The verdict is in and it's unanimous: the Harry Potter series has had an astounding impact on the literacy of young readers.
The long, intriguing books have not only sated the appetites of confirmed bookworms for a decade, they've achieved nothing short of a magical feat: inspiring kids who are not avid readers and lo, even boys (who don't read as much as girls), to spend more time with the written word.
"They're reading more, reading more fantasy, and they're reading longer books - which requires more concentration for longer periods of time. That translates into more skillful readers," said Jim Trelease, author of The Read Aloud Handbook, in an e-mail interview.
"When the U.S. reading scores for fourth-graders rose significantly
last year, some folks in Washington were quick to claim the victory as due
to more and more testing. Maybe. But many of us doubt it. But when you
realize that those fourth-graders were the first generation to be raised in a
world in which Harry Potter was ubiquitous in so many places - I'm thinking that presence played a role in higher scores."
A 2006 survey of 500 kids 17 and younger, and their parents, quizzed at 25 urban U.S. malls, noted that 51 percent of those who read Potter said they hadn't read books for fun before they were introduced to the young wizard of Hogwarts, but they have since.
The survey, by Scholastic Corp. (U.S. publisher of the Potter books) and Yankelovich, Inc., also found that more boys than girls have read Potter (57 percent vs. 51 percent), and more boys than girls said they didn't read books for fun before Potter (61 percent vs. 41 percent),
Their parents (89 percent) said reading J.K. Rowling's books imbued their youngsters with a greater sense of reading pleasure. And considering that humans repeated things that give them pleasure, enjoyment with one book is likely to lead to another.
Peer pressure plays a part here, fed by oceans of Potter publicity, midnight bookstore parties, and the accomplishment of having conquered a 700-page doorstop. Indeed, the survey noted that 63 percent of boys said it was important to read Potter so they'd feel "in" with their friends, compared to 44 percent of the girls interviewed.
"When many of the most influential students in the school or neighborhood are reading a particular book, that pleasure factor creeps into the picture," Mr. Trelease said. "It makes a kid feel good to be able to converse with all the other kids about the books."
Heather Augustyniak, 14, wasn't a big reader but became enamored with Harry Potter after she saw one of the movies a few years ago. She tried reading the tomes and listening to the audio books, but what worked best was having her mom read aloud a couple of chapters every day.
Heather's listening/memory skills are strong, said her mother, Maggie Augustyniak, adding that because Heather was born prematurely, she experiences some learning challenges. "She's able to memorize what she hears."
Heather, who will be at a West Toledo bookstore Friday night dressed in a Hermione costume her mother made, has since read, on her own, two other fantasy series.
"Reading is fun. And you learn new stuff," Heather said. She also acquired some financial acumen when bidding for Potter items on-line. And, a school presentation she made on how to collect Potter paraphernalia was a big hit with her classmates.
Reading teaches how to think. It builds vocabulary and helps people make inferences and connect information, which is central to all learning, said Eileen Carr, professor of literacy in the University of Toledo's college of education. And it helps kids to visualize, which leads to deeper understanding.
"You want kids to be engaged and challenged," said Carr.
Kelly Duwve has seen children carrying around the hefty tomes, proclaiming that they're reading Harry Potter, when she knows their skills aren't sophisticated enough.
"I'll say come sit down and read it to me," said Duwve, a literacy specialist for Sylvania Schools. "And they generally struggle over many of the words. I'll ask if this is a just-right book for them."
For the families of these "emerging" readers, she has a suggestion: "The greatest thing those parents can do is to read it aloud to them."
Cindy Hendricks has listened to all the Potter books on tape as she's driven from Bowling Green State University, where she's a professor of literacy instruction, to her home in Muncie, Ind. Listening to the story is valuable for kids who have a hard time with the text.
"You're still developing comprehension skills while you're listening, and a sense of imagination about what the characters look like," said Hendricks.
Series of books are particularly valuable, noted Susanna Hapgood.
"The great thing about a series - and this has been true since even before Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys - is that readers become familiar with the characters and come to anticipate how various characters may react in different situations," wrote Hapgood in an e-mail to The Blade. She's an assistant professor of literacy at UT.
"When children are familiar with some of the characters and settings in a story, it can free up cognitive resources that children can use to figure out new vocabulary or to think about and ask questions about new situations their favorite characters encounter." The result is both satisfaction and motivation.
Throughout the Potter decade, Jennifer Habrych has observed an evolution on the bookshelves at Barnes & Noble Bookseller, where she's the community relations manager. She points to expanded sections for youth and teens, especially in the genres of fantasy and science fiction.
"It seems like part of the thing with Harry Potter is that kids like the idea that the books continue on and on," she said.
Popular trilogies and series for youth include Lemony Snicket, Warriors, Guardians, the Spiderwick Chronicles, Inheritance, the Narnia Chronicles, the books of J.R.R. Tolkein, and for younger children, My Father's Dragon.
"Whenever there's something that's tremendously popular, everybody tries to copy it," said Habrych.
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