The Harry Potter Effect: Slow and Steady Still Wins the Race
“He’s reading Harry Potter, can you believe it?!” Working as the learning specialist at a private school in an affluent community, it seems like I often have the same conversation with parents. They stop me in the hallway to let me know that their five or six-year-old is reading Harry Potter—“Isn’t that awesome?” they exclaim. “That’s wonderful,” I usually reply, but what I really want to say is “Your child is decoding Harry Potter, not reading it, furthermore, those kinds of experiences can accumulate and end up leading to poor comprehension skills down the road.” Until now, I have not been able to bring myself to say that. As a parent myself, I also like reassurance that my child is a genius but, as a teacher specializing in literacy, I am beginning to uncover a trend. Early readers are not necessarily better readers. Actually, in my experience tracking the progress of children in nursery through eighth grade, the children who develop their reading skills later are consistently “better” readers, particularly in the realm of comprehension.
Take Sarah and Aaron, both currently in fourth grade. When Sarah was in kindergarten, her parents would have her read whole sentences out of the newspaper. Her teacher gave her a bin of challenging books that she could not wait to read during free-play time. Sarah continued into first grade in the highest reading group, reading with second graders, since she was so advanced. She could not have been more proud. When asked what she liked about school, she would beam and answer, “I’m the best reader in my class.” In contrast, Aaron ended his kindergarten year still as an emergent reader. He knew his letter-sounds, but needed prompts from the teacher to apply phonics rules to texts. When reading independently, Aaron continued to invent a storyline by examining and interpreting the illustrations, but was not interested in putting his efforts into decoding the words on the page. Both his teacher and his parents remember Aaron excitedly participating in discussions about books read in class and by his parents at home. They remember Aaron’s unique ability to make predictions and draw inferences as seeming mature for his age. Aaron finished first grade with grade-level decoding skills and continued into second grade making steady, but slow progress.
By the end of second grade and into the beginning of third grade, the momentums of these two students shifted—Aaron’s ramped up considerably, while Sarah’s slowed almost to a halt. Sarah went from being a proud member of the advanced reading group, to a reluctant participant in the on-grade-level group. Her third grade teacher had changed her placement because she noticed that Sarah’s reading comprehension was not on par with her fluency skills. Though Sarah could still read any text that was put in front of her, she struggled to retell, revealing significant gaps in her understanding. Sarah’s fourth grade teacher continues to complain that Sarah does not “read deeply.” Aaron, on the other hand, advanced rapidly as a reader in third and fourth grade. He consistently achieved excellent scores on reading comprehension tests and both his third and fourth grade teachers complimented him on his insightful reading responses. Aaron was placed in the top reading group in fourth grade and, when asked how he perceives himself as a student, he responded that he considers himself a “very strong student.” When asked the same question, Sarah shrugged her shoulders.
In my experience, early decoders are at risk of becoming “gisters”—what I like to call students who are satisfied with getting the “gist” of what they read as opposed to deep, thorough comprehension. Here is what I think is happening: children who begin to decode at a very young age are positively reinforced with more and more reading material that becomes much too advanced for the very young child. That is, though some children are whizzes at breaking down two, three, and even four syllable words, they most likely do not have the vocabulary or the maturity necessary for understanding these texts. And, yet, because they read them fluently, parents (and unfortunately some teachers) continue to push them to read longer, more sophisticated books. Gradually, these decoding geniuses develop a devastating habit—they get used to getting the gist of what they read and that is what reading becomes for them. They cannot distinguish between real, deep comprehension and almost adequate understanding because they have not accumulated enough experiences of the former before they become experts at the latter. This is the “Harry Potter Effect”—when young students’ arm muscles get overdeveloped carrying around texts that are much too heavy, while their brain’s reading comprehension muscles go underdeveloped.
The symptoms of the Harry Potter Effect persist well past kindergarten and first grade. They appear even more severe as these early readers seem to plateau in their growth just as their peers begin to catch up. Children suffering from the Harry Potter Effect feel these symptoms most acutely as they sense their status as the “best” is being threatened. Children whose self-esteem is bonded so tightly with their image as being “smart”—which is consistently the adjective parents and schools use to describe children who read at a young age—can experience painful resentment as they see more and more of their peers placed in the advanced reading group and thrive there. These first graders who had proudly shared with anyone who would listen that they were reading Harry Potter are at risk of becoming fourth graders who must be incentivized in order to read anything at all.
The symptoms of the Harry Potter Effect register not only in the realm of emotion and self-esteem; they threaten to pervade the entire realm of reading comprehension. Children who begin to read independently at an older age approach the reading process more systematically and with more maturity. These students employ a variety of comprehension tools such as accessing background knowledge and drawing on a much larger bank of vocabulary. They are able to use fix-up strategies when meaning is lost because they are more able to self-monitor. Essentially, they can feel the difference between really understanding and getting the gist. Those children suffering most intensely from the Harry Potter Effect are numb to that feeling because they were never able to fully develop that sense in their early stages of reading.
So, how do we as teachers and parents prevent this condition from spreading? We must educate and reeducate our school communities about “just-right” books. Richard Allington, a literacy expert, states that a just-right book is one that a student can decode with 97percent accuracy (What Really Matters for Struggling Readers: Designing Research-Based Programs, 2005). This must only be a small measure of what we consider a just-right book. For a book to truly be considered just-right, it must also be 97percent comprehensible; that is, a student must be able to demonstrate deep comprehension through retelling, asking and answering comprehension questions, making and checking predictions, drawing inferences, and making connections. For teachers, this means spending one-on-one time with students, our youngest students especially, to assess not only their ability to read a page of text smoothly, but also to comprehend an entire text thoroughly. This also means educating parents about the importance of reading comprehension and simple ways to monitor and strengthen reading comprehension at home. Parents need to understand that real reading is about understanding and it takes so much more than just decoding the words to achieve that understanding.
The difference between good readers and excellent readers emerges not in those early years but in those later years when students transition from learning to read to reading to learn. The children with the strongest foundations become the students who are able to read carefully and thoroughly, extracting and synthesizing important information from complex texts. I often use the following analogy with parents—I remember myself as a child in the second grade, desperately waiting for my first tooth to fall out so I could put up a construction paper tooth on the class graph, where some of my friends already had up four, five, even eight teeth. My dentist patiently explained to my seven-year-old self, “There is absolutely nothing that we can do to make the process move any faster and, most of the time, the teeth that come in later, when they are good and ready, are so much stronger.” While that explanation did not appease me then, I find it particularly appropriate when applied to the process of learning to read. We must be patient with the knowledge that strong foundations are built slowly and systematically.
It is difficult to explain all of this to excited parents in the hallway. We all want our students, our children, to be geniuses; but, in order to allow them to grow to their fullest potential, please don’t allow them to read Harry Potter until they are good and ready.
Rachel Zivic is the learning specialist and literacy coordinator at Kellman Brown Academy (New Jersey). Zivic has been teaching in the classroom for 10 years and has two small children, ages four and 18 months.