Beyond the Word Bubbles: Critical Thinking & Language Learning Through Comics Creation

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Explore and create : Creation lab

Jacqueline Gardy  
Dan Ryder  
Dr. Jennifer Williams  

How might students create comics to better understand content, themselves and others? We’ll practice with the tools, strategies and resources for making digital and physical comics in the service of improving language and critical-thinking skills worldwide.

Audience: Curriculum/district specialists, Teachers, Teacher education/higher ed faculty
Skill level: Beginner
Attendee devices: Devices useful
Attendee device specification: Smartphone: Android, iOS, Windows
Laptop: Chromebook, Mac, PC
Tablet: Android, iOS, Windows
Participant accounts, software and other materials: None
Topic: Creativity & curation tools
Grade level: PK-12
Subject area: ESL, Language arts
ISTE Standards: For Educators:
  • Pursue professional interests by creating and actively participating in local and global learning networks.
  • Model and nurture creativity and creative expression to communicate ideas, knowledge or connections.
For Students:
Creative Communicator
  • Students publish or present content that customizes the message and medium for their intended audiences.
Additional detail: ISTE author presentation

Proposal summary

Purpose & objective

During this session, participants will learn:
How comics tell stories through unique features and ways in which comic readers process information.
How to use digital and physical tools with which learners can make their own comics including Google Slides & Draw,, Keynote, Pages, custom stencils and similar.
Strategies for helping learners to create memoirs and non-fiction in the service of developing language and critical thinking skills.
Best practices for global collaboration with other educators and learners including networks open to student participation.


Throughout the workshop, there will be materials available for physical creating and options to create in a digital format. One of the intended outcomes is to demonstrate that students in under-resourced environments have pathways to creating comics; comics are tremendous tools in the work toward greater equity.

10 minutes. KWL. Participants will participate in a visual/tactile KWL to determine what they know, want to know, and how they hope to learn about creating comics. Manipulatives in the form of LEGO bricks will be used to signify items on the KWL chart and to provide a non-verbal means of expression. Charts will be shared with elbow partners and responses solicited from volunteers to get a litmus test of the room’s knowledge, needs, and preferred means of learning.

10 minutes. One Panel Wisdom. For their first comic, participants will add captions to a doodled illustration or found image provided from a collection. We will provide the historical context that the first comics were editorial in nature and amounted to an image with a caption or labels. Participants will have 5 minutes to doodle and caption in response to the prompt: “What do you love about comics or find unappealing about comics?”
Share with opposite elbow partner from KWL or behind the back partner.

20 minutes. Word Balloon Re-Arrange: Participants will make their first, two-panel comics using found images and word bubbles. The comic will express a dialogue between two or more individuals resolving a conflict. Participants will add captions and word bubbles to images from either,, or their own photography to create a dialogue between the characters involved in the conflict. Magazine clippings and action figures will also be available, in addition to drawing utensils.
Word balloons will be added using either Google Slides or Keynote, Pages or Google Draw. A number of stencils, and word balloon templates will be available to arrange over the magazine clippings.
They will use their devices to document these creations and share them to a digital sharing platform, i.e. Google Drive, Dropbox or Wakelet.

10 Minutes. Mini-Lecture: In a brief lecture, we will provide an overview of the power of comics to help students develop language and critical thinking skills, especially in under resourced environments and English language learning programs. The lecture will be framed by a walkthrough of a free digital comic we have developed to help global educators bring comics creation into their teaching and assessment strategies.

40 Minutes. Comic Book Design Sprint: How might we design a one, two or three page comic book that helps others to a) make an effective decision or b) explain how an important process works? We will use a design process to help participants determine the best strategies to use

5 minutes: Discover phase. A quick accounting of what we have learned so far and then visual brain storms about what are the types of decisions our students might be trying to make and what processes might they need to know and understand?

10 minutes: Empathy phase. Rapid interviews with participants in the session. Circulate to at least three participants. A. What is one important decisions you’ve had to make in your life? What did you have to consider? B. What is a process you wish you knew more about? C. What do you love about comics? D. What do you find a little frustrating about comics?
Quickly unpack the interviews and identify the comic you want to create. Select the decision or process you most want to illustrate from one of the interviewees.

5 minutes: Experiment phase. 4 layouts in 4 minutes. Participants will be tasked with creating four rapid fire layouts to experiment with how they might create their comic, including considering the medium they want to use. They will be timed and given only 1 minute to create each experiment.
This will help them to then identify the layout that seems to speak to them the most and to consider what their interviewees said about comics that appeals and frustrates.

20 minutes: Production phase. Create a one, two or three page comic in either digital or analog format with both presenters circulating and offering assistance and insights.. Participants will have 10 to 15 minutes to create their comics.
After 15 minutes, find the partner that inspired the comic and share for feedback.

10 Minutes. Connecting and questioning. During the ten minutes after the design sprint, we will show participants how to engage in global networks of learners and potential for collaboration between classes on comic book creation.

FINAL THOUGHT. As a wrap up, we will ask participants to return to their KWL and let us know through a Google Form or other survey tool how well we met their needs through the W and L.

Supporting research

Aleixo, Paul A., and Krystina Sumner. “Memory for Biopsychology Material Presented in Comic Book Format.” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, vol. 8, no. 1, 2016, pp. 79–88., doi:10.1080/21504857.2016.1219957.
Alves, J., Gardy, J., and Daniel Ryder. “Panels and Perspectives: Creating Comics in the English as a Foreign Language Classroom.” Forthcoming, 2019.
Blanchette, Aimee. “Comic Books Have Become Legitimate Teaching Tools.” Star Tribune, Star Tribune, 13 Mar. 2013,
“Blind Readers and Comics: Reflecting on Comics' Storytelling from a Different Perspective.” Comics Forum, 4 Aug. 2019,
Burvall, Amy, and Dan Ryder. Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom. EdTechTeam Press, 2017.
Cimermanová, Ivana. “Using Comics with Novice EFL Readers to Develop Reading Literacy.” Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, vol. 174, 2015, pp. 2452–2459., doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.01.916.
Duin, Steve. Richardson, Mike. Comics: Between the Panels. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Comics Inc. 1998
Edmunds, Tracy. “Why Comics?” Tracy Edmunds,
Mattson, Kristen. Digital Citizenship in Action Empowering Students to Engage in Online Communities. International Society for Technology in Education, 2017.
Matuk, Camillia, et al. “How Do Teachers Use Comics to Promote Engagement, Equity, and Diversity in Science Classrooms?” Research in Science Education, 2019, doi:10.1007/s11165-018-9814-8.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: William Morrow Paperbacks, 1993.
Smyth, Tim. “How I Use Comic Books as a Learning Tool in My Social Studies Classroom.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 29 Mar. 2016,
Sousanis, Nick. Unflattening. Harvard University Press, 2015.
Wallner, Lars. Framing Education: Doing Comics Literacy in the Classroom. Doctoral Dissertation, Linköping University, 2017.
Wickner, Amy. “Graphic-Novel Research Reveals Resistance, Lessons.” Education Week - BookMarks, 22 Mar. 2013,
Wisenthal, Paul. “How Comic Generators Became Therapeutic Tools.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 23 May 2017,
Wolk, Douglas. Reading Comics: How graphic novels work and what they mean. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press. 2007
Wong, Simpson W. L., et al. “Graphic Novel Comprehension Among Learners with Differential Cognitive Styles and Reading Abilities.” Reading & Writing Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 5, 2016, pp. 412–427., doi:10.1080/10573569.2016.1216343.
Wright, Bradford. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, Johns Hopkins University Press. 2001

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Jacqueline Gardy, U.S. Department of State/ ECA
Dan Ryder, Community Regional Charter School
Dr. Jennifer Williams, Take Action Global

Dr. Jennifer Williams has dedicated herself for 25 years to the field of education through her roles as an education activist, professor, school administrator, literacy specialist, and classroom teacher. As an educator and author of the ISTE book, Teach Boldly: Using Edtech for Social Good, she champions teachers to use educational technology purposefully for the planet and its people​. She is a professor at Saint Leo University and the co-founder of TeachSDGs and the non-profit organization Take Action Global. Connect with Jennifer on Twitter at @JenWilliamsEdu and at

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