ENGL 3100 History, Theory, and Practice of Composition Studies (1)

Using Comics to Teach English Composition to Japanese Students

With a quickly increasing number of English language learners worldwide—currently 1 billion with the number expected to grow to 1.9 billion by 2020 (British Council)—it is no surprise that discovering effective methods for teaching English to English as a Foreign Language (EFL) and English as a Second Language (ESL) speakers is of great concern to researchers. According to the Oxford Seminars, there are nearly thirty-four thousand English language schools around the globe, with almost five thousand in Japan alone (Oxford Seminars). In 2014, the Japanese Exchange & Teaching (JET) Program placed 4,476 native English speakers in classrooms across the country (Japan Exchange and Teaching Program USA). While many Japanese are eager to learn the language, they experience difficultly in language acquisition due to fundamental differences between Japanese and English, such as the frequent omission of subjects in Japanese, lack of articles, absence of plurals, and varying word order. In recent years, comics have become more widely accepted as an instructional tool, not only to instruct English students in a variety of subjects (arithmetic, natural science, history, sociology, etc.), but also to teach English to EFL and ESL students.

In Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art Scott McCloud defines comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (9). Comics can refer to many types of work ranging from something as simple as a comic strip to something as vast as an entire graphic novel. Comics can be excellent instructional tools because they are versatile, easy to use and culturally relevant (Liu 230), but they may be especially effective in teaching English to EFL and ESL students due to what researchers refer to as dual coding theory (DCT). DCT, discussed in Jun Liu’s “Effects of Comic Strips on L2 Learners’ Reading Comprehension,” concerns the nature of language and imagery. It includes a linguistic coding system, or verbal system, and a non-verbal system, or imagery system. DCT assumes that these two systems work harmoniously and thus “provide a broader and more specific account of meaning, coherence, and inference effects” (Liu 227). For English learners with low-level proficiency, comics are an incredible tool because “when [they] don’t have the relevant target language readily available for comprehension, nonverbal cues to meaning are invaluable as they allow access to the text’s meaning through the visual mode” (Ranker 304). Through the use of comic books, I believe that Japanese students, while improving their reading comprehension skills, will internalize rules of the English language, which will directly translate to their composition ability. To accomplish this, I have developed several lesson plans (intended for a third year Japanese middle school class with low- intermediate-level proficiency) that include a combination of reading, writing, and speaking activities.

Generally, the lessons will be based on two comics: Fujiko Fujio’s Doraemon Vol. 1, an educational manga “based on a child’s daily life at home and school” (Masaaki 12); and Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim Vol. 1. Doraemon—written with the intention of teaching English to Japanese students—is written entirely in English, but Japanese translations are provided. Scott Pilgrim is a more difficult text that will be introduced later in the course. Students would either need to purchase these texts, or have them made available through the school. Copies of shorter readings could be made and distributed to students.

Doraemon will be used as a read-aloud, a method seen in Ranker’s study of Ms. Stephens’ classroom. The instructor reads a selection from the text out loud and then discusses the content of the story with the students, meanwhile identifying problems and solutions within the text (Ranker 297). Teaching lessons with comics about narrative structure—in this case, problems and solutions—is “an effective way of increasing reading comprehension” (Ranker 304). For example, the instructor might read from Doraemon the chapter titled “Shadow hunting.” In this chapter, Nobita (the main character from the series) is asked to weed the yard. He complains that it is too hot, so Doraemon uses one of his gadgets to separate Nobita’s shadow from him. The shadow follows Nobita’s orders and does his chores. However, Nobita waits too long to reconnect with his shadow; the shadow starts becoming human, while Nobita begins to turn into a shadow. Doraemon and Nobita chase the shadow until they finally think to use Nobita’s mother’s shadow to capture it because “Nobita’s shadow is weaker than his mom’s shadow” (43). Then, the class would identify and discuss the various problems and solutions in the text. Using a comic to teach students about narrative would increase student interest and motivation to engage in the text (Ranker 296). Because of the visual nature of comic books, students’ comprehension of the narrative should be higher than if it were text alone (Liu 228). Ideally, students’ understanding of the narrative would lead to an involved discussion, which would also help to improve their verbal fluency.

Following the lesson about narrative, students will be asked to create comics of their own. “Teachers can promote literacy, higher level thinking, and writing skills by encouraging students to combine words and pictures to create comic[s]” (Liu 230). For this assignment students would be given a worksheet that contains four blank panels with lined space below (Appendix A). Students would draw pictures in the panels and would be encouraged to use voice bubbles “to increase their understanding of dialogue” (Ranker 303). The lines below the panels would be used for writing the actions portrayed through the drawings. The students would be instructed to create comics containing a problem and a solution like the ones they identified in the Doraemon read-aloud activity. In doing so, they would be given an opportunity to practice composition. Practicing writing through the creation of comics allows students to “learn to control the language of print by manipulating the language in meaningful contexts” (Hartwell 579). This assignment also involves invention, a major component of rhetoric and composition. Creating comics requires planning on the student’s part to create a coherent narrative (Crowley 338).

Another activity using Doraemon involves a fairly primitive method for teaching language called the “grammar-translation method” (Rifkin 167). This method traditionally has students translating text into and out of the target language. For the purposes of this assignment, the worksheet (Appendix B) simply asks students to translate text into the target language (English). In this particular assignment, they are given a small selection from Doraemon with only Japanese text. Below that, the same portion of the comic is reprinted with the absence of text. Students are asked to translate the Japanese text into English. Because of the ambiguous nature of the Japanese language, there could multiple correct English translations. While the assignment does not necessarily involve invention, as with the previous assignment, Hartwell argues “any form of active involvement with language would be preferable to instruction in rules of definitions” (579).

The previous two assignments (creating a comic and the “grammar-translation” assignment) will be graded solely based on content. For the first assignment (Appendix A), students were asked to create a comic containing a problem and a solution. Rather than reading their work for typographical errors, the instructor would mark the assignment for errors in content, such as an incoherent plot or lack of a problem or solution. The “grammar-translation” assignment would be graded similarly. Here, the instructor would grade with the intention of checking to make sure the content is relevant and coherent. In an interview with Dan Woten (Appendix C), former instructor with the JET Program, he argued that “spelling and content were [the] most important” factor when grading students’ written assignments. Word choice and punctuation were periphery to the content of their work (Woten). Williams, too, argues that content should be the primary concern of grading (420). Because heavily marking students’ writing can be discouraging, it is best to focus on content first, and to look at typographical and grammatical errors after they have mastered content. Reading for content actually benefits student progress, and encourages more control and a deeper understanding of the language.

Scott Pilgrim will be introduced to the class as a more difficult text. It will be used as a read-aloud in the same way that Doraemon was, where students are asked to identify and discuss problems and solutions in the narrative. Scott Pilgrim is a significantly more difficult text than Doraemon, containing idioms, slang, and no Japanese translations; however, Liu found that “using visuals helped low-proficiency level students” and that “visual imagery via picture cues can overcome deficits of lower proficiency readers” (229). Using a more difficult comic will expand students’ vocabularies, as well as facilitate their comprehension and memory (Liu 226).

Using comics is an effective method for teaching English composition to Japanese students. The medium itself is accessible to students because it is interesting, motivating, and promotes deeper engagement with the reading. Through reading comics, students will internalize rules of the English language that will be reflected in their writing. Their reading skills, and thus comprehension of the texts, will also be reflected in their writing. The use of higher-level comics will further improve their comprehension and memory and ultimately their control of the language through natural English dialogue. The composition activities have students manipulating the language in meaningful contexts, which is an important factor in language acquisition. Because of the visual nature of comics, this medium may be the most effective instructional device for teaching English to ESL and EFL students with limited English language abilities.

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