Teaching Literacy to At-Risk Youth

Centrifugal Force

xkcd is my favorite source of internet comic strips. If you’re not a big math/science nerd they probably won’t do much for you, but this one is my favorite.

So what does this have to do with children’s books and adversity? Well, not much, really, but I feel that it’s time for another post about literacy development and that topic inevitably leads me back to comics and graphic novels. I have a fairly thorough post about how graphic novels can heal literacy problems here, but today I wanted to focus in on a smaller literacy issue that I’ve been thinking about recently.

I’ve been invited to talk about graphic novels and the common core at the New England Association for Teachers of English (NEATE) annual conference. As far as I can tell, the common core standards are a response to “No Child Left Behind”–they’re the set of specific standards that each student should be able to meet divided down by grade level.

Of course, this idea of a set of arbitrary standards that each child should be able to meet at a specific grade is problematic, especially for at-risk youth. A specific problem occurred to me last night, though.

There are two barriers to literacy learning with kids who are behind. The obvious one is that they can’t read at grade level. But there’s a secondary problem: they aren’t able to develop secondary literacy skills because the books that they can read aren’t complex enough. Think about it: a kid who can only read See Spot Run isn’t going to be able to learn as much about metaphor, story structure, 18th century literature . . .

To take a specific example, Common Core Standard #6 for Reading English Literature states that a child be able to “Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.” For Grade 7, the specific standard is: “Analyze how an author develops and contrasts the points of view of different characters or narrators in a text.” Now if a child is behind because she possesses a learning disability, then she might struggle with this, but if the child is behind in reading because she has had less time to read, less incentive to read, a lot of distractions (as I talked about in my last post), or is, say, an immigrant to this country with very little knowledge of english, then she is probably capable of making the cognitive leaps required to learn how point of view is used in a text–say that she is from Mexico and was an avid reader there, then she would have no trouble doing this in her native language.

But by the time she can read, say, Pride and Prejudice, in english she may have fallen so far behind in her secondary literacy development that she will never be able to catch up. And I think we as teachers often face this dual problem in trying to catch up our at-risk youth. And again I say that graphic novels and visual literacy in general offer a great solution to this problem. Because a 9th grader who can’t read The Scarlet Letter might be able to read American Born Chinese. As I’ve said before, she will still be practicing reading, but she will also be able to learn the secondary literacy skill of analyzing use of POV along with her better reading peers. This is because, as I’ve said, graphic novels can be just as complex and nuanced as pure-text-novels but with fewer words because they rely on images as much as text to tell story.

So all of this is to again say: GO GRAPHIC NOVELS!!!!


About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
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6 Responses to Teaching Literacy to At-Risk Youth

  1. violet says:

    This is really cool. Good luck with your talk.

  2. violet says:

    one other thing, i find the standards for elementary school writing o difficult to understand that when i was student teaching, i literally developed my own umbrella illustration/graphic organizer to understand them. standards make me psychotic. i have a friend who taught over a decade ago, and she told me she had a binder of standards that she “threw out” and never paid attention to them again. i find her attitude so egotistical, but i n a sense, she was getting to the standards, as she was teaching well. and at this point , our country was not looking at the standards in such a silly way. again, good luck and go you. i am not a graphic novel fan; however, i adore phoebe phoebe gloeckner. have you ever heard of her?

  3. pamwatts says:

    Standards can be a pain. My talk went well. And I just got my hands on Diary of a Young Girl? Is that the title? I just started reading it and I’m liking it so far.

  4. Mima Tipper says:

    Glad your talk went well, Pam, and I got a lot out of your thoughtful post. Thanks!

  5. Pingback: Top 10 Graphic Novels of 2012 | Strong in the Broken Places

  6. Pingback: Great Graphic Novels for the Younger Set | Strong in the Broken Places

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