Letterers: Jill Gerber on the Unsung Heroes of Comics in the Classroom

When it comes to using comics in the classroom, letterers are truly the unsung heroes of the medium, according to educator Jill Gerber. In our earlier Comics Academe interview focusing on how the use of comics has evolved as a literary teaching tool, Gerber, an award-winning educator and consultant, explains that lettering is one of the most important criteria she uses when selecting texts for the classroom. “If I am working with ESL or younger students, I look for clean lettering, with more white space that makes reading easier and identification of letterforms simple. Does the creator take advantage of the benefits of different dialogue balloons and emanata?”

Focusing on lettering, I asked Gerber some more questions about the use of comics as a literary teaching tool in the classroom.

Do terms like “emanata” come up in your instruction to help the students identify their usage? How do these particular elements benefit students?

I explicitly teach these terms, as well as other terms specific to the medium. It is important for students to learn the language of the medium to move class discussions from superficial thinking to critical thinking with supporting references. When we teach students the terminology and strategies for analyzing visual language in relationship to the text, we honor the depth and complexity of the medium. When reading comics, you cannot separate the text from the visual. Giving students the vocabulary and strategies empowers students make inferences, to analyze, to synthesize, to understand, and to think deeply about the information or story elements. The amount of terms taught is determined by the grade level of the readers and the complexity of the text. I will often create book marks with the terms, definitions, and visual examples to help students learn the terms.

Anecdotally, I found visual elements of comics benefited ESL students and students on the autism spectrum or with pragmatic language deficits. By maximizing the effects of dialogue and thought balloons, emanata, sounds effects, and facial expressions, comics creators help students learn to read social cues and emotions where traditional prose texts require inference and vocabulary knowledge, skills these students may find more challenging. For example, I taught an eighth grade Chinese exchange student who not only improved her English language skills but learned about social norms of American middle school through Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels without the potential catastrophic impact of making social mistakes on a grander scale at school.

In your previous responses, you identified clean lettering and use of white space as helpful to working with ESL and younger students. Do you utilize manga in your instructional work and resources? Do you find differences or similarities in structure based on these criteria and concepts?

Manga titles are always available in my classroom library for students. Instructionally, I incorporated Manga Classics and Gareth Hind’s graphic adaptations to teach Shakespearean plays. In class, students compared the graphic adaptations with the original text and analyzed the impact of the creators’ choices for the adaptations on the readers.

Yet the way in which foreign texts address lettering and the use of word bubbles when translating and localizing those works for an American audience, often presents the greatest challenges for using those texts in the classroom. Many comics brought over from Europe are originally published in a larger format—the pages are bigger—than most books in the U.S. market. Too often, publishers shrink the larger European format without sufficient regard for the readability of the English language text and the impact that has on a diverse community of readers, such as might be found in a typical classroom with a wide range of developing reader skills. Sometimes the text demands do not provide letterers enough space to ensure readability for all readers.

Another source of frustration, as a teacher, is when editors do not require translators to translate text that is worked into the art itself or have changes made to that art so that it would reflect a local, English language experience. This is a particular problem with books that are targeted to K-8 audience. Advanced readers can infer what the text means in relationship to the plot or characterization. Emerging and intermediate readers do not necessarily have those skills and miss out on key information relevant to the story or character development. Regardless, shifting between two languages for readers who are building their language arts skills disrupts the reading experience when they are forced to stop and decode the foreign language. This might include sounds represented as words—instances in which we try to teach about onomatopoeia—but where the original language in which the art has been created uses different vocalizations for the same letters.

This is especially important when text incorporated into the art creates a shift in perspective. For instance, when the reader stands in the shoes of the character to read a handwritten note, interpret a street sign, or perhaps decipher a clue incorporated in storefront or among a collection of items on a shelf. A comic creator might choose to have a character describe or read the text in dialogue or might choose to depict the text in the art that the reader experiences first hand. These are conscious decisions made by the creators that might be important and those decisions are compromised by footnotes or undermined when the text is not translated at all.

When it comes to accessibility, lettering plays an important role, though there are some areas where it falls short, particularly when it comes to supporting readers who struggle with dyslexia and other visual impairments. Are there particular fonts or types of fonts that you find more accessible for your students?

Students with reading challenges who fall under the umbrella term of Dyslexia have a tendency to read by shape, which is why sans serif typefaces are better than serif ones. When looking at shapes, it is important that the stems of letters like “h” are long enough for a dyslexic student to distinguish it from an “n.” In my classroom, I tend to lean towards use of Myriad Pro to keep written communication consistent for all and to train students to use a typeface that is also readily acceptable in academic realms.

Visit Perspective GAZE to find more of Gerber’s thoughts and resources on comics in education.

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Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.