Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck could become regulars in elementary and middle school classrooms after Maryland's top educator encouraged teachers Thursday to use comic books to inspire students to read.

The state worked with Disney Publishing Worldwide and its educational division last year to develop a pilot project to put Mickey and Donald in eight third-grade classrooms. Disney took Maryland's reading standards and created comics-based lesson plans, incorporating skills students needed to learn, such as how to understand plot and character.

The kids loved it, educators said.

"Reading is such an important activity for all children, and using comic book-related lessons offers teachers an important new tool to draw students into the world of words," said state Superintendent Nancy Grasmick. "This project enhances other work that goes on in the reading class."

Comic books and graphic novels should not replace other forms of literature, but they can be an entry point for some reluctant readers, Grasmick said.

Students at Clarksville Elementary in Howard County worked on creating their own comic books.

"I liked thinking of the characters, like how they would act," said Natalie Ryan, 9.

Most of the participating teachers liked the program, too, said Susan Sonnenschein, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who helped evaluate the program. Researchers found that 80 percent of the teachers would like to continue using them in some form. Educators are reviewing more up-to-date comics and graphic novels for content.

Critics, though, see a worrisome trend in a generation raised on the restless pace of television, movies and video games.

"I don't think that is where I want my 9- or 10-year-old child spending their time in school," said Timothy Shanahan, president of the International Reading Association. "It might be a choice of reading 1,000 words versus 300 words," Shanahan said. "You don't want it to replace more substantial reading."