Friday, July 13, 2007

Harry Potter Having Limited Effect on Reading Habits

Tuesday's New York Times ran an interesting story on the Harry Potter phenomenon. The piece argued that despite the intense spike in reading among young kids, the series' influence in promoting lifelong reading habits has been limited:

Of all the magical powers wielded by Harry Potter, perhaps none has cast a stronger spell than his supposed ability to transform the reading habits of young people. In what has become near mythology about the wildly popular series by J. K. Rowling, many parents, teachers, librarians and booksellers have credited it with inspiring a generation of kids to read for pleasure in a world dominated by instant messaging and music downloads.

And so it has, for many children. But in keeping with the intricately plotted novels themselves, the truth about Harry Potter and reading is not quite so straightforward a success story. Indeed, as the series draws to a much-lamented close, federal statistics show that the percentage of youngsters who read for fun continues to drop significantly as children get older, at almost exactly the same rate as before Harry Potter came along.

There is no doubt that the books have been a publishing sensation. In the 10 years since the first one, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” was published, the series has sold 325 million copies worldwide, with 121.5 million in print in the United States alone. Before Harry Potter, it was virtually unheard of for kids to queue up for a mere book. Children who had previously read short chapter books were suddenly plowing through more than 700 pages in a matter of days. Scholastic, the series’s United States publisher, plans a record-setting print run of 12 million copies for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” the eagerly awaited seventh and final installment due out at 12:01 a.m. on July 21.

But some researchers and educators say that the series, in the end, has not permanently tempted children to put down their Game Boys and curl up with a book instead. Some kids have found themselves daunted by the growing size of the books (“Sorcerer’s Stone” was 309 pages; “Deathly Hallows,” will be 784). Others say that Harry Potter does not have as much resonance as titles that more realistically reflect their daily lives. “The Harry Potter craze was a very positive thing for kids,” said Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, who has reviewed statistics from federal and private sources that consistently show that children read less as they age. “It got millions of kids to read a long and reasonably complex series of books. The trouble is that one Harry Potter novel every few years is not enough to reverse the decline in reading....”

Young people are less inclined to read for pleasure as they move into their teenage years for a variety of reasons, educators say. Some of these are trends of long standing (older children inevitably become more socially active, spend more time on reading-for-school or simply find other sources of entertainment other than books), and some are of more recent vintage (the multiplying menagerie of high-tech gizmos that compete for their attention, from iPods to Wii consoles). What parents and others hoped was that the phenomenal success of the Potter books would blunt these trends, perhaps even creating a generation of lifelong readers in their wake.
That's sound fair. Yet, the Times article leans a bit too much on the anecdotal to make the case. While duly citing a Scholastic/Yankelovich survey on young reading habits -- which finds that school-age Harry Potter readers read more, and plan to find new books to read after completing The Deathly Hallows -- the Times stresses the examples of just a few kids, who say they are burned out or have lost interest in reading.

Maybe more research could be done on the effects of Harry Potter on young reading habits. The trend is certainly in the right direction. It's great to see more and more kids picking up big, fat novels to read for hours on end. The article is right to highlight that
parents can have a dramatic impact on reading habits and future learning achievement.

I could add my own anectdotal data to support that conclusion: My 11-year old son's a pretty big reader. After showing him the Times article, he got a little defensive, eventually dismissing the notion that the Harry Potter books had not influenced his reading habits. That's good news for my family. I dearly hope more kids will read, Harry Potter or not. My years of college teaching do support the notion of the wide variety of technology gadgets and mass media diversions that compete with -- and hinder -- the reading development of those in the pre-collegiate population.

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