Research Topic–Graphic Narratives and Literacy Development

As it is my intention to return to teaching after graduate school, I want to focus on classroom literacies. Now this is a rather broad topic, and I have a few areas within that in which I could draw upon for my final project. As I was doing my research for my master’s project, adolescent literacy development really started to stand out as an area where I had a genuine interest. What exactly causes some young adults to become better readers while others just slog along with great difficulty? I had observed more than enough instances of this during my teaching career thus far and have always wondered about that. This now presents me with an opportunity to start unravelling this mystery.

There are many factors that can affect how a young adult gains adult-level literacy skills, but from what I have read and observed I cannot help but feel that it is what they are reading that presents the biggest factor. One particularly vivid image I have in regards to this quandary occurred during my first year of teaching, in which an eighth grader—who admittedly that he hated reading and did not “need” my class due to his future employment on his family’s ranch—literally ran to the library after I made it known that I had just donated two sets of The Hunger Games Trilogy. This sticks out as a concrete example of how what is being read can impact how students read. I will admit that student choice is not always an option when it comes to what they read, particularly in terms of having to read pieces that are considered canonical and “required,” but if there could be a way to elicit reactions like the one illustrated above more often, I am certain students would leave high school reading at or above an adult level.

This is where things get tricky for me in terms of what I wish to focus on. While I had expressed an interest in researching whether young adults gain literacy mastery through reading canonical texts or pieces written with their demographics in mind, there has been another type of literacy-development area that I never really put too much thought into before attending graduate school—and that is the teaching of the graphic novel. A number of classes I have taken have spoken of how not only using graphic novels in the English/language arts classroom, and while they discussed how useful they could be in engaging students and helping struggling readers, I would like to see more said about how they help all students and the impact they can have on reading skills. A lot has been said about how graphic novels require a greater effort to decode and interpret, but how do these skills translate into, say, performance on a reading assessment or comprehending and analyzing a traditional novel? It is with these questions in mind that I am going to start my research.

The Socio-Economic Factor

A lot has been said in our recent readings concerning the connection between socio-economic status (SES) and literacy development. While this is a connection that in hindsight seems obvious, I cannot hold it against the authors for pointing it out in the first place. Yes, it has been proven that higher SES students have greater access to books, have parents who read to them, and have access to other means of literacy as opposed to low SES students, but I guess from my own experience this tended to always be the case.

 Growing up, I would have been considered a low SES student from middle school onward. While my parents were readers and our house was overflowing with books, compared to my peers we were on the lower-end of the spectrum. The schools I attended tended to favor more of the affluent neighborhoods in our city, and since both of my schools had reputations for academics that attracted even more high SES students due to our district’s open enrollment policy. Now maybe I was the exception in that case, but as I was a B-A student in a class of predominantly AP students, one does start to see the connection.

 This connection between SES and literacy development did not really hit home for me until I was doing my internship-level of student teaching in my undergraduate. I was assigned to Dakota Valley Middle School, which primarily served the town of Dakota Dunes—a town made by all the rich people who worked across the South Dakota-Iowa border in Sioux City but decided to live in South Dakota due to it not having any state income tax. Now while this case of rich people building their own town isn’t completely unheard of, the fact that the school also served as the school for the local rural communities as well. From day one of my time of working with seventh and eighth graders I could see the MASSIVE disparity between the two levels.

 Now in terms of how this affected their literacy development, one striking example that stands to mind was the literature circles the seventh graders were placed in for class. While the groups were composed by reading level, I distinctly remember that the students in the reading groups doing more complex books like The Hobbit and The Diary of Anne Frank were predominantly high SES students while those in the lower-end group reading The Outsiders and Treasure Island were low SES. I remember asking my mentor teacher why this separation was occurring, and she told me that she had to break it down by reading ability in order to be fair, but even she acknowledged the disparity as simply a fact of life for teaching in that district. Now I am all for differentiated instruction, but this was a little ridiculous.

 I know I may be making a lot of generalizations here, but since it has been proven—yes, I will say proven—that SES affects literacy development, can we please work on a way of getting past that?