Comic Books and Creative Learners

“So, how much of this comic book twaddle should I allow?” With the explosion of an over-achiever mentality from our society seeping into our homes and actions, it’s no wonder homeschool parents feel pressured to question every aspect of their child’s learning choices. In addition, educational philosophies that espouse certain preferred methodology or resources as superior to others, such as Charlotte Mason’s reference to using “living books” versus allowing “twaddle,” can undermine the confidence parents may have in a child’s natural inclination toward certain materials.

Good information is a powerful remedy to these onslaughts of value judgments and conditioned reactions ingrained in each of us who were raised in and surrounded by mass institutions of learning. My children have allowed me the opportunity to unlearn some of those faulty learning values I picked up living in our culture and society. I wrote an article for Home Education Magazine as I first began to deschool myself through my oldest son, as he learned to write his way . . . an artist’s way. He has subsequently taught me about his way of reading, which, I’ve discovered, reflects thousands of others who learn in a right-brained, creative learner way.

What is this better information regarding the right-brained learning style? There are two universal gifts found in these learners: an extraordinary imagination and thinking in three-dimensional pictures. (Each creative person will also seek out the development of one or more creative gifts such as art/drawing, computers/video games, theater/showmanship, fashion/sewing, music/dance, building/Legos, math/numbers, puzzles/mazes, etc., but we won’t go into that area in this post.)

So many children begin with the ability to be imaginative, but you will notice a higher level with a creative learner. This can come through their imaginative play with toys or in extensive role-playing. This learner is more prone to imaginary friends and can often have difficulty differentiating between fantasy and reality in their early years.

But it is their three-dimensional pictorial thinking that is the base for developing certain subjects later. I asked one of my right-brained sons what he sees in his brain, and he replied, “It’s better than the best three-dimensional computer software available. It’s more like the holodex in Star Trek where you can place yourself in the setting, yet still view it from any angle. It’s as if you’re really there. It’s better than any movie.” Up until the ages of 8-10 years old, right-brained learners are amassing a library of pictorial images in their brain’s filing system. These are three dimensional images, able to be seen from all angles. Their brain is wired to send messages to their eyes to view everything from a three-dimensional vantage point.

Because of this focus, it is common and normal for the creative child to come to reading between the ages of eight and ten years old, when their brains naturally shift from primarily three-dimensional thinking to be able to take in two-dimensional and symbolic processing, which is what reading entails. Therefore, not only is the timeframe of learning to read different from society’s viewpoint, the process to acquire reading differs as well because they prefer a picture-based method such as a sight-word, context-driven resource. And, finally, once the initial reading skill is acquired, the creative learner is drawn to reading materials and resources that are less valued in our society, thus, bringing us back to comic books and other “twaddle.”

Right-brained, creative learners turn every symbol (words, numerals) into pictures. (This is why it is easier for the creative child to learn the word “encyclopedia” than the word “the.” It’s a more visual word.) When they read, they often skim across the top of words in order to “catch the visual” that is important to their comprehension and enjoyment of the reading process. (This is why it is easier for the creative person to read silently.) Therefore, the right-brained, creative learner is drawn to resources that assist and support them in their particular learning process.

Comic books serve several purposes for children with this learning style. The first is that the resource already supplies the pictures for this learner’s need to “catch the visual.” The reason this is important during their pre-fluency stage of reading is the need to understand what they are reading (in order to enjoy the process by comprehending what they are reading). When they’re not required to create the pictures themselves they can concentrate on interpreting the actual symbols involved in reading.

The second purpose a comic book resource provides is context in figuring out new words. This learning style prefers a “whole to part” method to learning (sight words) versus “part to whole” (phonics). A creative child will often use the existing pictures to guess or predict the words that will be used in the dialogue. We are conditioned to view this as “cheating” or “less than,” but in actuality, our right-brained children are using their best assets: learning by association and/or context.

It’s important for this learner to use engaging, creative and imaginative resources that will hold their interest by “turning on” the right side of their brain. As stated in Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner, by Linda Kreger Silver, “if the [creative], right hemisphere stops attending, no learning can take place.”

Let’s review the definitions Charlotte Mason gave for differentiating between what resources are productive, worthy and beneficial. Twaddle is considered dumbed-down literature, absent of meaning, and living books are books that are well-written and engaging, absorbing the reader with narrative and characters that come alive.

For our creative learners, comic books provide the visual component that brings the narrative and characters alive. Because the visual is of utmost importance for these learners, it helps absorb the reader into the world of reading as they decipher the semantics of the symbols. If a parent takes a moment to look at the vocabulary, the character development and the plot line of some of these resources (through both picture and word), they will find well-written and engaging material. The reason comic books are associated with twaddle stems from the predominant left-brained educational value system created by our schools. However, closer inspection shows that comic books clearly fall under the definition of a valuable and effective resource for the creative learner.

What I’ve noticed is that my creative learners moved off the highly visual material around eleven to twelve years old (after the pre-fluency stage at around nine to eleven years old). Does that mean they will discard these resources completely? No. They often continue to prefer the visual medium of comics and magazines, but they will have gained enough competence and confidence to begin reading non-visual material.

To assist my creative learners into the next stage of reading, I continued to read books with no visuals (or the same type of reading material as audio books). For instance, I would actually look for books to read aloud to my creative learner that would spark an interest in his desire to read them himself, once I knew he was at that stage where he would benefit.

So, I chose Redwall, knowing I would read the first book in the series and hook him. He wouldn’t want to wait for me to get to another in the series (we often took turns choosing books to read aloud), so he would go ahead and start reading it. Further, I had many books available to my children around the house when they were ready to take off in their own explorations of other reading materials. For instance, in his mid-teens (around 14-15) my first creative learner started picking up some of the books in our adult classics collection, starting with Huckleberry Finn, and then moving on to Moby Dick.

A guest on Oprah recently said, “Once you are defined by a label, you become confined by the label.” I really like that! That’s not to say that we can’t discover inspiration from various styles of homeschooling or parenting or education, but that what our children are drawn to should carry the most importance.

Just like the current (mis)interpretations and stereotypes involved in the word “twaddle” as outlined in Charlotte Mason’s ideals, each of our children are unique and won’t always fit into any philosophical mold we are drawn to ourselves. I feel strongly that the reason my children are able to flourish as they have is because I decided that whatever each child found valuable was given the credibility to become an important aspect of their learning environment.

This is why I share my story and each of my children’s journeys with everyone. My children have inspired me and shown that being child-led has great benefits!

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