More Powerful than a Locomotive: Using Graphic Novels to Motivate Struggling Male Adolescent Readers

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by Karen Gavigan


Although the popularity of graphic novels is growing by leaps and bounds, there is currently little empirical research documenting their use with struggling male adolescent readers. The purpose of this article is to present the results of a study that examined the ways in which four struggling eighth-grade male readers responded to graphic novels during a graphic novel book club. During the twelve book club sessions, the students read self-selected graphic novels and discussed them with their peers. Findings from the study support the use of graphic novels with struggling male adolescent readers. Results from the Adolescent Motivation to Read Profile (AMRP) revealed significant improvement in the students’ value of reading and moderate improvement in their self-concept as a reader. Furthermore, the participants’ responses to graphic novels indicated that reading graphic novels improved their reading engagement and had a positive effect on their reading motivation.

The gap in reading proficiency between males and females (favoring girls) has been well-documented through the years. In 2009, fifteen-year-old female students scored higher on average than male students on the combined reading literacy scale in sixty-five countries.1 Additional studies have revealed that the gap between male and female reading achievement increases over time. For example, in 2008, nine-year-old girls scored an average of seven points higher than boys on standardized reading tests while seventeen-year-old girls scored eleven points higher than boys.2 In addition, the average sophomore girl reads about as well as the average senior boy.3 By the time males enter high school, over half identify as non”readers.4 As Brozo states, “It is perhaps this long well”documented history of male underachievement that has helped contribute to an entrenched, popular perception, and indeed an expectation, that many boys simply will not become thoughtful, accomplished readers.”5

Since disengaged readers are at risk of becoming poor readers, we must learn how to provide male readers with texts that are meaningful to their literate lives. It is essential that they become competent readers in order to become successful at school and in the workplace. Now more than ever, there is a need for literacy practices that will engage struggling male adolescent readers. There is a growing belief among many literacy educators that graphic novels can be a valuable literacy format for engaging students in positive literary experiences.6 However, although the popularity of graphic novels is growing by leaps and bounds, there is little empirical research that documents their use with male adolescents in school and library settings. This article makes the case that graphic novels can be used in schools and libraries as an effective literary medium for improving the reading motivation of struggling male adolescent readers. An overview of the ways in which four struggling eighth-grade male readers responded to graphic novels is presented. In addition, implications for the use of graphic novels in schools and libraries are discussed and the recommendation is made for additional research to validate the use of graphic novels in school and library settings.

Graphic Novels and Struggling Male Adolescent Readers

Booth suggests that there are definite problems with the ways in which struggling male readers view themselves as literate beings.7 Struggling male adolescent readers are often reluctant to embrace school literacies due to a history of failed attempts. They may simply withdraw from reading activities in the hope that they will be less likely to be labeled as poor readers. As Tatum writes about struggling African American adolescent male readers, “Having insufficient skills and strategies to comprehend texts embarrasses the hell out of students.”8 Many educators and theorists believe that when male readers select engaging reading materials, such as graphic novels, it can help them find their reading voices by choosing to read rather than choosing not to read at all.9 For example, Thompson writes that graphic novels are skewed towards boys’ interests and naturally grab the attention of many male readers.10 Furthermore, in a longitudinal study of male reading habits, Smith and Wilhelm found that graphic novels were one of the few types of texts that actively engaged male readers.11

Graphic novels reflect the impact of an increasingly visual culture on today’s youth. The non-threatening visual format of graphic novels often appeals to males and can foster an enthusiasm towards books and reading. The illustrations in graphic novels blend with the text, which often attracts struggling male adolescent readers who are intimidated by text alone. As McVicker found, visual literacy can open the door to reading for the challenged student because they help the reader comprehend the text, even when print alone fails.12 Specifically, graphic novels help struggling readers make meaning from the text by examining the details in the illustrations and inferring what the artist intended.13

One reason many teachers use graphic novels in the classroom is to steer students toward more prose”oriented texts such as the classics.14 The engaging illustrations and lower reading levels attract reluctant readers and are a means of exposing them to visual adaptations of the literary canon. Furthermore, reading the graphic novel counterpart of a title may inspire a reader to move on to the original version. Samuel Johnson once wrote, “[Y]ou have done a great deal when you have brought a boy to have entertainment from a book. He’ll get better books afterwards.”15 More recently, Brenner, author of Understanding Manga and Anime, stated, “Even if a guy is a natural reader, as guys pass into their teen years, reading becomes a far less ‘cool’ thing to be doing. Comics (graphic novels), represent a widespread and still ‘cool’ way to read that will keep the spark of enjoying reading alive. When they’re ready, they’ll remember that reading can be fun, and will gradually branch out into other formats from traditional prose to poetry.”16

Participating in a Graphic Novel Book Club

In order to examine the ways in which struggling male adolescent readers respond to graphic novels, I implemented a graphic novel book club at a middle school in central North Carolina. The participants in this study were four eighth-grade male students from Western Middle School (the school’s name and the names of participants in this article are pseudonyms). The school serves grades six through eight with a student population of 859. Western Middle School used the Accelerated Reader program as part of their language arts curriculum for eight years before moving to a Sustained Silent Reading Program (SSR) in 2007. The participants were members of an eighth-grade language arts class that meets during the school’s designated Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) time. One of the criteria for the study was that each of the participants was a Level One reader, defined by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction as one who “does not have sufficient mastery of knowledge and skills in this subject area to be successful in the next grade level.”17 Two of the participants were Caucasians and two were African Americans.

The study took place from September through December of 2009, during twelve graphic novel book club sessions. Throughout the study, the students read graphic novels of their choice from a collection of over ninety titles that I brought to the school. They had access to this collection throughout the semester. They were also able to access a large graphic novel collection available in their school library. Twenty minutes of silent reading time were included in each book club session followed by ten minutes of discussion. The discussion was focused on what the students read during that session rather than waiting until they completed their graphic novel. I facilitated the discussions using probe-based interview questions to help maintain the focus of the discussion during the sessions.

Data Collection

Data for this study were collected through the following means:

  • Adolescent Motivation to Read Profile (AMRP)
  • Observations
  • Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) logs
  • Teacher interviews

A description of each is provided below.

Adolescent Motivation to Read Profile

The Adolescent Motivation to Read Profile (AMRP) is an instrument that provided information about the participants’ reading motivation by assessing adolescents’ responses to graphic novels. Specifically, the AMRP elicited information about the value students placed on reading activities and their self-perceived competence in reading. The instrument was designed in 2006 by a team of eleven researchers to be used with adolescents at eight sites in the United States and Trinidad18 and is based on the original Motivation to Read Profile (MRP) designed to assess the reading motivation of elementary students.19 The AMRP includes two instruments: the reading survey and the conversational interview. The reading survey is a self-reporting instrument administered to a group, and the conversational interview is administered on an individual basis. The reading survey has twenty items based on a four-point Likert scale. The Self-Concept scale and Value of Reading scale each have ten items, with a possible total score of forty. The Self-Concept and Value of Reading scales were combined to give the total score. Examples of questions from the AMRP reading survey follow:

  • Reading a book is something I like to do
    • Never
    • Not very often
    • Sometimes
    • Often
  • I am
    • A poor reader
    • An OK reader
    • A good reader
    • A very good reader
  • When someone gives me a book for a present, I feel
    • Very happy
    • Sort of happy
    • Sort of unhappy
    • Unhappy

As suggested by the authors of the AMRP, I modified and adapted the conversational interview questions to better meet the needs of this study.’  I added the following questions that specifically pertained to graphic novels:

  • Have you ever read a graphic novel?
  • If so, how do graphic novels compare to other materials you have read?
  • Do you feel that you are a good reader when you read graphic novels?
  • Do you feel more confident reading aloud when you read graphic novels?
  • What do you think about using graphic novels in schools?
  • Is there anything else you want to tell me about your experiences reading graphic novels?


I observed the participants during their time spent in twelve graphic novel book club sessions. I took detailed notes during each session and I tape-recorded the participants’ comments and responses to questions. Throughout the study, the participants selected their books quickly and sat down to read when they arrived for their sessions. They appeared to be engaged with the titles they read for the twenty-minute reading periods. With almost every graphic novel they selected, the students methodically read their books sentence by sentence and picture by picture. I rarely had to discipline them in the sessions because they were so absorbed in studying the pictures and reading the text. Although I allowed them to select another book if they realized that the one they selected didn’t interest them, they seldom returned a title before they had completed it.

Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) Logs

Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) logs were used by the eighth grade language arts teacher to determine what books her students read throughout the semester. The literature logs also elicited their responses to the books. The SSR reading logs allowed me to examine the reactions of the participants to the graphic novels they were reading, both in and outside the context of the graphic novel book club. In addition to listing the book’s title, author, and genre, the students were asked to provide a rating for their book from one to five stars, and to indicate whether they would recommend the book to a classmate. Unfortunately, three of the participants did a poor job of including their ratings and recommendations, and Jim’s reading log was the only one that was complete. The ratings that he gave for the graphic novels he listed ranged from three to five stars. Furthermore, he recommended all but one of the graphic novels he read to his classmates.

Teacher Interviews

I interviewed the language arts teacher three times throughout the study. These conversational interviews enabled me to learn about the students’ literacy behaviors in the context of their classroom and school library when I was not in these settings. The following questions were asked during each of the teacher interviews:

  • What types of behavior have you observed with the participants in their responses to graphic novels
    • In your classroom?
    • In the media center?
    • In the book club sessions with their classmates?
  • Do the participants discuss graphic novels, and if so, what do they say
    • With their classmates?
    • With you?
    • With the media specialists or other teachers?
    • In the book club sessions with their classmates?
  • Do the participants talk about the visuals in graphic novels? If so, what do they say?
  • Have you observed any changes in the reading self-concept of the participants since they began participating in the graphic novel book club? If so, please describe the changes you have observed.
  • Have you observed any changes in the ways the participants value reading since they began participating in the graphic novel book club? If so, please describe the changes you have observed.
  • Do you have any other comments regarding graphic novels and the ways in which the participants respond to them?

A Promising Format for Reading Motivation and Comprehension

In terms of this study, reading graphic novels improved the participants’ reading engagement and had a positive effect on their reading motivation. Furthermore, the use of graphic novels helped to aid the participants’ knowledge of vocabulary and facilitated their reading comprehension.’  The results of the study follow:

Findings from the AMRP Scores

Value of Reading Scores

The scores from the AMRP survey instruments demonstrated that all four of the participants experienced an increase in their value of reading after the graphic novel book club intervention. The pre- and post-raw scores are provided in Table 1 below.

Table 1: Value of Reading Scores

The average increase in the Value of Reading raw scores was 4.25 for the four participants, an average increase of 10.25 percent. Even with the small sample size, the increase was significant, as shown by a paired t-test (t=6.76, df=3, p=.003). The fact that all of the participants’ Value of Reading scores increased over the course of the study suggests that they developed a greater appreciation for reading than they had before the graphic novel book club intervention. Furthermore, the participants read a total of sixty-three graphic novels during the two-month study. Frank read seventeen titles, Matthew read fifteen titles, Bob read ten titles, and Jim read twenty-one titles. Given that the participants were struggling adolescent readers, this would be considered by many to be a large number of titles read over a short amount of time.

Self-Concept as a Reader Scores

As indicated in the table below, Frank and Matthew had increases of two points in their raw scores for Self-Concept as a Reader. However, the raw scores of Bob and Jim remained the same.

Table 2: Self Concept as a Reader Score

The fact that the increases for the participants’ Self-Concept as a Reader scores were not significant is consistent with a previous study’s finding that boys tend to think they are bad readers.20 Furthermore, Pajares and Valiante conducted a study that demonstrated a decline in academic self-efficacy when students progressed from elementary to high school.21 Given that the research shows evidence of lower academic self-efficacy among secondary students, it is not surprising that only two of the participants in this study had two point increases while the Self-Concept of the Reader scores for the other two participants exhibited no growth. Although the Self-Concept as a Reader scores were mixed, there were indications from the conversations and interviews that pointed to signs of moderate improvement in the participants’ reading efficacy.

Findings from Student and Teacher Observations and Interviews

Value of the Visuals in Graphic Novels

It was apparent from the students’ comments that both their comprehension and motivation to read were enhanced by the illustrations in the graphic novels they read. The combination of pictures and text in graphic novels served as a scaffold that facilitated their reading comprehension and motivation. As Bob stated, “I just like having pictures and I like the captions. I don’t like reading paragraphs.” In addition, Jim described why he believed he was an effective reader when he read graphic novels: “Because I can understand mostly what’s happening right away…If you don’t understand something, maybe the picture can help you out a little.” Similarly, Frank stated, “When I see the pictures, it tells you a lot more of what’s happening and like when there are words that you don’t know, you just look at the pictures and it tells you what they’re doing.” Frank also believed that reading graphic novels improved his vocabulary development. He stated that he was a better reader after reading graphic novels “…because I can understand it more. Vocabulary discussion makes you a better reader.” The combination of sequential art and text seemed to help the participants make meaning of vocabulary and content that they may not have been able to comprehend in text-only literature.

Value of Graphic Novels in the Book Club Sessions

The students’ responses show that they also valued their time in the book club sessions. They found the discussions to be meaningful, and they appreciated the time away from the larger class setting. For example, after the sixth session, Frank asked if we could begin meeting twice a week. He commented that he enjoyed the sessions and could “read better” than when they were in their classroom for SSR time. The other boys echoed his comments and they voted to change our schedule so that we could meet semiweekly instead of weekly.’  In addition, the language arts teacher reported that the boys “really look forward to participating in the sessions” and asked her repeatedly, “When is that lady coming back?” The boys’ enthusiasm about participating in the socially-situated book club discussions suggests the importance of a reading community for adolescent readers. This builds on a recent Canadian study of teen readers, which showed that the participants exhibited positive attitudes toward the act of reading for pleasure in a social context.22

Value of Graphic Novels in the Classroom and Library

The language arts teacher commented that the participants were “eager to get their books” when they came into language arts class for SSR time. She added, “They pull the graphic novel cart out as soon as class starts.” She also reported that they sought out the graphic novel collection during their visits to the school library. Frank was frequently seen looking at the graphic novels on the graphic novel carousel in the school library when their class went to check out books. The teacher also observed Frank asking the school librarian to help him locate a particular graphic novel. Finally, during the fifth book club session, I asked Bob if he would be interested in checking out graphic novels in the school library and he answered, “Yes, there are so many good ones.”

Even though two of the participants did not show an increase in their AMRP Self-Concept as a Reader scores, their comments reflected their beliefs that their experiences with graphic novels helped to improve their reading. For example, when asked, “Do you feel that you are a good reader when you read graphic novels?” all of the participants responded “Yes!” Frank stated, “I felt like I was a better reader than I would [be] reading a regular book…because I can understand it more.” Their comments suggest that the unique and engaging format of the graphic novels provided meaningful and active reading experiences for the boys. Jim described his reading experiences with graphic novels in the following way, “…they’re more funner [sic] to read than a regular book…they’re easier to read. It’s like it’s shorter, but it’s kind of more information in a way.”

The participants’ conversations with their peers in the book club sessions seemed to pique their interest in reading additional titles and discussing what they read with others. Gambrell asserts that students are more motivated to read when they have opportunities to discuss what they read with others.23 The language arts teacher commented that the participants frequently recommended graphic novels they had read to their classmates. She also reported that the boys took pride in being selected as research participants. Their involvement in the book club sessions helped them begin to identify themselves as readers. Furthermore, the ability to display their comprehension of the graphic novels and to communicate their feelings about them gave the participants more responsibility and authority in the classroom. It helped them experience the unique role of being knowledge-providers, which positively affected their reading self-concept.

Value of Graphic Novels across the Curriculum

The sequential art in graphic novels often engages readers more effectively than the expository information found in textbooks and other curriculum-based materials. For example, Jim enjoyed reading several graphic novels based on historical events, such as the Trojan Horse: The Fall of Troy,24 The Battle of the Alamo,25 and The Red Badge of Courage.26 When describing The Red Badge of Courage, he commented, “It showed a lot of the details. It showed like where they are and all the people who were there. I liked it.” He also made the following comment after reading some nonfiction graphic novels: “…if it’s fun to read, I can focus more on it, and I won’t stop reading the book. If it is too hard, I won’t really like it, and I might give up on it.” In addition, when Jim was asked if he would tell his science teacher or history teacher about the graphic novels he read, he replied, “Yes. They would be good for information.”

When asked, “What do you think about using graphic novels in schools?” all four of the participants’ responses were positive. Matthew, for example, said he thought that it would be “good…so that people can understand more about books.” All of the students remarked that graphic novels were “fun” and more readable than traditional texts that they were required to read in school. Frank commented, “They’re cool books and I like to read them. Probably other kids would like to read them, too.” As these and other comments from the participants imply, struggling male adolescent readers may become more willing to engage in reading across the curriculum when teachers and librarians allow them to utilize nontraditional texts, such as graphic novels, that adolescents are motivated to read.

Furthermore, the participants read across a variety of genres, including nonfiction, biographies, mythology, and fantasy. As evidenced by the variety of titles the participants read, the large assortment of storylines and information met their diverse reading needs. Jim, for example, was drawn to classic adaptations, while Matthew enjoyed reading manga titles and books about superheroes. Bob enjoyed the NBA All-Star biographies and high-action titles, and Frank enjoyed reading series titles such as Little Lit and Graphic Dinosaurs.

Value of Graphic Novels as a Bridge to Other Literary Experiences

Graphic novels often served as entry points or bridges to other literacy experiences for the participants in this study. Frank, for example, enjoyed reading the graphic novel version of The Jungle Book and went into great detail when describing the plot.27 Frank and I discussed the fact that Rudyard Kipling wrote the original version of The Jungle Book. Although I do not know if Frank will ever read the original title, he may never have been exposed to Kipling’s classic if he had not read the graphic novel version.

Jim also frequently chose to read graphic novel adaptations of classics, selecting more graphic novel renditions of classics than any of the other book club participants. Some of the classic adaptations that he read included The Invisible Man,28 The Red Badge of Courage,29 The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,30 The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,31 and The War of the Worlds.32 Each time he read a graphic novel adaptation of these titles, I asked Jim if he would be interested in reading the original versions and he responded that he would. An additional literary connection was made when Jim indicated that he would like to read another biography about Bob Marley after reading the graphic novel biography of the famous reggae singer.

Another bridge to literary experiences occurred with Bob. When the study began, the language arts teacher referred to Bob as a “non-reader.” He read on a third-grade reading level, the lowest level of the four participants. After the study ended, the teacher informed me that Bob voluntarily signed up to participate in another book club. It was her belief that reading and discussing graphic novels fostered Bob’s literary learning and stimulated his interest in pursuing other reading activities.

Graphic Novels in Schools and Libraries

The findings from this study have promising implications for fostering the reading motivation of struggling male readers in today’s libraries and classrooms. Using more meaningful literacy resources can engage struggling readers and help them to become motivated and active readers. As stated by the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), “The degree to which students can read and understand text in all formats and all contexts is a key indicator of success in school and in life.”33 However, if teachers and librarians are expected to use popular media materials, such as graphic novels, they should be provided with effective, ongoing professional development opportunities such as workshops, required readings, and discussion groups to develop expertise in using graphic novels in schools and libraries. Furthermore, administrators should provide additional and sustained funding for school and public libraries in order for students, teachers, and public library patrons to have access to quality graphic novel collections. Finally, despite the fact that many literacy theorists support the use of graphic novels with adolescent readers, there is a need for additional scientifically-based research to support their use in schools and libraries.


Addressing the reading needs of male adolescents may be one of teachers’ and librarians’ toughest challenges. The quest to improve the literacy lives of male adolescents must include an examination of the texts that these young men value. Librarians and teachers can play a significant role in engaging adolescent readers by identifying and honoring the texts that male adolescents want to read in order to help them value reading and expand their views of themselves as readers.34 The findings from this study are an important step in determining whether or not graphic novels are a promising literary format for male adolescents, especially those who struggle with reading. The responses of the students who participated in the graphic novel book club can help teachers and librarians determine whether or not graphic novels are a potential tool for a better literary world for male adolescents.

As Guthrie notes, it is essential that we identify effective literary strategies for engaging adolescents who struggle with reading, since increasing the reading motivation of students has been shown to have a positive effect on reading achievement.35 Because of their potential for connecting boys to books, there is a need for studies to determine curriculum-based best practices for using graphic novels to motivate adolescent males to read. If advances in research regarding graphic novels bring positive changes in the literacy lives of male adolescents, the results could be “more powerful than a locomotive.”36


  1. Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Reading Literacy Performanceof 15-Year-Olds (2009). (accessed April 3, 2011).
  2. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Fast Facts (2008). (accessed April 3, 2011).
  3. W. G. Brozo, To Be a Boy, To Be a Reader: Engaging Teen and Preteen Boys in ActiveLiteracy, 2nd ed. (Newark: DE: International Reading Association, 2010),x.
  4. M. W. Smith & J. D. Wilhelm, “Reading don’t fix no Chevy’s”: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2002).
  5. Brozo, To Be a Boy, To Be a Reader, 306.
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  8. A. W. Tatum, Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males: Closing the Achievement Gap (Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2005), 31.
  9. Brozo, To Be a Boy; G. Ivey & D. Fisher, Creating Literacy-Rich Schools For Adolescents (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2006); Krashen, The Power of Reading; Smith & Wilhelm, “Reading don’t fix no Chevy’s.”
  10. T. Thompson, Adventures In Graphica: Using Comics and Graphic Novels to Teach Comprehension, 2—6 (Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2008).
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  20. Smith & Wilhelm, “Reading don’t fix no Chevy’s.”
  21. F. Pajares & G. Valiante, “Students’ self-efficacy in their self-regulated learning strategies: A developmental perspective,” Psychologia 45 (2003): 211- 221.
  22. V. Howard, “Peer influences on young teen readers: An emerging taxonomy,”Young Adult Library Services (2010): 34-41.
  23. Gambrell, et al., “Assessing motivation to read,” 518-533.
  24. J. Fontes & R. Fontes, The Trojan Horse: The Fall of Troy: AGreek Myth (Minneapolis, MN: Graphic Universe, 2007).
  25. M. Doeden, Battle of the Alamo (Mankato, MN: Capstone Press, 2005).
  26. S. Crane & W. Vansant, The Red Badge of Courage (New York: Puffin Graphics, 2005).
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  28. R. Geary & H. G. Wells, The Invisible Man (New York: Papercutz, 2008).
  29. Crane & Vansant, The Red Badge of Courage.
  30. R. L. Stevenson & D. Perez, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Mankato, MN: Stone Arch Books, 2008).
  31. W. Irving & R. Todd, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Mankato, MN: Stone Arch Books, 2008).
  32. H. G. Wells & O. Ruiz, The War of The Worlds (Mankato, MN: Stone Arch Books, 2008).
  33. American Association of School Librarians, Standards for the 21st-Century Learner (Chicago, IL: American Library Association, 2008).
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  35. J. T. Guthrie, Engaging Adolescents In Reading (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2008).
  36. Ross May, The Super Guide to the Fleischer Superman Cartoons, (accessed August 7, 2007).

About the Author

Karen Gavigan is an Assistant Professor in the School of Library and Information Science at the University of South Carolina.’  Her research interests include the use of graphic novels in schools, as well as school library access issues.’ ‘  Dr. Gavigan and Mindy Tomasevich are co-authors of the book, Connecting Comics to Curriculum: Strategies for Grades 6-12 (Libraries Unlimited, 2011).


About Anna Lam

Anna Lam is a Communications Specialist for the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA).
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