Standard Lesson

Pictures Tell the Story: Improving Comprehension With Persepolis

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Four 40-minute sessions
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Graphic novels, which tell real and fictional stories using a combination of words and images, are often sophisticated and involve new and intriguing topics. In this lesson, students examine the art and craft of the graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and assess the impact of visual elements on their comprehension of the beginning of the story. The goal of the lesson is to get students started so that they can successfully read and analyze the rest of the book. They will also explore the recent history of the Middle East as presented by Satrapi.

From Theory to Practice

  • The current generation of children has encountered and will continue to view more images than any previous generation. Graphic novels are a fine vehicle for helping them to develop as discerning visual consumers.

  • By providing direct instruction on the art and craft of the graphic novel, students develop an appreciation for how visual elements such as color, perspective, and point of view manipulate the viewer's emotions and influence their comprehension of various subjects.

  • Graphic novels embrace many tenets of postmodernism including the melding of highbrow and lowbrow culture, the blending of genres, and the use of diverse voices, and thus offer fresh perspectives in a newly accessible form.

Jeff Smith, the author of the Bone graphic novel series, defends graphic novels saying that the genre requires the same discipline, skill, and commitment to literary tradition as other types of texts. According to Smith, teachers and parents can and should feel comfortable embracing this form.

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.

Materials and Technology

  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon Books, 2003)

  • Sticky notes




1. Familiarize yourself with the genre of graphic novels as necessary. Review the Graphic Novel/Comics Terms and Concepts reference sheet and make a copy for each student in your class. The following websites might prove helpful in providing background information as well:

2. Obtain and familiarize yourself with Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. You will need copies of the book for each student in your class. Read the introduction, which provides good background information to share with students as needed. Review the first three chapters and carefully examine the various panels and frames that you will highlight for students. On Writing Persepolis and The Complete Review: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi are websites providing reviews, interviews, and background information about the book that you might find useful.

3. Examine the Oral Presentation Criteria sheet and decide if these skills are appropriate for your students.

4. Before beginning this lesson, provide students with background information about both graphic novels and the history surrounding Persepolis as necessary. You might want to teach a lesson about the history of the Middle East, including some background about the Iranian Revolution, such as Gaining Background for the Graphic Novel Persepolis: A WebQuest on Iran. Alternatively, you might have students visit some of the websites you reviewed during Step 1.

5. Make one copy of the Graphic Novel/Comics Terms and Concepts and the Oral Presentation Criteria sheets for each student in your class. You will also need copies of the Anecdotal Observation Form to take your own notes during Session 3.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • Gain knowledge by learning vocabulary and techniques associated with cartoons and graphic novels

  • Apply their knowledge of cartooning strategies and skills to improve their reading comprehension of the graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi by
    • examining specific pages and layouts to draw conclusions about the author's purpose and choices

    • exploring how the visual cues support or enhance text comprehension and inform the reader's understanding
  • Synthesize what they have learned by collaboratively preparing a brief oral presentation with an effective visual aid that focuses both on specific elements of graphic novels and key motifs of the text

  • Practice speaking effectively to the whole class in order to transmit thoughts and conclusions

Session 1

1. Distribute Graphic Novel/Comics Terms and Concepts to students and review it. For this introductory session, focus on the following terms: frame, panel, gutter, graphic weight (tonal difference, patterning, and saturated colors), and text features (captions versus speech balloons).

2. Activate prior knowledge about the situation in the Middle East, the role of religion, and the strictures placed on women. Set deepening students' understanding of these things as their purpose for reading Persepolis and explain that you will use an exploration of the techniques they have just been discussing to accomplish this.

3. Distribute copies of the book and ask students to open to page 3, which is the first page of the story. Direct their attention to the simple lines that frame each panel. Note that gutters are consistent. At this point, life is safe and predictable with a sense of order echoed by this visual regularity. Tell students to watch for changes in the gutters as the story progresses. At what point do they note changes in the gutters? Why does the artist choose to alter the gutters at this time? What emotions do such gutter changes evoke?

4. Ask students to look carefully at the panels on this page (you might have them number the panels from 1 to 5, starting in the top left corner). How many panels are there? How are the panels the same? How do they differ? Why do they think the author made these choices?

5. Ask students to read the captions on page 3. What does the reader learn from the captions? Direct their attentions to the second panel where the author is sitting with a group of little girls all wearing veils. The caption reveals that we can see only a little bit of the author's arm. What is the significance of this caption to the other captions on this page? What is the author foreshadowing?

6. Ask students to look at the third panel that shows a number of people protesting. Ask students to read the caption and then ask them what they notice about this panel when it is compared with the other panels on the page. Why do they think it is darker? What does the darkness symbolize? What emotion is the author representing here? Is this representation effective? What does it tell them about what will happen in the book?

7. Panels 4 and 5 see the addition of various speech bubbles. Ask students what the reader learns from these bubbles. What do the children have to say about the veils? Why do students think they are saying these things? What do the pictures show students doing with their veils? Why?

8. Examine the captions of the various panels on page 3. How do the captions differ from the speech bubbles? What kind of information is provided in the captions versus in the things the characters say?

9. Now that students have an idea of the complexities present in this graphic form, take a few minutes for them to reflect on the challenges this genre represents. Encourage them to produce a free write that explores any feelings of discomfort or confusion (text-to-self connection), connects this book to a previously read text (text-to-text connection), and links the subject matter to current news and events (text-to-world connection).

10. Instruct students to read through to page 9 noting the content of various panels and how they contribute to the understanding of the story. Specifically, they should look for how the graphic elements reveal the narrator's experience with God and religion and how her understanding of the term prophet informs her beliefs. What does it mean that the author wants to be one? What is the significance of her reasons for wanting to be a prophet?

Note: You may want to explore the term prophet further, checking for students' understanding of the concept. Depending on students' experiences, you might conduct a think-pair-share where students recount their understanding of prophet and the roles prophets have played in history, religion, and society. Be prepared to provide direct instruction that includes the following definitions: A prophet speaks by divine inspiration, sometimes predicts the future, and serves as a spokesperson of a movement or cause. You might wish to discuss that the second of the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible is called Prophets. Another example that relates to recent pop culture is the role of prophecy and prophets in the Harry Potter series of books and movies.

11. After about ten minutes of reading, students should spend five minutes discussing what they have discovered with a partner. Each partner will listen attentively so that he or she can report what a classmate discovered, thought, and questioned, and then report to the class. As a closing activity, sample responses for a few minutes.

Session 2

1. Using the Graphic Novel/Comics Terms and Concepts sheet, continue with an overview of various techniques. Highlight the layout concepts of figures, faces, foreground, midground, and background. When discussing figures, you can begin by referring generally back to the text of Persepolis to talk about how Satrapi portrays faces and what she does with hands and feet.

2. Have students refer to Persepolis, directing their attention to the upper-right panel on page 8, which offers an iconic version of God as an elderly, bearded wise man.

3. Contrast page 8 with page 11. Ask students what they notice about the human faces. How are they different from the image of God? Ask students to talk about why they think the author has chosen to represent the figures in this way and what the significance is to the story.

4. Finally examine the bottom panel on page 9. What do students notice about the faces in this panel? What do they think the figures here represent?

5. To move into a discussion about layout, remind students that understanding text structure can help them to comprehend more deeply. Make an analogy between the devices of poetry or fiction and those of a graphic novel. The poet organizes the poem into stanzas, the traditional novelist uses paragraphs and chapters, and the graphic novelist relies on panels and art in addition to chapters. Understanding these conventions and techniques will enhance the reading experience.

6. You might have students look at the following examples of different layout elements:

a. Page 11, top panel. The image offers a fine example of background providing information that is outside the text of the story.

b. Page 12, middle row, right panel. Placing the figures in the center of the panel with nothing in the background allows the reader to focus on them with no distractions.

c. Page 15, the larger of the two panels. The size and foregrounding of the suffering, flaming figures is powerful and commands attention.

d. Pages 16 and 17, depicting the hands and feet of various characters. Note how they convey many emotions. This next section provides some fine examples of how the artist reveals information about various characters.
  • Page 16, upper left. Father's folded arms suggest resolve

  • Page 16, upper middle. Marij's hands on her hips reveal determination

  • Page 16, bottom left. Marji strides purposefully toward her destiny

  • Page 17, middle left. Marji enumerates key points with her finger

  • Page 17, middle right. Father uses his hand to cover his face in sorrow.
7. Have student pairs read the chapter you have been discussing ("The Bicycle," pages 10-18) and discover additional visual elements that contribute to comprehension. As students read, they should annotate (in their notebooks or using sticky notes) any additional strategies and techniques that you have not already discussed. This guided practice offers you the opportunity to assess students' abilities to make the various necessary connections. Monitor student pairs and listen to their discussions to check for understanding. If time permits, some quick whole-class processing might be helpful.

8. Conduct a whole-class discussion where you summarize the concepts students have studied during Sessions 1 and 2. There are various ways you can do this:
  • Ask students to reflect on the opening pages of the book. Can they identify various emotions that the author reveals both in the text and the art? How does the art help transport them to the world of the main character?

  • Have students select a panel that confuses them and discuss it with a partner. What strategy can they use to improve comprehension?

  • Have students identify panels that variously provide humor, show a character's conflict, teach history, clarify the setting, and underscore the importance of religion.
You might conclude by asking students for predictions about the next chapter of the book.

Homework (due at the start of Session 3): Students should read "The Water Cell" (pages 18-25) and use sticky notes to identify as many graphic elements as possible. On a separate sheet of paper, they should list these elements and link them to the (a) character of the narrator, (b) the role of religion, (c) the political realities of the time period, or (d) the narrator's family relationship as appropriate.

Session 3

1. Have students get into groups of four to share their observations and conclusions from their homework.

2. Distribute the Oral Presentation Criteria to students and review. Explain that each group should select a specific element (layout, figures, or text) and topic (narrator's character, role of religion, political realities, or the nature of family) from the text they have read so far to present to the entire class. One student will lead the small-group discussion; another will record comments; a third will prepare a visual aid; and the fourth will prepare to present to the class.

3. Students should spend the rest of the session working collaboratively on their presentations. During this cooperative learning segment, observe and record information about how each student completes the assigned tasks using the Anecdotal Observation Form. You should visit each group and set the expectation that everyone must participate (this encourages both individual accountability and collaborative work).

Homework (due at the start of Session 4): Students should prepare for their presentations as necessary.

Session 4

1. Groups should present their findings. During the presentations, students should exhibit appropriate audience behavior and record notes. Each presenter is in essence teaching an assigned topic to the class. Students need to record key information from each group.

2. Students pose any additional questions they may have about the text they have read so far, the use of the terminology on the Graphic Novel/Comics Terms and Concepts sheet, and background information that is confusing to them.

3. Students should now be ready to complete their reading of the novel and to do any additional assignments on it that you would like to give them. You may want to conclude with a discussion that includes the following questions:
  • How does the author indicate a change in one of the characters?

  • Which technique seems the most successful in revealing the turmoil of the changes in the society?

  • How does the author use diction effectively?

  • How is the role of religion in this book similar to that in your own community? How is it different?

  • In what ways is the family in the book similar to yours? How is it different?

  • What similarities and differences can you identify between the politics of the Middle East and those in our country?

  • These questions might also make good journal prompts for students as they read the rest of the book.


Students can test how well they learned the terms and concepts associate with graphic novels by completing a crossword puzzle. Visit the online Crossword Puzzles tool and select "Play One of Ours" and the tab labeled "9-12". In the drop-down menu you will find a puzzle titled Crossed and Double Crossed—Comic Speak. Students can solve the puzzle online or you can print it off and give them blank copies. For more information about the puzzle, see Playing Puzzles: A Guide for Teachers.

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Collect students’ notes on their peers’ presentations and review to see that they have correctly identified key concepts.

  • Observe students’ participation in discussions during Sessions 2 and 3. Check for students’ comprehension of the various concepts you have taught, their use of the terminology, and their ability to apply this terminology correctly to the text.

  • Use the Oral Presentation Criteria sheet and Anecdotal Observation Form to assess student’s work individually and in groups.