(Above: Warcraft: Dragon Hunt, Volume 1: Kaplan SAT/ACT Vocabulary-Building Manga)

Comic books, once considered junk literature, may finally be helping American teenagers get into college.

Washington Post Co.’s Kaplan Inc. unit has added vocabulary words such as “sanctimonious” and “exculpate” to increasingly popular Japanese-style graphic novels known as manga. The 150- to 200-page paperbacks are designed to help teens prepare for the SAT Reasoning and ACT tests, for college screening.

Kaplan is seeking a chunk of the $330 million in annual U.S. and Canadian sales of graphic novels. Other publishers including Scholastic Corp. already supply such books to school libraries and classrooms. “Manga,” Japanese for comics, help visually stimulate students to learn and remember, educators say.

“The literary demands of the 21st century are different, so teachers need to use new ways to engage students,” says James Bucky Carter, 30, a visiting instructor of English education at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.

Because students spend so much time with television, video games and comics, teachers should use visuals to win attention, Carter says. He edited “Building Literacy Connections With Graphic Novels: Page by Page, Panel By Panel,” published by the National Council of Teachers of English, in Urbana, Illinois.

Reading skills among U.S. high school students graduating this year fell to the lowest since 1994, the College Board reported yesterday. Students need to expand their vocabularies by reading stories with challenging words, says Kathleen Blake Yancey, an English professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee, who will become president of the National Council of Teachers of English in November.

`Dragon Hunt’

The three Kaplan series, “Psy-Comm,” “Warcraft: Dragon Hunt” and “Van Von Hunter,” have big-eyed, angular characters posing on the covers. Definitions of more than 300 underlined vocabulary words appear in the page margins.

During an ambush at the beginning of “Psy-Comm,” one character shouts: “Relinquish control of this Junebug or burn!” In the margin, “relinquish” is defined as “renounce or surrender something.” The character waves a fist in the face of the aircraft’s pilot, who falls from the cockpit.

“With the action, you can tell that it’s a negative thing,” says Chelsea Hardesty, 18, senior-class president and an honors student at Loma Linda Academy in California. “It’s better than studying with flashcards.”

New York-based Kaplan’s manga are aimed only at the verbal parts of the standardized tests, and the company doesn’t have plans to add subjects. Other publishers in the U.S. and Japan have manga incorporating history and math. The SAT and ACT tests aren’t given during the summer, so manga readers don’t know yet how helpful the books will be.

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