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'Hamlet' too hard? Try a comic book

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Each student was required to read five graphic novels. But "there wasn't a single student in this class of kids - nonreaders who don't enjoy reading - who didn't read double that number," Roy says. "They would read them overnight ... they were reading them at lunch, in the hallway."

Roy adapted her curriculum on graphic novels from a series developed for teachers by the New York City Comic Book Museum.

Literacy efforts have traditionally focused not on adolescents, but on younger students.

And some reading experts are worried that with most reform efforts being directed at students in the third grade or lower, another crisis is being ignored.

Even as elementary student scores on federal tests are increasing slightly, high school scores are declining. Only about one third of 12th-graders were reading at a proficient level in 2002, down from 40 percent in 1992.

Adolescent readers face a host of complicated problems, ranging from general reluctance to pick up a book to aliteracy, an inability to fully grasp the meaning of words. Proponents suggest that comic books and graphic novels can help.

For the reluctant reader, they are absorbing. For the struggling reader or the reader still learning English, they offer accessibility: pictures for context, and possibly an alternate path into classroom discussions of higher-level texts. They expand vocabulary, and introduce the ideas of plot, pacing, and sequence.

But such arguments remain unconvincing to many other educators who firmly believe this form of pop culture has no place in the classroom.

"Once kids know how to read, there is no good reason to continue to use dumbed-down materials," writes Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University, in an e-mail. "They should be able to read poems, novels, essays, books that inform them, enlighten them, broaden their horizons,"

And there is always a concern about the appropriateness of content.

But just getting reluctant adolescents to read - anything - can be a boon to their discovery of the joy of reading, says Marilyn Reynolds, author of "I Won't Read and You Can't Make Me: Reaching Reluctant Teen Readers."

Ms. Reynolds, who worked for decades at an alternative high school for struggling students in a Los Angeles suburb, tells the story of a girl "steeped" in graphic novels whom she met at a library.

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