STEM Tuesday — Getting Your Comic-on with Great Science Graphic Novels– In the Classroom

Visual Literacy with Graphic Nonfiction!

Graphic nonfiction is a great way to work on visual literacy strategies. This week I’ll introduce four questions/ teaching moves that I use to work on visual literacy with students. I’ll give examples from this month’s book list, but you can repurpose these for use with other graphic nonfiction, illustrations, or diagrams from any science text.


1) Provide a diagram or illustration with the text removed. Ask students to work with a partner to talk through the answers to these questions: (a) Describe what you see. Don’t worry if you don’t know the name of any item in the picture—just describe it as you see it. (b) Make a prediction. What do you think the illustrator is trying to show here? (or—what do you think [xxxx] is?)

Consider this cell from the bottom of page 46 in Science Comics: Bats.


What do you see in this image?

Make a prediction: what do you think the shapes might represent?

After students have studied the image and made predictions, show them a version with the text. They will be engaged and eager to see if their predictions were correct.

2) Take this a step further and ask students to fill in the blanks themselves with possible text. For example, if your class has already studied meiosis, you might use this image from page 17 of Science Comics: Dogs and let them fill in what the dog might be saying.

Then show the author’s version. Who’s do they like best?













3) Talk about the role of arrows or other diagram features. I worked with a group of high schoolers studying a mitosis diagram many years ago. When I asked about what they saw, they were describing the image as if it were showing 6 different cells—they missed the role of the arrows indicating that the first cell turned into the cell in each image that followed.

Here’s an example, from page 43 of Older than Dirt.

Ask: Arrows in diagrams can have different meanings. They can–

a) point to something important you should notice

b) give the name of an object in the picture

c) show that one thing turns into something else

d) show that something is moving.

What is the role of the arrows in this diagram?

4) Help them see the value of imagery. Often, some information is found in the text while the images add extra information or make the text more clear. Students who don’t study images miss that extra information. So another pair of questions I like to ask are: What information do you get from the words that is not in the images? What do you see in the images that is not in the words?

This series of frames from page 21 of Secret Coders is a good example of text and images with different information. In this scene, the boy Eni is explaining to Hopper how binary code can show numbers. (Which could be especially useful since digital coding—e.g., binary—is now a piece of the Next Generation Science Standards for middle school.)















Try these techniques with any of the graphic nonfiction texts from this month’s list, or any other image-heavy text you choose. Once you have used an image in class, make sure the book is available. Students will want to read the entire book!

Jodi Wheeler-Toppen is a former science teacher and the author of the Once Upon A Science Book series (NSTA Press) on integrating science and reading instruction.  She also writes for children, with her most recent book being Dog Science Unleashed: Fun Activities to do with Your Canine Companion. She can’t draw, so she’s extra impressed with the writers for this month’s books.

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