Exploring the Effects of Comics in Communication
Hoang Giang Trieu, a post-graduate student studying Applied Linguistics and TESOL at Macquarie University. She has 2 years of experience in teaching EFL adult learners both in Vietnam and in Australia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Speaking proficiency is essential to the successful acquisition of a language. However, most English language learners (LLs), according to Zhang (2009) and Rocio (2012), find speaking the hardest skill to master. With the common belief that practice makes perfect, encouraging students to orally produce a language has always been prioritised in almost all communication lessons. At Dong A University (Vietnam) where I was teaching, although the communicative competence was one of the requirements to graduate, my experience in teaching communication classes showed that many students were not quite engaged in practicing speaking English, resulting in almost no improvement in this competence.
One of the reasons why students remain silent in communication classes is the fact that the immediate production of the language, especially in spontaneous situations, makes speaking a daunting task to students (Crystal, 2005, Rocio, 2012). This can be explained by Stephen Krashen’s Silent Period theory (2009) – such period in which LLs are incapable of communicating orally in the new language as they still need more time to listen and observe. Besides, Ur (1995, cited in Aleksandrazk, 2011) adds other problems such as the low participation in the activities and the difficulty to find motives to speak.
Concerned about this issue and inspired by my nephew who learned English by reading comics, I decided to do an action research. I aimed at motivating my students to speak more through the use of comic strips whereby students could apply the target structures to make meaningful conversations. Such comic-based speaking practice was hoped to improve the situation.
Comics and their advantages
In the context of teaching English as a foreign/second language, Recine (2013) compiled all useful definitions of comics for TESOL purposes as follow: comics are images that tell stories, sometimes with words (McCloud, 1993, cited in Recine 2013) under such universally recognized forms as single panel cartoon, newspaper-format comic strips, comic books, book-length graphic novels (Cary, 2004, cited in Recine, 2013). These definitions gave me an idea about the materials to be used in my project: the blank panel cartoons.
Comics are believed to be useful within the field of foreign language learning and teaching (Hismanoglu, 2004, cited in Baker, 2011). Supporting this view, Csabay (2006) considers comics as effective as games in teaching English, while Baker (2011) recommends aiding LLs by using comics which are more appealing than traditional resources and in the long run help struggling and reluctant readers to improve reading skills. Moreover, Recine (2013, p. 126) believes that comics offer “visual comprehensible input” which helps raise LLs’ confidence and satisfaction and reduces barriers to learning due to boredom, anxiety or negative emotions. Similarly, Whiting (n.d.) suggests adopting comics in English language classrooms since they provide a student-centred environment which reduces affective filter and thus, motivates LLs to learn.
Reviews of previous studies about comics in ESL/EFL classrooms and barriers that LLs encounter in English communication classes show that there might be a link between such barriers and the solutions offered by comics. Therefore, my action research aimed to explore the use of comics in my communication classrooms to see whether this tool would help motivate my students to speak.
The project was carried out with all my freshmen in a 10-week elementary communication course using Speak Now! 1 coursebook (Richards & Bohlke, 2012). About two-thirds of the students were at elementary level, one-third was beginners and few others were at upper-elementary. Due to the big class size of 43 students and my job responsibility of strictly following the course syllabus, I was able to conduct just a couple of experiments with comics. The procedure of my research is as below:
Figure 1. The procedures of the experiments and how data were collected.
There were two experiments in this study. The first experiment was conducted after lesson 6 in Speak Now! 1 (‘My favorite...’) so that I could observe my students’ learning progress and motivation from lessons 1-5. Also, the cumulative target language features students acquired in lessons 1-5 would be utilized in this first comic experiment. The second experiment was scheduled after the revision lesson on the topics Clothes and Family members.
The comics I used were panel cartoons adapted from www.phdcomics.com and https://garfield.com/comic. Based on the topics of the lessons, I collected and arranged the panels whose drawings fit the themes so that my students could easily imagine themselves in the characters’ roles. Also, I replaced the existing bubble speeches/balloons with the blank ones for students to fill in their own dialogues.
Interpretating the data collected from my observation, journal, interviews, survey and students’ panels, I reached some interesting findings. Firstly, students’ perceptions toward the comic-based speaking practice compared to the normal activities like role-playing, inside/outside circles and information gap are as below:
- Comics were more interesting, enjoyable and creative.
- Comics made it less difficult to create the dialogue content because the drawings guided imagination.
- Comics made the lessons more comprehensible as students could see how the languages were applied in context.
- Comics encouraged effective teamwork (students chose a role/character and became more responsible for their group work. Rather than letting one person do all the task, students actually shared the loads to discuss what and how the characters should say in each panel).
Below are some of the responses in the interviews that illustrate aforementioned findings:
‘Learning with comics is interesting and creative. Love it because it’s not too difficult; the drawings guide us to make this dialogue with ease’.
‘It’s enjoyable. I find it easier to make a dialogue…we have pictures and we can practice what we’ve written down’.
‘So surprising. The first time I’ve ever seen comics in classroom...sooo fun and creative’.
‘We couldn’t finish the dialog but we think the comic is fun’.
‘It was not too challenging for me to speak because I could look at the scenes and the characters’.
‘I and my partner decided the roles quickly at the beginning. Then we developed lines for our own roles after each turn. Before, one of us would write the whole dialog but now, we are making it together’.
Secondly, compared with the pre-intervention stage, students’ performance during the intervention were recorded as below:
- Most of the participants were able to finish planning the comic scripts in time.
- Most of the scripts were logically developed using the target language.
- However, when it came to oral practice, students were still shy; the best thing they could do was to memorize the lines and repeat in front of the class although they were expected to act like the characters.
- A small portion of the participants just read aloud the scripts.
- The number of students doing irrelevant things (i.e. gossiping, using phones, doodling) dropped significantly to zero.
Additionally, there was a problem with comics. Specifically, some students were distracted by the characters’ emotions, facial expressions and body language; they found it difficult to focus on a logic development for the dialogue content when trying to decipher the emotions and finding the suitable lines for the characters. This made the script-planning time longer than expected.
To summarize, the results from the two experiments demonstrated the positive influence of the comic-based speaking practice on students’ perceptions and performance. Nevertheless, timing was still a problem and the learners’ oral production was not quite satisfying since my participants still struggled with learning by heart and role playing. In my view, for elementary students, repeating memorized sentences is acceptable but reading aloud is not, for the latter does not happen in real-life encounters. Besides, although comics lowered the boredom and motivated my students to interact in English, students were still quite shy to really act the dialogues. However, acting out the dialogues in a native-like manner was a big requirement to the students’ current level. That says, in general, the benefits of the comic-based speaking activity outweigh the problems. Therefore, this technique should be experimented in more ESL/EFL speaking/communication classrooms to see how much it can actually help improve learner motivation and their speaking skills.
Aleksandrazk, M. (2011). Problems and challenges in teaching and learning speaking at advanced level. Glottodidactica. An International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 3, 37-48. http://cejsh.icm.edu.pl/cejsh/element/bwmeta1.element.ojs-doi-10_14746_gl_2011_37_3
Baker, A. (2011). Using comics to improve literacy in English language learners [Unpublished master’s thesis]. University of Central Missouri.
Crystal, D. (2005). Speaking of writing and writing of speaking. Pearson Longman. http://www.pearsonlongman.com/dictionaries/pdfs/speaking-writing-crystal.pdf
Csabay, N. (2006). Using comic strips in language classes. English Teaching Forum, 44(1), 24-26. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1107886
Krashen, S. D. (2009). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. [ebook edition]. University of Southern California. http://www.sdkrashen.com/content/books/principles_and_practice.pdf
Recine, D. (2013). Comics aren’t just for fun anymore: The practical use of comics by TESOL professionals. [Unpublished master’s thesis]. University of Winconsins-River Falls. https://minds.wisconsin.edu/bitstream/handle/1793/65479/DavidRecine.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
Richards, J.C. & Bohlke D. (2012). Speak Now 1. UK: Oxford University Press.
Rocio, S. A. (2012). The importance of teaching listening and speaking skills. [Unpublished master’s thesis]. Complutense University of Madrid. https://www.ucm.es/data/cont/docs/119-2015-03-17-12.RocioSeguraAlonso2013.pdf
Whiting, J. (n.d). Using comics in the English language classroom. Plymouth State University, New Hamsphire. https://americanenglish.state.gov/files/ae/resource_files/comicsinlangclassroom-ning.pdf.
Zhang, S. (2009). The role of input, interaction, and output in the development of oral ﬂuency. English Language Teaching, 2(4), 91-100. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1083691.pdf
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