by ALEXANDRA BOMPHRAY
During my time teaching first and second grade English language learners (ELLs), I was very frustrated that all of the written texts that they were able to successfully independently read were also texts that were written for much younger students. These texts tended to be simplistic pictures books with limited, if any, story line and were of little interest to my students. The written text provided students with a simpler, fragmented, and often awkward example of the English language. To make matters worse, these ‘baby’ books—as they were thought of by my students—carried with them the negative stigmatization of being for struggling readers. My ELLs needed books with exciting, age-appropriate storylines that were also accessible for their reading level. Unfortunately, I struggled to find texts meeting that criterion.
Three years ago I became familiar with graphic novels—a new, invigorating genre of children’s literature that provides ELLs with accessible texts that are rich in meaning. Graphic novels look like more advanced chapter books and their complex storylines match those found in higher quality children’s literature. They are an ideal solution for teachers looking for quality texts for their ELLs. Reading graphic novels has the potential to help ELLs avoid the negative stigmatization connected with traditional ELLs’ texts and provide an opening for them to experience the types of texts that lead to vigorous conversation and comprehension. The text in graphic novels also tends to be rich in authentic, interactional English thus helping to model to ELLs the appropriate use of English in a variety of social settings.
While quality graphic novels provide accessible and engaging texts for ELLs, few graphic novels are written specifically for ELLs living in inner cities. This is not unique to graphic novel genre—elementary teachers often struggle finding books in any genre that are personally relevant for students in their culturally diverse inner city schools. For this reason, I was ecstatic when I came across Sue Stauffacher’s Wireman series. Stauffacher created Wireman with the goal of creating a story—within a familiar urban setting—that would help inner city students ‘see’ themselves reflected within the literature. To achieve this objective, she had inner city teens assist her in developing the different storylines in order to ensure the authenticity of her writing. She also uses appealing, black and white images that help to create a gritty and mysterious tone to the novel.
The result of Stauffacher’s work is an engaging, complex story that is steeped in mystery and supported by well-developed and relatable characters. The multiple mysteries that are weaved together throughout the series help motivate students to read more. These mysteries also provide an excellent opportunity for students to practice important reading comprehension strategies such as making inferences, asking questions, and predicting. Each addition in the series leaves room for students to discuss with each other what is actually happening and how the different pieces of the mysteries might fit together.