Using cartoons and comic strips

Cartoons and comic strips can be used from beginner level to advanced level for a variety of language and discussion activities.

Clare Lavery

Cartoons are powerful teaching tools and can:

  • Tell a complex story in a few images
  • Provide comment and provoke thought on events and issues in the news
  • Give an example of vocabulary related to current trends and fads
  • Provide easily identifiable characters to form the basis for sketches
  • Show culture in action with the ways that men or women are behaving and are expected to behave
  • Comment on and illustrate a whole range of issues like racism, teenage relationships, sexism, ageism, family relationships.

Word of warning: The language used can sometimes be too colloquial and referential for lower levels to cope with. Choose your cartoons and comic strips with care.

1. Activities for exploiting cartoons

Exploring the theme of humour

Take one cartoon which depicts absurd situations. For example, this could be a Gary Larsen cartoon or one of those greeting cards using a black and white photo and a funny sentence which gives a strange twist.

Ask students to work in groups and get them to discuss:

  • What does the cartoon mean?
  • Why is it funny?
  • What techniques are used to make it funny?

Their own sense of humour and national tastes in humour

Use a cartoon to introduce the idea of humour and culture. Take a selection of cartoons and ask groups to decide what each one means and if they think it's funny. Vote on the funniest cartoon. Ask the students to discuss:

  • What types of method are used to make us laugh?
  • Do people laugh at ordinary situations in their country?
  • Are political figures made fun of?
  • Do they use satire or slap-stick humour?
  • What are the most popular types of humour on TV?

This can be developed into a lesson on jokes and the types of joke that they find funny.

Dealing with issues

  • Take one or more cartoons which comment on an issue in the news. A national newspaper or magazine like Private Eye are good sources. Use one to introduce the topic and brainstorm vocabulary.
  • Use a selection of cartoons to discuss the different aspects of the issue. Take an issue like disciplining children or dealing with teenagers. Ask if they agree with the cartoonists' opinions.
  • Use one to end a lesson or series of lessons on a social or political issue. Ask students to write a caption for the cartoon. You can prepare them for this by a match the caption to the cartoon exercise.

2. Activities for using comic strips

Tell the story

  • Cut up the pictures and get students to re-order the story. Make this more difficult and challenging linguistically by giving separate frames to each student in a group and ask them to not show the pictures until they have arrived at an order through describing the pictures.
  • Remove the last picture of a cartoon and ask students to think of an ending. Artistic students may like to draw the last frame. Vote for the best ending.
  • Remove the sentences under each frame and either ask lower levels to match them to each frame or ask them to write the sentences that tell the story. Lower levels might need vocabulary prompts on the board.

Make the comic strip

  • Give students a comic strip with a short paragraph for each frame. Ask students to reduce each paragraph to one sentence for each frame. Compare their efforts to the original. With higher levels you can discuss techniques of summarising your message.
  • Give students a story. Groups confer to guess what might be missing. Give them the comic strip version. They must fill in the blanks in their written story by using the comic strip pictures. Then ask them to think of speech bubbles for the comic strip. This might also include thought bubbles for characters.
  • Remove speech bubbles from a comic strip. Cut them up and give out. Ask them to order them and to imagine what the story or situation is. Groups can act out their version for the class. Then give them the comic strip and ask them to see if their speech bubbles fit the story there.
  • When you use a short story with younger learners ask them to make the story into a series of four pictures. This can be a group effort or a whole class task with each group drawing one part. If you use a black and white comic strip allow time for younger learners to colour their versions.
  • Make an information gap using a photocopied comic strip. Blank out details or change what characters are saying. Make sets which are coloured differently. Set up spot the difference activities using the comic strip and then lead in to story telling and acting out the comic strip.

3. Exploit characters

Make a comic strip character

  • Look at different comic strip heroes. Get suggestions from the class of names: Superman, Bart Simpson, Asterix, Tin Tin or others. Encourage the students to tell you about their favourite comic book characters. Ask them to describe one character in pairs.
    • What makes this character special?
    • What can they do? Have they got special powers?
    • What are their weaknesses?
    • What do they look like?
    • What are their special interests or ambitions?
  • Then ask each group or pair to choose a favourite character and make a simple situational dialogue which is typical for them.
  • Ask students to work in pairs or groups to invent their own character. If appropriate students can draw the character. Give the character special powers, a name and a special mission.
  • The final stage is to tell an everyday story involving the character.

Discuss comic strip characters (higher levels)

  • Many popular comic strips in the national press are used to challenge stereotypes and criticise discrimination. You can exploit these aspects of the stories to introduce lessons on these issues in a less formal way.
  • Many comic strip characters are seen in situations based on misunderstandings. Exploit these features of communication breakdown to discuss how characters speak to each other and what they might say. Devise role plays based on these comic strips to challenge more advanced learners. Get them to act out the next sequence in the story.

Exploit short sequences for sketches and improvisations

  • Choose a key situation which would involve language students might need to practice, such as agreeing with opinions, asking permission or saying you are sorry.
  • Play a sequence from a cartoon with the sound off so students describe what is happening, imagine what is being said and can then use the sequence to improvise a sketch. Listen to the real sketch at the end.

Internet links This site has a huge collection of comic links, from Dick Tracy to Calvin Hobbs LearnEnglish Kids comic strip maker

Language Level


Submitted by Cartoonify on Mon, 09/04/2017 - 21:11

Thank you for this information! I Also Offer my students to Create an Avatar of themselves as a task and they really love it :-) The Avatar Maker makes it really easy for them to create one! Cartoon Yourself is a really concentrated task for them :-)

Submitted by Anthony Blackberry on Tue, 03/07/2017 - 23:32

I really love using comics to promote the writing with my students, however I found out more interesting skills that I can work with them,like speaking. This link is very useful if you want to create your own cartoon

Submitted by Nicma on Wed, 11/02/2016 - 13:02

Great article!! I've been working as an English teacher for two years now and constantly looking for ways to make my classes fun! Really excited to try this one!

Submitted by shantou88 (not verified) on Tue, 06/04/2013 - 11:00

Nice article.

Here is a website that you can share directly with the students to help them get used to comic strips and having fun learning:

Submitted by okitaprof on Sat, 01/05/2013 - 15:55

could you recommend me some books that talk about teaching with comics or visuals.

Research and insight

Browse fascinating case studies, research papers, publications and books by researchers and ELT experts from around the world.

See our publications, research and insight