a few options, but Inklewriter shows you when you have any loose ends from each story that you need to tie up. In this way, your reader will (hopefully) never get stuck.

This tool would be perfect in creative writing classes or even in other subjects like History, where students might explore the different options available to historical figures. When creating an interactive story students will have to examine the motivations of their characters carefully. It could also lead to some really good discussions about narrative structures, pacing and conversation. Here’s a quick story that we wrote that explains what Inklewriter is all about. It’s not Shakespeare, but hopefully it gives you a bit of an idea of how it works.

The Inklewriter website has some quick tutorials to get you started, and you can begin writing without creating an account (though you will need to create an account to save your work). You can click on Start writing or Read a story to get started. While Inklewriter is still in beta at the moment, it does seem to be quite reliable and is a really interesting option for creating digital, interactive stories.


Story Scrapbook

Today author Tristan Bancks tells about the development of his new app Story Scrapbook, a tool to assist with the creative writing process.

I write books for children and teens: Mac Slater Coolhunter, Nit Boy, Galactic Adventures and My Life & Other Stuff I Made Up. I use visual, aural, textual, web-based and interactive tools to prompt and inspire my writing process. Story Scrapbook is a new (free!) story brainstorming app based on my cross-media creative process that brings writing alive for children and teens. I developed the app with revolutionary new media developer Ben Train to assist us in co-writing a story.
The app, for Mac and PC, allows users to bring together text, images, video, music, sticky notes and Google Maps on virtual scrapbook pages. A simple idea about a kid with the worst case of nits in world history or a killer magpie or a boy with a dream of going into space becomes ‘real’ when it is brought alive using multimedia tools. There are no more, ‘I don’t know what to write about’ complaints or one-size-fits-all story starters on the whiteboard. Students can explore their own interests and brainstorm their own unique stories using an engaging, contemporary tool that they understand.
As a child, if I read a book or watched a movie I would feel inspired to create my own story for screen or page. Story Scrapbook will, hopefully, inspire other young readers, writers and creators to do the same. And not just those who learn textually or have been born with a creative ‘gift’.
Since the launch of the Beta version in May I have been touring Story Scrapbook to festivals and schools from Sydney to Brisbane and out to Armidale, creating collaborative stories on smartboards and having students trial the app on individual computers in workshops. They have provided feedback on their likes and suggestions and have been instrumental in the ongoing development of the app. Feedback has been resoundingly positive.

Steve Jobs, co-creator of Apple and Pixar, said that the original instructions for the Star Trek video game were:
1. Insert coin.
2. Avoid Klingons
We have tried to do similarly with Story Scrapbook. On the web page there is a Quick-start pdf and an introductory video (see above) but other than that, students are invited to experiment and discover the app for themselves. This has proven a greater challenge for older people and the less computer-savvy but the tool has been created with children and teens in mind.
We are building a community around the app and we are currently developing an HTML5 version, which will allow easy embedding and sharing of the interactive creations. My hope is to build a suite of free or very inexpensive digital creative tools on my website and to continue to inspire and nurture others’ ability and confidence to create.
I would love you to be part of this process by downloading and testing the app, then sharing your discoveries. Find out more and download the app on the Story Scrapbook page.


Congratulations to Tristan for creating such a great tool. He is touring the app to schools in Melbourne from August 6-10. To find out more visit Tristan’s website.

Love and Devotion education resources


Today sees the opening of the Love and Devotion: From Persia and Beyond exhibition at the State Library of Victoria. The exhibition features a number of rare Persian manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford. The State Library of Victoria education team has produced a resource for teachers that examine the manuscripts and the stories told within.


The resource includes several inquiry units and activities that can be used to explore the famous tales. Templates have been provided which feature characters from the manuscripts, so your students can create puppets or make their own comic. There are a number of picture files including characters and backgrounds that can be downloaded and used to create digital comics in programs such as Comic Life.


The exhibition is free and is open until July the 1st, 2012. Information about bringing school groups can be found here. Teachers are also invited to a special evening viewing of the  exhibition on March 20th from 5.30-7.00pm.