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5 ESL Activities to Teach English with Comic Strips

Why teach English with comic strips? ESL teachers can find free comics on newspapers and online. Comics are a simple and very interesting authentic material that many ESL teachers often overlook. Comics can be exploited in similar ways to regular text and they have the added element of fun and humour to attract the students’ attention. Different comics can be used for the following activities:

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1- Presenting or Reinforcing Grammar Points with Comics

Students are used to grammar being a ‘boring’ topic in English class and they often dread learning new grammar points or practicing what they have already learned. A great way to surprise them in a favorable way is to use a comic strip to do this.

When presenting a new grammar point, you must make sure that the use is very clear through the context of the comic strip. Avoid using a comic strip that has the new grammar point as part of the punchline, since comprehension of the grammar point is tied to understanding the punchline and it could become too difficult for the students.

On the other hand, if the grammar point or structure is in fact part of the punchline or even is the key part of the punchline, the comic strip becomes a perfect tool to practice this particular grammar point once your students have already understood it completely.

When you use the comic strip to present new grammar, highlight it and use eliciting questions to lead the students to understand its meaning and use. If, on the other hand, you use the comic strip to practice the grammar point, you can blank it out or ask more challenging comprehension questions about its meaning and use in the comic strip.

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2- Introducing a Discussion with Comics

Comic strips are concise and to the point by nature, thus they can be used to introduce a discussion for a speaking class in a direct, yet creative way.

The fastest way to start a discussion would be to use only one comic strip and lead a whole-class discussion. This can be effective if it has a different kind of follow up, or if the aim of the class is not to have the students talking for a long period of time.

If the aim is to make the students practice their speaking skills, it is better to divide them into groups, or pairs, to ensure more students practice speaking at the same time. After they discuss in groups or pairs, you can ask them to share a conclusion per group or pair as well.

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3- Introducing or Practicing Vocabulary with Comics

As comics are almost always based on dialogue, they are an excellent source of vocabulary that is used frequently. Also, they often include many idiomatic expressions. The images in comic strips can often provide a reliable context for students to infer the meaning of the new vocabulary words.

4- Character Study 

If students are presented with a series of comic strips once or twice a week, they begin to develop an understanding of the characters in the comic that is similar to that of a character study in a novel.

For students who can’t read a novel yet, comics are a great precursor activity that will help them learn the basics of this literary activity.

5- Teaching Writing Skills with Comics

After students have read different comic strips, they can be encouraged to create their own by filling in the speech bubbles of a comic strip that has been blanked out; or by creating the images to go with speech bubbles that are already provided by the teacher.

This kind of creative writing activity is less daunting than writing a short story, but just as challenging – or more challenging sometimes, depending on what the students are accustomed to-. If ESL students find this particularly difficult, working in pairs or groups is a great way to start.

A word of caution …

Humor is very different in each culture and at the beginning, it might be difficult for students to find comics in English funny unless their culture is similar to that of the English-speaking country where the comic strip originated.

As a teacher, you will often have to explain the punchline, and sometimes that makes the comic strip less funny. But don’t be discouraged, with time and more exposure students will develop their understanding and soon they will begin to enjoy the comic strips more and more. One way to prevent students from getting discouraged with comic strips in English is by using comic strips from their native country with the dialogue translated into English every now and then.

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