Close Reading + Argumentative Writing Surrounding a Wordless Graphic Novel

As a continuation of our practice of close reading and argumentative writing, my students began their first U.S. History unit trying to answer the question “Is the U.S. still a Land of Opportunity?” Working from the ideas of Gerald Graff and Cathy Berkenstein’s book They Say, I Say: Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, we want to maintain the idea that if I—as a student—only talk about what I think, I’ll sound ignorant to the larger conversation going on around the world on a given subject. Students must recognize that yes, their opinions—the “I Say”—are important; however, their commentary needs to also reflect what others are saying—the “They Say”—regardless if they support or oppose one’s own argument.

As an entry event to our study of the Industrial Era, my students close read The Arrival by Shaun Tan, a wordless graphic novel.

“In a heartbreaking parting, a man gives his wife and daughter a last kiss and boards a steamship to cross the ocean. He’s embarking on the most painful yet important journey of his life- he’s leaving home to build a better future for his family.

Shaun Tan evokes universal aspects of an immigrant’s experience through a singular work of the imagination. He does so using brilliantly clear and mesmerizing images. Because the main character can’t communicate in words, the book forgoes them too. But while the reader experiences the main character’s isolation, he also shares his ultimate joy” (Summary from Goodreads).

To start, each student was assigned 3-4 pages of the book to close read. They were to write a brief argument, stating what message they believed Shaun Tan was trying to share with his readers. Students used sentence templates from They Say, I say to strengthen the academic awesomeness of their arguments.

Academic Templates for Introducing Something Implied or Assumed:

  • Although Shaun Tan does not say so directly, he apparently implies that _____________ due to ______________.
  • Shaun Tan  apparently assumes that ______________ based on ___________.
  • The artwork suggests/hints/implies ___________ because __________.
  • Based on my understanding of _____________, I have to assume _______________.
  • What I know about ____________ makes me think that __________________.

Next, students visited a second set of 3-4 pages to once again close read; however, in conjunction with their own analysis, students were now arguing with the original students who were assigned those pages initially. Again, students used the sentence templates to form scholarly responses to one another’s arguments.

Adding to a Classmate’s Argument, but with a Difference:

  • I agree that ____________ because my experience ________________ confirms it.
  • [Student’s Name]  surely is right about ____________ because, as she may not be aware, ___________ shows that ________________.
  • I agree that __________, however, I want to emphasize the importance of ____________ because it shows ___________________.
  • I really liked [Student’s Name]’s point about _________. I’d add that ______________.


Yielding to a Classmate’s Argument, yet Standing Your Ground:

  • I take your point, [Student’s Name], that ___________. Still, I think _______________.
  • While it is true that _______________________, it does not necessarily follow that ____________.
  • On the on hand, [Student’s Name] is right to say ______________. On the other hand, it is still true that ______________.


Opposing a Classmate’s Argument, based on Reasons:

  • I think [Student’s Name] is mistaken because she overlooks ____________.
  • I disagree with [Student’s Name]‘s view that ____________ because, as it shows _____________ .

To efficiently facilitate this many mini-debates, I hosted the conversation about The Arrival on VoiceThread. For those of you who are unfamiliar with VoiceThread, it is” a collaborative, multimedia slide show that holds images, documents, and videos. [It] allows people to navigate slides and leave comments in 5 ways – using voice (with a mic or telephone), text, audio file, or video (via a webcam).” <<Check out our VoiceThread here>>

Obviously, by entering the conversation with one another, students had a deeper understanding of the text as a whole.
From there, I expanded the conversation to include further arguments on The Arrival written by some of their favorite Young Adult authors: Shaun Tan, Ruta Sepetys, author of Between Shades of Grey, and graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang, author of American Born Chinese. Following the same multimedia format as they found in VoiceThread, students experienced Tan’s ideas through video, Sepetys’ reflection through podcast, and Yang’s argument through text. As we do with all texts, I modeled my own Close Reading of Yang’s article through the gradual release instructional model, as a scaffold before they tackled Sepetys’ article independently.

Finally, students synthesized all of the arguments around The Arrival with other “Land of Opportunity” texts we read in U.S. History to write Phase #1 of a killer argument addressing our unit’s driving question, “Is the U.S. still a ‘Land of Opportunity?”

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4 thoughts on “Close Reading + Argumentative Writing Surrounding a Wordless Graphic Novel

  1. Pingback: A Non-Freaked Out Approach to Close Reading & the Common Core | Teaching the Core

  2. Pingback: Tips for Holding Students Accountable to Choice Reading: Reading Ladders | B10 Loves Books

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