Comics are an accessible and engaging way of learning, and not just for students with dyslexia, argues Kai Holmström.
Comic books have long been a source of entertainment and engagement, especially for children and young people. From the cultural boom of comics in the late 1930s to our current era, the impact of comics on generations of readers and creators continues to shape our world.
While the cultural prevalence of comics is widely noted, the medium’s educational benefits are not often discussed—especially for pupils with special educational needs. Dekko Comics grew from founder Rossie Stone’s own struggles at school. Following a dyslexia diagnosis in his early teens, he felt like a weight had been lifted and additional support was put in place. No matter how hard Rossie worked, however, his results remained the same.
Though Rossie’s experiences at school affected his confidence and self-esteem, he found comfort in two of his great passions, comics and creativity. While traditional texts had always proven difficult for him to process, Rossie devoured and created comics from an early age, with DC Thomson’s Beano—with its fun cast of characters and humour—being a particular favourite.
They aided his processing difficulties through their format. He found the information easy to follow, as narratives were presented visually and in sequence, with characters communicating through speech and thought bubbles; features which can benefit many SEN learners like him.
While comics are entertaining, we can also learn a lot from their economical use of language. Comics draw attention to the important relationship between textual and visual information, as readers make the connection from one panel (a singular framed story segment) to the next, through inference and can benefit critical thinking.
At 17, having struggled at school for many years and failing to improve his exam results, Rossie decided he was at least going to enjoy his revision. So he created a comic. He turned his Modern Studies revision notes into an entertaining comic featuring two characters, Basil and Ernie, who debated wealth inequalities. He found he enjoyed the creative process and the comic was fun to read and re-read. The revision comic resulted in his first ever grade A in an exam and he realised that his struggles were not determined by his inability to succeed or because he was not smart enough; it was simply due to the way the information was presented to him. He had turned information into a form of entertainment using characters, humour, a story and visuals; creating a form of learning which was engaging and accessible.
I conducted research into the value of comics in education, and I was surprised at the number of responses from neurodivergent participants. Many commented on the important role that comics played in their reading. As one participant remarked, ‘I started reading comics as a way to curb my dyslexia and I am confident that reading comics has helped me develop my vocabulary and reading comprehension’. Like Rossie, many neurodivergent readers seem to connect with comics in ways that traditional texts would not allow.
While comics can encourage language development and reading for pleasure, they can also provide a more direct educational benefit. In 2019, Patrick L. Smith et al examined how comics might aid the teaching of complex subjects like STEM to 11 year olds with dyslexia. The study found that the format of comics showed ‘promise as a pedagogically based starting point for teaching difficult material to children with or without learning disabilities, such as dyslexia’. What is interesting to note is that while comics were shown to benefit learners with dyslexia, they also aided the control group—highlighting the broad value of more accessible learning materials.
Through educational comics for the school curriculum (KS2, 9 to 12 years) and mental health, as well as workshops that teach the Dekko Technique, We realise comics will not work for all learners. Yet our own experience has shown that comics can have a significant and positive impact in the classroom and beyond, especially for SEN learners. It is why we have collaborated on educational materials with organisations such as Dyslexia Scotland, HarperCollins and the ADHD Foundation as well as several universities.
Learning can be challenging for neurodivergent pupils. It is not due to a lack of determination or ability, but simply because traditional materials are often ill-suited to their needs and comics can enable learners to turn their own passions and interests into a creative learning tool. Just as Rossie did.
Kai Holmström is Head of Communications at Dekko Comics.