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Reading Manga & Webtoons in First-Year Reading and Composition Courses

When I was an undergraduate student, I was required to take a reading and composition course. I’d scroll through each department’s website and read every course description and the required reading lists. I decided to enroll in a Comparative Literature reading and composition course that included the following texts, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are. (Aside from being a “monsters” theme course, I was curious about why there were “picture books” in a college literature course.) At the time, I thought that college students only read rigorous canonical literature and I viewed “picture books” as “non-academic.” However, taking that course changed my outlook on what we view as “academic” literature: I didn’t think you could close-read a comic book until I took that course. This reading and composition course changed my life. (I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but it did.) By being able to read a comic book and a children’s book critically and not for just entertainment purposes allowed me to see and read the world differently: I look at any pop culture text and start analyzing the words, images, and sounds for overarching themes and hidden meanings about society and our identities. Reading visual texts such as graphic novels in a classroom helped improve my critical and visual reading skills and gave me the confidence that I can close read any texts given to me whether it is another comic book or an academic article. Thus, I am a strong proponent that visual texts, especially manga and webtoons, should be used as reading material in a first-year reading and composition college course.

I will be exploring this question: how should manga and webtoons be used in reading instruction for a first-year reading and composition course? Now, the course I took incorporated visual texts into the classroom, but I realized that this course didn’t effectively emphasize the purpose of reading visual texts and how these texts will teach us transferable skills we might need in later courses. If I want to incorporate visual texts, like manga and webtoons, into my curriculum, I need to be well-versed in visual literacy theories and have the knowledge to creatively and effectively make critical reading and writing assignments and activities based on visual texts. My research will be exploring the reasoning as to why instructors should use visual texts in a first-year reading and writing course and how to effectively use visual texts, particularly manga and webtoons, to promote reading.

What are Manga and Webtoons?

Yet before I explain the benefits of using visual texts and explore some reading activities we can use to understand visual texts, I will first provide definitions for manga and webtoons, which are the two “visual formatted” texts I am interested in using in my curriculum designs. Manga and webtoons are similar to a graphic novel and a comic book: they are all visual texts consisting of words and images interwoven together to tell a story. All of these visual texts each have their own specific terminology and grammatical structures. Yet, most of these mediums usually have “panels (or frames), gutters (the spaces between panels), speech balloons, and text boxes (or captions)” (Cho). As readers, we interpret these textual elements to comprehend the text’s nuances and messages.

In the Youtube series, Mangapedia, hosted by Ani-Mia, she gives a basic overview of what manga is, a Japanese comic book:

(Here is an example of a manga. This one is called Solanin by Inio Asano, which is a story about a group of friends in their 20s trying to navigate “adult life” after graduating college.)

A webtoon has a few unique components. “Webtoons” combine the comic format with other digital elements. They are popularized in Korea but have reached international recognition with English-translated webtoon platforms such as WEBTOON and Tapas. Unlike manga and graphic novels, webtoons are formatted for a vertical layout since they are hosted online. (If you don’t know what a webtoon looks like or aren’t sure what I mean by vertical layout, you can scroll through an episode of Ilkwon Ha’s Annarasumanara.)

(Also, here are more image examples of that webtoon, Annarasumanara, which is about a high school teenage girl, Yun Ai, who encounters a magician known as, L.)

Creators strategically use the vertical layout to represent a duration of time, changes in setting, tone or mood, movement of descending objects, or to display specific speech bubbles in the gutters. Webtoons also include other media such as music to “enhance the atmosphere or emotion” and are published in various multimedia platforms such as online webtoon websites, blogs, etc. (If you want additional information about webtoons, you can read Heekyoung Cho’s “The Webtoon: A New Form for Graphic Narrative”).

(As I mentioned before, webtoon creators use other digital platforms to appeal to readers; for example,  this is a video clip advertising a webtoon entitled My Dear Cold-Blooded King by the webtoonist, lifelight.)

Theoretical Reasons Why Manga & Webtoons are Good Reading Texts in the Classroom

Manga and webtoons are classified as “low-brow” texts; in which a majority of instructors see these texts as only to be read for entertainment value. In James Bucky Carter’s research study, “‘What the —?’ Pre-Service Teachers Meet and Grapple Over Graphic,” he taught a graphic novel class where the students were instructors, who didn’t see graphic novels as “academic” literature. Similarly in “Closer than Close Reading: Historical Analysis, Cultural Analysis, and Symptomatic Reading in the Undergraduate Classroom,” Kathleen McCormick categorizes popular media as inferior to the dominant texts that circulate in the classroom. In general, popular media such as graphic novels and manga, are labeled as inappropriate in a college setting because there’s an assumed stigma that these texts cannot be read with a “critical” eye. Yet despite the skepticism, Carter, McCormick, and other scholars have given substantial evidence showing the benefits of using visual texts to aide first-year college students in their reading.

Manga and webtoons are texts that can motivate first-years students to read. A majority of incoming college freshmen have a reluctance to read, possibly due to various factors that impacted how they view reading. Reading wasn’t an activity emphasized in their home life or the classes they took didn’t have books that they were interested in. Yet by introducing a manga, webtoon, or even a graphic novel that students may have encountered in the media or online into a course, students may be open to learn and apply critical reading skills to these texts as opposed to a dull college textbook. Reading their favorite manga or graphic novel in a critical manner can motivate students to be independent learners and readers: “…They are able to develop their reading skills by themselves and maintain their enthusiasm for the task through sustained practice” (Inngulsrud and Allen 128). If we are accepting of popular media texts into the classroom or even allow our students to select and read a popular media text as a reading assignment, our students may find reading an enjoyable activity as opposed to a “homework task.”

Furthermore, by using visual texts such as manga and webtoons as assigned reading in our reading and composition courses, students will practice the critical reading skills they need to learn and should be able to transfer those skills to other academic courses. McCormick argues in favor of using visual texts and popular media in the classroom because students are naturally reading critically in the real world even when they aren’t aware of it. Thus, they just need to be explicitly aware that they use these reading skills both outside and inside the classroom: “One of our goals in teaching reading at the college level should be to help our students draw on their varied reading abilities…and extending the critical reading they have done of the media, personal experiences, and some school texts” (McCormick 36). Students are already using the critical reading skills we desire in the academic world through what they read in popular media, even if they don’t recognize that they are using critical reading skills. As instructors, we need to make students visibly aware of the reading strategies and skills they are using in popular media texts so that they can use those skills confidently for more rigorous texts.

Manga and webtoons also provide reading benefits similar to a traditional text such as a novel or article. Like a novel, manga and webtoons allow students to practice reading strategies such as rereading and visual literacy (where you make meaning by interpreting the words and images). In the book, Reading Japan Cool: Patterns of Manga Literacy and Discourse by John E. Inngulsrud and Kate Allen, they studied the reading habits of manga readers ranging from elementary school students to college students. They discovered that there is a particular reading process that manga readers use: they would first read the text in the speech balloons to decode content information; then they analyze the facial expressions of the characters to reveal a character’s emotions; and lastly, they look at the organization and order of the panels to show the flow of the plot (129-133). By using both the visuals and the words, students learn that meaning and interpretations can be made beyond just language. Students are constantly exposed to visual texts through social media and online articles that they need to gain the skills to not only read these texts but to decipher the information being presented to them. Thus, as instructors, we can teach our students visual literacy skills and strategies through the practice of using visual texts like manga and webtoons. Students will synthesize and interpret images, words, and other media within the text in order to convey some form of meaning about the content, themes, or their process of reading.

The scholars I have mentioned have given strong arguments in favor of using visual texts in the classroom: these reasons can also apply to first-year reading and composition courses. Visual texts like manga and webtoons can serve as an access point for students to enjoy reading as a productive activity rather than a forced activity for school. Furthermore, visual texts are a proponent for a universal design curriculum since such texts serve to promote the proficient performance of visual learners. Lastly, by using visual texts, students have another way to practice their critical reading strategies as well as their visual literacy skills, which they will need in other classes and “real-world” situations. One example of a “real world” situation that students may need their visual literacy skills for is when they question the propaganda in advertisements and visual journalism articles online. Regardless of where you stand, visual literacy is a skill that students will need to be literate in for the workforce and so, as instructors, we should give students a head start in developing their visual literacy skills through the use of popular media like manga and webtoons.

Course Application: Manga & Webtoons and Activities

Now that you can see the usefulness of reading visual texts in the first-year reading and composition course, you may be wondering what activities an instructor can do when using manga and webtoons as reading material. These visual literacy activities and assignments must serve similar learning outcomes that a traditional printed text activity would in a reading and composition course. Fortunately, some scholars have created activities that use visual texts, which can apply to manga and webtoons too. Carter uses reading journals as a way for his students to engage and respond to the graphic novels they read in class. One writing prompt he had for the reading journal was asking his students how they were exposed to graphic novels. Another prompt he had involved asking students to create their own comics. Students were given roles as if they were part of a comic production company: students had to script their own comics and asked their classmates to create images based on the script that they created. Originally, Carter’s students were teachers-in-training who viewed graphic novels as nonacademic; hence, they believe that graphic novels shouldn’t be taught in an academic curriculum. Yet, by creating their own comics, these student-teachers were able to see the value of visual texts not only by analyzing its content but learning the process of comic creation: “Actually engaging in the comics creation process reveals the challenges and skill associated with production and helps illustrate what students might gain from trying and styling the medium” (Carter 69). A creating comics activity will help students understand the rhetorical strategies and genre mechanics used in composing visual texts such as a manga or a webtoon, which will help them attain the comic terminology they would need when explaining their own interpretations of a visual text. Also, this exercise promotes metacognition in which students will explain their own thought process when composing a comic, which is similar to how students try to understand their reading process when encountering difficult texts. If students had the opportunity to compose their own comics, they would not only gain an appreciation of the art form but will have a better understanding of how to read visual texts.

As for Halsall and Prough’s articles, they suggest close reading activities for visual texts that are similar to the close reading exercises we do for traditional texts. Instead of just deciphering the words on the page, students would make meaning from the visuals, words, and other components. In Alison Halsall’s “ ‘What is the Use of a Book…Without Pictures or Conversations?’: Incorporating the Graphic Novel into the University Curriculum,” Halsall asks her students to “unpack” an image she projects onto the screen: “In large parts due to their intensely visual world, students are already attuned to questions of layout, the impact of color and organization of the image, and size. They can frequently intuit from the visual text the argument(s) the artist is attempting to make” (95-96). Similarly, in “Reading Images, Visualizing Texts: Teaching Visual Analysis through Manga,” Prough has a close reading exercise using manga. She would make her students analyze an eight-page panel or close read the background or characters’ facial expressions in a manga: “After this exercise, students are able to notice more about visuals in the manga; the ways that they enhance the feel, pace, and emotion of the story…Teaching this visual habit in the classroom starts to train students in what to watch for when reading this genre” (Prough 108-109). The purpose of these exercises is for students to improve their close reading skills through visual texts and then apply such skills to other genres and readings. If we were to take Prough’s visual literacy exercise and transfer those skills to a printed text like a novel or scholarly article, we could ask students to “unpack” a paragraph from a novel on the board and share their interpretations. Furthermore, students can apply close-reading from a visual text to a printed text through metacognitive writing. Students talk or write about the method of how they interpreted a piece of text using the visuals and words as evidence. They can review this metacognition method by using more difficult texts like a novel or scholarly article where they explain their reading and interpretation process. Close reading is a skill that college students are expected to “master” in reading and composition courses. Usually, students master close reading by analyzing the written language of novels or nonfiction articles. However, we can use visual texts like manga and webtoons to practice close reading too. Manga and webtoons are effective texts for students to practice not only close reading the written word but also visuals as well: students are forced to synthesize both the written and visual form to formulate opinions and the content. Furthermore, by critically analyzing visual texts, students should eventually have the competency to read other texts—printed or digital—and analyze its content and form thoroughly.

Although all these scholars provide excellent suggestions about exercises we can do to utilize visual texts, they aren’t as concrete as I would hope they would be. These exercises are adaptable for manga and webtoons, but I’m not easily convinced that these exercises will help students develop their critical reading and visual literacy skills. These articles are problematic because they don’t provide concrete student examples that demonstrate a student’s development in critical reading. Carter’s article provided student responses to the exercises but these responses were from student-teachers as opposed to real undergraduate students; thus, their responses were biased to the extent that they are teachers looking for effective tools to teach reading. As for Halsall and Prough, they generalize what students learned in their courses as opposed to using actual examples to prove that their students’ reading of visual texts improved their critical reading skills. In addition, all the articles have given a list of reading suggestions, but the criteria of how these visual texts were selected weren’t clearly stated aside from serving the purpose of close reading analysis. (However, I did research a publishing company called Manga Classics, who adapted famous canonical works into manga. For example, you can read manga versions of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and there are teaching guides on how to incorporate these manga adaptations of classical works into your classroom. Here are the teaching guides for Romeo and Juliet and Les Miserables).

(Also, here is an additional manga text example by Manga Classics, which is an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.)

Therefore, I decided to experiment using a visual text in my own reading and composition curriculum. I wanted my students to have some experience reading visual texts because they will have to compose their own visual texts as a project and make decisions as to what and how they want their readers to read their text. For this exercise, my students practiced interpreting a webtoon. Using a similar method like Halsall and Prough, my students close read images and words from a South Korean webtoon entitled Annarasumanara by Illkwon Ha. I selected this webtoon because my class was currently discussing career paths and current issues in the job market, and so I wanted my students to analyze the images and words from this webtoon and see how this text views such topics: careers, academic pressure, and social classes. I adapted the triple entry journal used for traditional texts to this webtoon. In their triple-entry journal reading responses, students were required to read the webtoon and react to one of the images in the webtoon. They must interpret the content in the image and discuss the message that the creator is trying to convey through that selected image. For example, one student noticed the yellow color scheme in certain images such as the sunflowers and it reminded her of Van Gough who ate yellow paint to cure his depression. She associated the yellow color with happiness.

Triple Entry Journal 1

The purpose of this exercise was to get students to think critically about visuals and to practice analyzing visuals and words together in order to formulate some interpretation, which is similar to Hallsal’s example. From just reading these triple-entry journal responses, you can see how my students are incorporating their background schema to the visuals and text in order to make reading connections. In fact, one student in her reflection essay wrote about reading Annarasumanara:

For the triple entry journal, I found it very helpful because I got to [give my thoughts and read the thoughts] of my peers. The triple-entry journal helped me realize what the story was actually about because I had a less clear vision of what it [was about]. It talked about how she didn’t believe in magic and her perspective of being successful in life but in the triple entry journal, it made me realize it’s about her growing up and her perspective on “adulting.”

For this student, the triple entry journal enhanced her understanding and reading of the webtoon because she was able to read her other peers’ thoughts and interpretations of the text. Now, this is just one activity that utilizes manga and webtoons. Later on, I hope to improve my methodology of using manga and webtoons to promote and improve students’ visual literacy skills.

The research I provided just touched the surface of what we, as instructors, can do to incorporate manga and webtoons into the classroom. Yet, there’s much more we can learn about visual literacy in the first-year reading and composition courses. Like what I’ve done so far, we can use the reading theories and applications made by other scholars to produce effective reading practices and activities that focus on manga and webtoons and see what are the best teaching approaches. In doing so, we should be able to convince more reading and composition instructors to adapt to using visual texts into their curriculum, even if it’s just including a graphic novel or comic book in the reading list or close reading a visual text just like what I’ve done in my reading and composition course.

Works Cited

Carter, James Bucky. “‘What the —?’ Preservice Teachers Meet and Grapple Over Graphic Novels in the Classroom.” Graphic Novels and Comics in the Classroom: Essays on the Educational Power of Sequential Art, edited by Carrye Kay Soma and Robert G. Weiner. McFarland & Company, 2013, pp. 58-72.

Cho, Heekyoung. “The Webtoon: A New Form for Graphic Narrative.” The Comics Journal, 18, July 2016, http://www.tcj.com/the-webtoon-a-new-form-for-graphic-narrative/. Accessed 20 November 2019.

Ha, Ilkwon. Annarasumanara. Webtoon, 2014. Accessed November 2019.

Halsall, Alison. “What is the Use of a Book…Without Pictures or Conversations?”: Incorporating the Graphic Novel into the University Curriculum.” Teaching Graphic Novels in the English Classroom: Pedagogical Possibilities of Multimodal Literacy Engagement, edited by Alissa Burger. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2017, pp. 87-101.

Inngulsrud, John E. And Kate Allen. Reading Japan Cool: Patterns of Manga Literacy and Discourse, Lexington Books, 2009.

McCormick, Kathleen. “Closer than Close Reading: Historical Analysis, Cultural Analysis, and Symptomatic Reading in the Undergraduate Classroom.” Intertexts: Reading Pedagogy in College Writing Classrooms, edited by Marguerite Helmers. Lawrence, Erlbaum, 2003, pp. 27-49.

Prough, Jennifer. “Reading Images, Visualizing Texts: Teaching Visual Analysis through Manga.” ASIANetwork Exchange, 25 (2), 2018, pp. 100-116. https://doi.org/10.16995/ane.270. Accessed 20 November 2019.

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