Comics: The Answer to The UK’s Literacy Crisis?

We’re used to Spider-Man saving the world from the Green Goblin and a multiverse of masked miscreants. But new research by Comic Art Europe, and a separate research project by the National Literacy Trust, suggests that he could have the super-powers to do something even more valuable – something our government has signally failed to do: turn us into a nation of readers again.

That's the view, at least, of Lakes International Comic Art Festival chair Peter Kessler MBE, in an article for the latest issue of Books for Keeps magazine.

"A unique project has been unfolding in a primary school in North Manchester," he notes, discussing the Comics and Literacy Project the Festival worked on as a partner of Comic Art Europe, launched in 2021, supported by The Phoenix comic, its full, interim report here on the Festival web site. "Abraham Moss is a typical, hard-working community school in an underprivileged area. Most of its students are from ethnic minority backgrounds, and it has a higher-than-average number in receipt of the Pupil Premium subsidy given to disadvantaged students. The school has spent two academic years participating in a Europe-wide research project entitled Comics and Literacy. The aim of the project: to analyse and quantify the impact of exposure to comics on young people.

"The results are jaw-dropping.

"Jaw-dropping but, for me at least, not surprising.

"I used to work as an English teacher," Peter continues, "and I saw first-hand how transformative comics can be for children disengaged from the written word. In my school the first five minutes of every English lesson were spent in silent reading. Everyone was expected to have a book. But of course there were some who never brought one along. For these defiant souls I kept a stash of graphic novels in Mr Kessler’s Cupboard. They ranged from the wordless (Shaun Tan’s The Arrival) to full Shakespeare adaptations (Ian Pollock’s King Lear). I witnessed young teenagers change from staring dumbly into the middle distance to shyly requesting the same book they had last time. I even witnessed pupils with learning difficulties increasing and improving their powers of description by adding speech-bubbles to comic-book pictures.

"But this was all anecdotal, individual. The Comics and Literacy programme is different. It’s the first time a professional academic study has been conducted into the impact of comics on literacy."

You can read Peter's article in full, here on the Books For Keeps web site

Launched in 1980, Books For Keeps has reviewed hundreds of new children’s books each year and published articles on every aspect of writing for children. There are over 12,500 reviews on the magazine's website and more than 2000 articles including interviews with the top children’s authors and illustrators.

National Literacy Trust reports on "Children and young people's engagement with comics"

The findings of Comic Art Europe are complemented by a new report from the National Literacy Trust, available to download here, noting two in five (40.7%) children between the age of 8 to 18 read comics or graphic novels in their free time at least once a month. The data, gathered as part of the organisation's Annual Literacy Survey, highlights the potential for comics to improve comprehension and understanding in learners.

This report draws on data collected in early 2023 from 64,066 children and young people aged 8 to 18 from across the UK to explore the attitudes and beliefs of comic readers.

The National Literacy Trust is an independent charity that empowers children, young people, and adults with the literacy skills they need to succeed.

Key Findings

  • Comics were a popular format of reading for children and young people: 2 in 5 (40.3%) children and young people aged 8 to 18 told us they read comics or graphic novels on paper, screen, or both at least once a month.
  • More boys than girls read comics in their free time at least once a month (44.6% vs 34.8%).
  • The percentage of those who read comics decreased with age: 49.7% of 8-to-11-year-olds, 40.5% of those aged 11 to 14, 31.4% of those aged 14 to 16 and 32.1% of those aged 16 to 18 read comics at least once a month.
  • Children and young people who read comics were more engaged with reading, regardless of their age:
  • Nearly twice as many children and young people who read comics in their free time told us that they enjoy reading compared with those who didn’t read comics in their free time (58.6% vs. 33.1%).
  • More of those who read comics rated themselves as ‘very good’ or ‘good’ readers compared with those who didn’t read comics (86.0% vs 76.3%).
  • More of those who read comics told us that they read something daily in their free time compared with peers who did not read comics (35.7% vs. 22.8%).
  • Readers of comics were motivated to read for a diverse range of reasons:
  • Children and young people told us that they read comics because they were accessible and engaging, supported their wellbeing, and provided opportunities to learn about different cultures.

"These findings highlight the importance of children and young people having access to a diverse range of reading materials, including comics," notes the National Literacy Trust. "By advocating for comics as a fun and legitimate reading format, we can continue to inspire a future generation of readers and creators."

Read the UK Interim Report on the Comic Art Europe, Comics and Literacy Project here - PDF on the Lakes International Comic Art Festival web site

Download the National Literacy Trust's "Ch