Graphic Novels: Beginning ELLs

NOTE: I no longer use this approach.  After meeting the amazing Dr. Beniko Mason, I have a much more simple approach that is less prep and less targeting; more rich, pure Comprehensible Input: Story Listening.


Early readers who can’t decode or read basic sight words need visual support.  TPR, props, realia, and drawing pictures with children all work beautifully during storytelling.  Another option is panels of pictures that make a cohesive story, as in a graphic novel.

Here’s my method of using wordless graphic novels with early, non-fluent readers.

  1.  Language Experience Approach

Children vote on any wordless graphic novel.  They read it projected on the board with the Language Experience Approach, as explained here.  First, using a document camera, I write as children”read”the pictures and dictate the story to me.  Sometimes it is necessary for me to comment on the pictures and ask simple questions that students answer with yes/no or gestures.  Students are not forced to speak, but I find with high-interest graphic novels, children enjoy dictating the story (even just single words at first).


 2. Shared Reading

I type and clean up the words they wrote.  Optionally, I might have a harder, modified text printed and ready for higher beginners to read independently at the back of the classroom.

I am careful to only interrupt with questions that further the story or clarify.  As with all extensive reading, we just read fun stories with limited accountability and no worksheets or comprehension questions.  I’m not even interested in “teaching vocabulary” -though I may choose to front-load some helpful words or even use gestures that I will use in the story.

Early literacy is twice as hard in second language classrooms than in foreign language classes due to not sharing L1 and having a much wider range of ability levels all in one class.  If you find TPRS a difficult method to master, graphic novels are so much easier.   Here I am just reading: no complicated circling.  No “getting reps.”  Just reading.  With this much graphic support, these books just teach themselves.


3.  Independent Reading 

Independently, children re-read the text. I distribute glue sticks, sentence strips with the text itself, and copies of the wordless graphic novel. As they read, students match the text with pictures in the story.  It doesn’t have to be exactly where you put the sentences in (step 2) the shared reading, but it does need to make sense and be in an order that makes sense to them, the “editor” of their book that they helped write.

At the end of a few weeks, they have a finished product.  They are autonmous readers, even if they can’t read independently yet.  Someday, they’ll pick up any graphic novel or regular novel they choose, but in the meantime, they can take pride in what they can read and create.

Notice how high-interst and low-Lexile some texts can be.  This version of Robot Dreams, shared with permission, shows how adorable and comprehensible graphic novels can be even if you’ve never taken a French class in your life.


Here’s a look inside some of my favorite graphic novels and why I like them.


Published by

Claire Walter

I am an ESL teacher and I promote differentiated, compassionate instruction and assessment for English Language Learners.

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