Written by Guest Contributor Kapil Vasudev, Education Librarian

This is the second in a series of posts introducing teachers to manga. The previous post covered the origins of manga and the manga publishing industry. This week’s post will explain how to read manga and manga visual shorthand. It will conclude with a classroom activity inspired by manga’s visual style.

A Brief Introduction to Manga for Teachers, Part 2

How to Read Manga

Manga translated and published in English was originally flipped in orientation so that it could be read from left to right. However, due to production costs, a desire to reduce the length of translation from Japanese to English, and an interest in creating a reading experience more akin to reading manga in Japan, manga in English is mostly published right to left. This creates an obstacle for English readers who are not used to reading in that direction.

A guide depicting the proper order for reading panels on a manga page.
(Source: Wikihow)

In general, manga will be read from right to left and then top to bottom. This applies to reading both the panels in a page as well as the speech bubbles within each panel.

The Manga Style: Visual Shorthand

In Japan, the term “manga” is used generically to refer to any story told using images, including Western comics. Outside Japan, “manga” refers to comics originating from Japan as well as non-Japanese comics that utilize techniques strongly associated with the Japanese style of visual storytelling. Because of the intense publication schedule of manga, manga creators use a variety of visual shortcuts to ease production and to efficiently communicate important ideas. Manga also typically does not make use of caption boxes or thought bubbles to reveal the inner thoughts or emotional states of characters, so visual cues are used in their place.

The face and particularly the eyes are important conduits for expressing a variety of emotions in manga.

An image demonstrating “throbbing veins” and a “sweatdrop.”
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the image above, the red shape represents throbbing veins and indicate anger, irritation, and/or frustration. A single sweatdrop is an incredibly common visual convention that represents a wide variety of emotions based on context, but typically include embarrassment or exasperation. The following image provides examples of common ways to depict specific emotional states in the manga style.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Manga Inspired Classroom Activities

The following activities are inspired primarily by the visual shorthand style frequently employed in manga.

Communicating Concepts

Manga artists communicate both simple and complex concepts purely through images. This activity gives students an opportunity to practice doing the same.


  1. Choose two students to come to a whiteboard.
  2. Choose an item at random and give the competing students a limited amount of time (30 seconds – 2 minutes) to draw a simple sketch depicting the item.
  3. At the end of time, have the class determine which drawing was more effective at conveying the chosen item and discuss why. Also, discuss if there were even more effective strategies for depicting the item.
  4. Progressively increase the difficulty of the items to be drawn, from physical items and professions to emotional states and character traits.


  1. Easy items: fire truck, cowboy, alien, treasure
  2. Intermediate items: teacher, anger, boredom
  3. Difficult items: devout, frugal, sneaky

Alternative method:

  1. Have each student complete a worksheet with multiple items of varying difficulties listed in an appropriately limited time frame.
  2. Have students share with a partner and discuss the reasons for the strategies they chose and what was effective and what was not.

Manga Journal

Manga’s use of simple visual shorthand also makes it tremendously versatile. Have students apply these techniques to tell stories about their life.


  1. Everyday, give students a prompt to tell a story from their life. Examples range from “Write about your favorite birthday party” to “Describe your commute to school.”
  2. Have students tell the story in the form of a manga, using visual shorthand techniques that have been discussed in class.
  3. Allow students to share their journals with an instructor and/or their fellow classmates to get feedback on the effectiveness of their use of the techniques.