Critiquing Jun Liu’s article

Effects of Comic Strips on L2 Learners’ Reading Comprehension

Jun Liu

University of Arizona

Tucson, Arizona, United States

I have chosen this article from the TESOL Quarterly Journal 2004, to critique because it is very much related to what I do during my work in an intermediate (middle) state school, where English is taught as a second language. In this paper, Jun Liu investigates the effects of comic strips on L2 Learners’ reading comprehension. He states that, in the past decade, numerous journal articles have revealed various ways of using comic strips in classrooms. Most of these articles were studies about using the comic strips with L1 learners. He was surprised to clearly identify that there were gaps in the L2 reading comprehension context, when the question arises of which type of visuals can help which level of learners. The study’s aim is only to investigate comic strips which are considered to be predominantly visual (cartoons, pictures, maps, photos, and tables). Throughout my own teaching experience I have used visuals in the form of pictures and cartoons, so using comic strips in the classroom is an interesting way of learning more about the effects of comic strips on L2 learners.

Jun Liu, the author of this paper, is an associate professor of English at the University of Arizona. The author has an interest in teacher education and second-language writing. The research in this article is aimed at an audience of peers (foreign or second language teachers). The paper is structured and organized, accessibly with an introduction that addresses the importance of having reading materials with visuals. It goes on to explore the major functions of visuals (Levie & Lentz. 1982; Levin, Anglin, & Carney, 1987) in reading comprehension, and the Dual Coding Theory (DCT), which is concerned with language and imagery. The results of this study will be discussed in the light of this theory.

In this critique I shall begin by summarizing Jin Liu’s article, and then will comment on the rationale, the theoretical framework and instrument. I will then concentrate on Liu’s research questions. Finally, I will comment on the conclusions drawn and their implications.


This article reports on the effects of comic strips on L2 learners’ reading comprehension. The author demonstrates how comic strips in reading materials can be helpful in making texts more enjoyable to read and comprehensible for L2 learners. Prior to this study, specialists and researchers had investigated whether using different visuals, such as pictures, cartoons, photos, comic strips, etc., could help L2 learners in their reading comprehension, by investigating which type of visuals is the best. They explained the major functions of using visuals to enhance students’ reading comprehension (Levie & Lentz. 1982; Levin, Anglin, & Carney, 1987), such as representation, organization, interpretation, transformation, and decoration. These functions are relevant and related to the text’s content, as they actually form a part of it.

Jun Liu discussed various different theoretical frameworks in describing and explaining the effects of visuals on cognition in general and on reading comprehension in particular, specifically the dual coding theory (DCT), as it relates to the nature of language and imagery. He then explained the two systems in DCT; the verbal system and non-verbal system (imagery system). In this theory, there is a linguistic coding system, which is called the verbal system, and the imagery system, which is called the non-verbal system. The author discussed previous studies with examples that used DCT as a theoretical framework for studying both, L1 and L2, reading comprehension with visuals, showing how a text with visuals can improve the students’ skills and results.

In the next paragraph, Cartoons as Visuals, the author defined what a comic strip is; as pictures inside boxes in a series that tells a story. Comic strips, according to the author, are readable, accessible, popular, and communicative, which is why he chose them for the study. He then explained how comic strips communicate by using two types of media, words with images. Also, in this paragraph he reviewed some examples of previous studies by exploring the use of comic strips with L1 and L2 learners.

The aim of the study is to investigate the effects of presenting a text with comic strips on L2 learners’ reading comprehension. It has questioned whether presenting a text with or without a comic strip can provide different results between the L2 learners, on different proficiency levels. In addition, the author’s aim in this study is to focus on the student’s comprehension, not production. It is hypothesized that a low intermediate proficiency level student reading a high-level text with the comic strip will improve his/her understanding. On the other hand, a high intermediate proficiency level student reading a low-level text with the comic strip will not improve his/her understanding.

The study investigates two English proficiency levels (high and low), two text difficulty levels (difficult and easy), and two visual support to the two texts (with and without comic strips). The participants were 107students from ESL classes at a university in the United States, representing 45 countries, and were recruited on a voluntary basis. When the students enrolled, they are required to take a placement test, and based on the results, their proficiency level was estimated on the University scale (from 10 to 70). The students were divided into two groups. The first group had the low intermediate proficiency (levels 10-30), while the second group was the high intermediate proficiency group (level 40-70). The number of students was almost even, with 53 students in the first group (low intermediate proficiency group), and 54 in the other group (high intermediate proficiency group).

For this study, there were two texts; a high-level text and low-level one; and only one comic strip was selected from a textbook (Ashkenas, 1985). The texts were created by a non-native English speaking professional, and then modified by two native English speakers trained in applied linguistics. The first text was created for ESL students of the low intermediate proficiency group with 250 words. The second text, for the high intermediate proficiency group, was the same text but was longer at300 words. Both texts are related to the information in the comic strip.

Language program coordinators and instructors helped the researcher to collect the data. The students (low-intermediate and high-intermediate) were randomly divided into four treatment groups, with 13 or 14 in each. The treatments were:

–       T1, low-level text only (white)

–       T2, Low-level text with comic strips (yellow)

–       T3, high-level text only (pink)

–       T4, high-level text with comic strips (green)

Four treatments with four different colored papers were used for data collection. The data was collected within two weeks. As the aim of the study was comprehension, rather than production, the students were told to read the text as many times as they wanted to, then to hand back the text and the comic strip and begin to write what they understood. The students were allowed to write in English, L1’, or both. It was surprising that the majority of ESL students chose to write in English. Immediate Recall Protocols (IRPs) were used in collecting the data in this study, as these is considered to be the most straightforward assessment of a reader’s interaction with a text (Johnston, 1983), and a valid mean to assess the reading comprehension of foreign students (Bernhardt, 1986, 1991). The students’ IRPs were scored by using a simple propositional analyses system based on pausal units (Johnson, 1970).

Three language specialists, the author and two research assistants scored and          assessed the students’ written IRPs. The author explained how the analysis of variations procedures, three-way ANOVA (Cohen, 2002: 191-203) is performed. The findings were shown in a figure. The low-level students who received the high-level text with comic strips scored noticeably higher than the low-level students who received the high-level text only. For the high-level students, adding the comic strips did not improve their recall. The analysis shows the impact of the comic strips on the low-level students’ performance (It was significantly enhanced) but this had little to do with the high-level students’ performance.

Finally, the paper concludes with a discussion, mainly considering how comic strips can enhance the recall of low-level students who face difficulties comprehending a high-level text. The author suggested that future research could test the effect of comic strips on learners’ L2 retention as another subject.


The rationale and theoretical framework

At the beginning of the article, the author shows the importance of having reading materials with visuals, and goes on to highlight the major functions of visuals in reading from a range of sources (Levie & Lentz. 1982; Levin, Anglin, & Carney, 1987). Levin (1987) found that different functions of visuals facilitate memory. Different theoretical frameworks were used to describe and explain the effects of visuals on reading comprehension. The author chooses the Dual Coding Theory (DCT) (Sadoski & Pivio. 2001) in his study, as it is concerned with natural language and imagery. The previous two reasons were behind the author’s decision to choose DCT as theoretical framework for this study. This seems wise, but these examples used visuals in classrooms in general, rather comic strips, for L1 and L2 learners. Because he started giving many examples, from previous studies, about different areas of visuals, I assumed that there were no such studies in the field of comic strips area. However, later on, in the paragraph on cartoons as visual art, I learned of the existence of studies in this area, which I think it would have been helpful to look at earlier.

The method


The students in this study were ESL learners and were required to take an ESL course before or after enrolling in either undergraduate or postgraduate programs in the United States universities. There is no information about the numbers of the undergraduate or the postgraduate students, but distinguishing between the postgraduate and undergraduate students is not especially difficult. However, I would have liked to have known this information in advance in order to be sure of getting accurate results. For example, the proficiency level of postgraduate students might be higher than the undergraduate students, from the perspective that they experience learning at a university level before and used English. Another factor that may affect the quality of the results is the motivation of the student. If they are studying English as an entry requirement to study in the university only, or because they are interested in this area, which might be related to their studies in the university. For example, for some students, learning to communicate orally is particularly important if they want to live in a foreign country. For other students, grades may be more important, as they intend to go back home after they graduate. Such matters were not fully discussed because of the limitations of space.

The instrument

Since the aim of the study is comprehension, but not production, the author has focused on how comic strips can help the students to understand the intended meaning of a text. This will help students to write about the texts, but the focus was not on their writing production (grammar and punctuation), as much as on generating ideas that show their powers of recall, so they could hand in the text with the comic strip and start writing. Students were allowed to write in English, their L1, or both. The scorers will evaluate the student writing in languages, after they translate them to English. Surprisingly, with 107 participants from 45 countries, few students chose to write in their languages. This might be because the students understood the text with the comic strip, but found it difficult to express themselves in English (L2) as it is their second language, which would affect the results. This could be a disadvantage, and the results may not show their understanding, because their production is not good as their comprehension, and the main aim of the study is comprehension, not production.

The presentations of findings and interpretation of data

The author presented the results of his findings in a figure which is easy to understand. The percentages of the corrected recalls are shown in that figure. They provide evidence which confirms the author’s original hypothesis that using comic strips could have a remarkable effect on low-level students’ recall, but that with the high-level students it would have little impact. The corrected recall scores showed that the low-level students faced difficulties in understanding the high-level text, and their recall score was 19.41%. However, students, on the same level of proficiency had performed significantly better with the comic strips with 38.70%. This shows how students started to shift their attention to the comic strips, and used them as second source of information to help them in comprehending a text. On the other hand, the high-level students, without comic strips, had higher scores than the students who, at the same proficiency level, comprehended the same text through comic strips. In this case, using comic strips may hinder students’ comprehension.

My Conclusions

In this critique I have evaluated Jun Liu’s research on the effects of comic strips on L2 learners’ reading comprehension. He identified the need to use comic strips, or visuals in general, to make a reading text more comprehensible and enjoyable. The study results suggested that ESL and EFL teachers should choose the visuals cautiously, as they would need to reflect the texts’ complexities.

What is important here are the needs of the learners, with regard to the type of visuals which work better for learners of different proficiency levels. I look forward to using the author’s ideas in this research to further my own teaching.





Ashkenas, J. (1985). Comics and conversation: Using humor to elicit conversation and develop vocabulary. Studio City, CA: JAG.

Bernhardt, E. B. (1986). Reading in the foreign language. In B. H. Wing (Ed.), Listening reading writing, analysis and application (pp. 93-115). Middlebury, VT: Northwest Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Bernhardt, E. B. (1991). Reading development in a second language. New Jersey: Albex.

Cohen, B. H. (2002). Calculating a factorial ANOVA from means and standard deviations. Understanding statistics, 1, 191-203.

Johnson, R. E. (1970). Recall of prose as a function of the structural importance of the linguistic units. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 9, 12-20.

Johnston, P. H. (1983). Reading comprehension assessment: A cognitive basis. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Levie, W. H., & Lentz, R. (1982). Effect of text illustrations: A review research. Education Communication and Technology Journal, 30 195-232.

Levin, J. R., Anglin, G. J., & Carney, R. N. (1987). On empirically validating functions of pictures in prose. In D. M. Willows & H. A. Houghton (Eds.), The psychology of illustration: Volume I. Basic research (pp.51-86). New York: Springer-Verlag.

Sadoski, M., & Oaivio, A. (2001). Imagery and text: A dual coding theory of reading and writing. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.