How did you learn to read so quickly?

People often ask how I learned to “speed read.” I usually laugh it off and tell them that I had to learn how to read quickly because I was always getting tossed out of stores for reading comic books without buying them! If I wanted to find out what was going on with the Justice League, I had to do it fast--before a store employee realized I’d spent 40 minutes in the magazine section thumbing all the comics. After spending a year with a beginning reader, I realize that there may be something to my theory. Have you noticed that comic book writers use a lot of sight words? Also, the word bubble/narration box structure of comic book pages lends itself handily to cluster reading.


Sight Words

The K-12reader site says, "Believe it or not, 50% of all reading texts are made up of the same 100 words! The most frequently used and repeated words in the English language are known as sight words. This list of words includes the, a, is, of, to, in, and, I, you, and that."

Take a look at the list of sight words below, courtesy of

Then, take a look at this page from an early Superman comic from How many sight words can you identify?

Cluster reading

Cluster reading is the name for a speed-reading technique in which the reader reads words in groups, rather than one by one. Below, an illustration shows word clusters from Bill Cosby's famous essay, "How to Read Faster," from the anthology How to Use the Power of the Printed Word.

If you take a look at the Superman comic above, the page structure groups the words into small clusters which feature a lot of sight words. Lifehacker and BrainPickings offer some interesting further insight on cluster reading, if you want to read more about this technique.


The publishing industry agrees with me that comics can be terrific tools for teaching reading--for totally different reasons 

On Scholastic’s Scholastic Parents: Raise a Reader blog, Melanie English presents a list of reasons why graphic novels should be used in the classroom including “motivating reluctant readers, [as well as developing skills for] inference, memory, sequencing, understanding succinct language, and reading comprehension.” Dale Jacobs argues that reading comics develops a “multimodal reader” able to integrate the visual, spatial, and textual components of a story simultaneously from a page.


How do you identify kid-friendly comic books?

At a comics presentation, a friend of mine asked the question, “How do you identify kid-friendly comic books?” He had grown up in the era of the Comics Code Authority. An adult could buy a child a comic with the CCA stamp on the cover (see the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund page for a picture of the stamp and a history) and know that the comic followed CCA guidelines and wouldn’t contain excessive violence, sexual activity, or portray crime as a pleasant activity.

In 1986, everything changed with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. All of a sudden, comic book writers were asking adult questions about superheroes. Should one citizen have power over all others? What is Batman’s relationship with Gotham and its forever-escaping-from-jail criminals? Including thoughtful content supercharged comic book publishing and the industry took off as readers enthusiastically bought beautifully illustrated, adult-level content. My friend who wanted to buy child-friendly comics for his children loved the Sin City series—which he did not let his children see.

By 2011, the code was defunct. Without it, how can a parent identify age-appropriate comic books and graphic novels for emerging readers?


Sources for Kid-Friendly Comics

Well, you could just go to the comic book store (here's a handy store locator). Many comic book stores have a stand with children's comic books by the front door, and the staff can recommend titles. The comics industry sponsors Free Comics Day, and many comics stores will feature kid-friendly events on that date. It’s also worth mentioning that many comics stores feature a comic subscription service. Subscribing to comics by mail can mean a frustrating wait by the mailbox (trust me, I’ve done it). Signing up for a comics store’s subscription service means that your child’s comic gets the same priority delivery as the comics store’s entire shipment, and that the staff will let you know when your child’s comic is ready for pickup.

However, I don’t recommend taking your kids to the comics store. See the image below (courtesy of a thought-provoking essay in Fantasy magazine) for the main reason why. 

These kinds of images are aaaaaaalll over the comic store and it's impossible to keep kids away from them. Dave Phillips wrote eloquently about this in a post for ITintheD, "What Taking My Daughter to a Comic Book Store Taught Me," saying "when we first got to the store, both kids [his son is five and his daughter is seven] were in awe. I had to keep them from running around the place and picking everything up.  I had to keep reminding them to stay by me, and to please walk and use their manners." [italics mine]

His son happily found all of his favorite superheroes (Superman, Batman, Wolverine, and the Flash), but his daughter couldn't find anything that spoke to her. She complained, 

[B]oobies are hanging out, Dad. These can’t be for kids, and comic books are for kids, and kids aren’t supposed to see that. That Wonder Woman looks like she’s in a video, and I don’t know who that is, but it’s not Harley Quinn. Harley Quinn wears clothes.”

Phillips had an epiphany.

Something clicked. Something that had never really clicked with me before, but through her eyes, I got it – where were the superheros for girls that weren’t quite so overdeveloped and under-dressed?”

For a G-rated book atmosphere, you and your children are probably better off at the local library. Many reddit comics fans say that their first comic/graphic novel experiences were at the library. Note that comics store carry current titles--fantastic if your emerging reader is insanely eager to find out what happens next in a series--but the library will probably have graphic novel collections of titles you like and some great previously published standalone titles.

Here are some lists of child-appropriate comic books and graphic novels. Tiny Titans has been a huge hit at our house, and we'll be hustling over to the library soon for the rest of these titles.

Remember, if your library branch doesn't have a title, you can request it from another branch or through interlibrary loan. If you like a graphic novel from the library, buy it—and if the series still continues, get your child a subscription! You can test out DC comics and Marvel comics for free, too--but not all the free comics are suitable for children. 

Of course I can't wait for the movie. DC has a great Wonder Woman site, but YMMV on what's kid-friendly.