Comics a path to reading? Yes, seriously.

December 20, 2003|By GREGORY KANE

FIVE BOYS AND two girls sat in front of Marla Jones in a room at Baltimore County's Millbrook Elementary School as she explained what she acknowledged was "an unconventional yet effective and successful reading program." But Jones wasn't ready to tell the youngsters what her method was just yet.

"This is a workshop designed to get kids motivated to read," Jones told the pupils. "I find a lot of kids don't like to read." After asking how many of them liked to read, both girls and one of the boys raised their hands. Three of the boys said they didn't like reading (it was no fun), while the fourth may have been waiting to see which way the tide went.

"Those kids who don't think reading is fun," Jones said, "aren't really reading at all. They're just decoding words."

Jones, who is the Parent-Teacher Association president at Millbrook Elementary, promised to introduce the kids to a reading passage they could complete in 10 seconds and would "make you want to read everything that comes your way." Then she had her 8-year-old son Kyle tell them the secret.

"Comics," Kyle said.

Yes, you read it right. Comics. The very second Kyle uttered it, I was prepared to say this Jones woman was off her rocker. But then I thought back to those days when I was a kid at Harlem Park Junior High and reading several grade levels above where I was supposed to be reading.

What was my main reading fare? Comic books. My buddies who read at about the same level I did? Comic books. We read all the Marvel comic books. There were the Fantastic Four, with the ever lovable Benjamin "It's Clobbering Time!" Grimm, aka The Thing, running roughshod over bad guys. Spiderman, Ironman, the X-Men, Mighty Thor, the Avengers - and who could ever forget Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos? When we wanted more high-brow reading material, there was always Mad magazine.

Jones, a 39-year-old sales representative for McGraw-Hill, had her favorite comic books when she was a girl - Archie, Richie Rich and Little Lulu.

"Every week, whenever they came out," Jones recalled, "I got my money and went down to the store." It was the love of comic books, she believes, that led to her love of English. That was her favorite class when she was at City College and the subject she majored in at Chatham College in Pittsburgh.

But Jones didn't notice the effect comics had on developing reading skills until this past summer, when she started placing newspaper comics around the house for Kyle to read. After reading single strips, Jones handed her son the entire comics page to read. Soon, like his mom years ago, Kyle was taken with reading comics. One day as she was driving him to school, Jones handed Kyle, who had just turned on his Game Boy, the comics page. He turned off the Game Boy and started reading.

"Now he reads everything," Jones said, remembering the time Kyle read a sign on the back of a bus and asked, "What does it mean `Makes wide right turns. Make way'?" Jones said Kyle was reading at grade level last year and is now a candidate for his school's gifted and talented program. But does the method work for other children?

Jones continued her workshop by handing out comic strips - Curtis, The Family Circus, Dennis the Menace - to the children, ages 5 to 10. Soon she had them sprawled on the floor, reading, answering her questions and asking their own, totally engrossed. When Jones handed out Donald Duck comic books at the end of the workshop, most of the youngsters flipped them open and started reading immediately. The same pattern was repeated at other workshops.

To back up her claim that comics help, not hinder, a child's reading, Jones handed out an item from the publication SouthCoast Today about Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, which had the headline "Comic books prove to be a surprise boost for national literacy rates." According to the article, "Trelease points to a recent study of more than 200,000 schoolchildren in 32 countries. It found that the nation with the highest student reading scores - Finland - also has the highest proportion of schoolchildren who read comics almost every day."

Jones has led four workshops: two at Millbrook, one at a day spa and one at her home. She has developed several lesson plans to go along with her workshops and wants desperately to do them on a regular basis in Baltimore County's school system. Yet she knows that scientifically based research that would prove her method effective hasn't been done. Jones is scouting for a graduate student or students to do that work.

"I made the connection," Jones said. "Now I just have to show it."

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