Teaching with Political and Editorial Cartoons

by Jackie Taylor

Why Cartoons? Lots of Reasons!

The GED 2002 Series has a greater percentage of questions that test critical thinking skills. Analyzing editorial cartoons strengthens analytical and other higher order thinking skills. The media uses cartoons to convey not just political, but also social issues; therefore teachers can use editorial cartoons to teach a variety of skills while integrating editorial cartoons across GED content areas.

Challenges in Using Editorial Cartoons in the Classroom

Editorial cartoons can be difficult for learners to interpret: in order to understand the cartoon or engage with its “message,” cartoons may draw upon either an unfamiliar context or prior knowledge that the learner does not have. As a result, teachers may find themselves teaching the historical and social background to get at the “context” (and presumably “meaning”) conveyed in an editorial cartoon, versus the skills needed to decipher its meaning.

Tips from Teachers

Responses to these concerns were offered by two different teachers:

Building Skills to Decipher Meaning

“I actually feel that it is important to NOT let understanding context be a litmus test. Instead, I focus on building the skills students need to read, decipher, and decode cartoons’ meaning. I remind the students of what skills they need to use each time they read one. I speak about condensed meaning—using analogy of condensed milk (i.e. “thick with meaning”)—so they have to look at all parts, symbolism, and think about what they already know about the issue or topic.

We practice talking through the cartoons so that we can all see the understanding evolve. Even if students do not know the context, being able to narrow down meaning and to decipher part of context will equip them to do better when they do have to make an educated guess. It is impossible to know all contexts for all political cartoons (or anything, for that matter). It is possible to learn to employ skills, like parachutes, when necessary.

–Melissa Monti, East Petersburg, PA, NIFL-AALPD subscriber

Looking for the Central Message

The central message of the cartoon may be universal instead of content-oriented. For example, a GED question might be one regarding the meaning of a picture showing a mustached, saber-wielding, Teddy Roosevelt stepping on the neck of a young Fidel Castro. The person would most likely select the correct answer. The overriding message of the picture would be superiority and victory. The contextual clues of communism, democracy, etc. would seem to be unnecessary unless the correct answer dealt with these issues and not the central message.

–Bryan Wilson, NIFL-AALPD subscriber

How to Get Started

  • Start with cartoons of interest to the learners; ones they would like to explore. Encourage the class to generate and maintain a collection of cartoons that they find interesting.
  • Try Daryl Cagle’s suggested process for editorial cartoon analysis:
    • What is the event or issue that inspired the cartoon?
    • Are there any real people in the cartoon? Who is portrayed in the cartoon?
    • Are there symbols in the cartoon? What are they and what do they represent?
    • What is the cartoonist’s opinion about the topic portrayed in the cartoon?
    • Do you agree or disagree with the cartoonist’s opinion? Why?
  • Put process for analyzing cartoons in different formats – linear, flowchart. Perhaps they just need a way to organize it that suits their strengths.
  • Connect cartoons that have a historical context to current events. What historical figures could be replaced with political figures today so that the cartoon still makes sense?
  • Integrate other “subjects” to the cartoon, or use the cartoon to segue into something else.
  • Ask learners to identify the skills they learned and how that skill can help them with other areas.
  • Use a transparency quadrant overlay as a visual guide in analyzing the cartoon.
  • Use graphic organizers to help learners analyze the context and/or the message conveyed in political cartoons: fishbone, cause/effect sunburst.

Additional Activities

  • Ask students to create their own drawings and interpretations of political events.
  • Use quotes—from newspapers, from political figures, of their choosing—and have students make an editorial cartoon from them.
  • Use cartoons to initiate class discussion, dialogue, debate, journal, and essay writing.


Ask the students to review each others’ cartoons and see if they can decipher meaning. Some students may be naturally better at deciphering meaning and others may be better at creating the cartoons themselves.

Additional Considerations

Be prepared to facilitate discussions that may lend themselves to debate. Try to clarify your own position beforehand and consider how this will impact how you facilitate discussion on the topic.


Daryl Cagle’s site, is packed with editorial cartoons.

The National Archives has worksheets for analyzing cartoons, pictures, and more.

The Montana LINCS Pilot Project has a section devoted to political cartoons.

Another good source of political cartoons is Tom Tomorrow’s cartoon archive.

The Steck-Vaughn’s GED Social Studies (ISBN 0-7398-2834-7) book has a chapter (#10) on Recognizing Unstated Assumptions in Political cartoons.