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On Not Reading Harry Potter: Choosing Books at the Right Level

Harry Potter Is Not a Second-grade Text

Unless you’ve been living under a rock on an alien planet, you know that the Harry Potter series is probably the most appealing book series of this generation. Its allure in the classroom is bright, shining and, well, magical to children and teachers alike. But there is another thing to know about the series—Harry Potter is not a second-grade text. The majority of children in second grade cannot read and comprehend this text independently. And yet at the beginning of every year there are always one or two children who lug one HP tome or another around, hoping that the ability to divine it will magically waft through the cover and reward the one who possesses it with the ability to read every word through sheer will and desire. Alas, this is never the case.

Under the Spell

This year the first student to fall under the “I-will-myself-to-read-it” spell was Odval, an English language learner at the early intermediate level of proficiency. When she first entered my class, she did not want help, remarked loudly that work was “easy,” and lugged around Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. After the first few days of school, I realized that Odval did need help, didn’t always understand directions, and was actually pretty lost even during classroom routines. As with many English learners, she watched other students a lot and followed their lead. While this following along may look to some like “faking it,” it is actually a tried-and-true learning method for English language learners. I encourage all my students to work with peers and to ask one another if they need help. I found opportunities to praise Odval, lower her anxiety filter, and at the same time scaffold her comprehension in ways that did not single her out. As she gained trust in me and my student teacher, Odval was more willing to ask for help. Eventually she stopped insisting she understood when she didn’t.

What remained the issue of her reading. Clearly, Odval could not read Harry Potter independently. It is always tricky to take a book out of a child’s hands. Mostly because they usually are holding on to it for show, to let other children know that they are competent, confident students. And what better symbol than the most coveted book of all? I didn’t want to blow her cover but, in order to help her make progress, I had to get the right books in her hands.

The Right Book

While there is not one right book, there is a “right” level, or more accurately a “current” level. During the first two weeks of school, I assess every student using the DRA (Developmental Reading Assessment). The assessment gives me valuable information about fluency, expression, prediction, comprehension, oral language development, retelling, and reflection. It also gives me a DRA “score” which I use to determine the child’s Guided Reading Level. This is the process our district uses but there are many ways to go about assessing a child’s reading level and correlating it to a standardized leveling system. The important thing is to have a standardized way both to determine kids’ reading levels and to level the classroom library.

When I assessed Odval in September, she was at a DRA level 6. The expectation is that children will be at Level 16 by the end of first grade and at Level 28 by the end of second grade. Any way you slice it, 6 is a very low score for the beginning of second grade. But once I knew where she was, I could begin to help her progress.

Where You Are Is Where You Are

When I am introducing children’s individual reading levels to them, I begin by reading Leo the Late Bloomer by Robert Kraus. It is a story about development. The message in the story is one kids can relate to—that we all do things in our own time. I talk about learning to walk, losing a tooth, riding bikes, and that everyone does these things at a different pace. I work hard to impress on them that throughout their lives they have to accept where they are and not worry so much about comparing themselves to others. I realize that I am swimming upstream with my little speech each year. They do compare themselves to each other and they have a strong desire to fit in and look like everyone else. But this desire sometimes works against their progress, as in the case of Harry Potter.

Odval was at Guided Reading Level “D.” That meant she could choose any book from the “C” “D” and “E” box during quiet reading and during nightly homework. Not long after I told the children their levels, I sat down with Odval during independent reading. She had Harry Potter by her side. I asked her what I always ask children at the beginning of a reading conference, “Tell me what’s happening in your book right now.” She really had no idea what to say but gave some generalities about Harry being a wizard and going to school with other wizards. I told her it was one of my favorite series and we talked for a moment about the great benefits of magic. But then I told her that I was pretty sure that, while she loved the story, it was too hard for her to read independently. Odval looked down. I told her it was great to love a story and to have it read to you and to look forward to reading it alone but that the only way she’d be able to read it later is if she reads books at her level now.

The Power to Say No

Together we walked over to the book corner and browsed through the "D" box. She was reluctant to try any of the books she fingered or any of the ones I suggested. After a bit, I plucked The Foot Book from the box. “Ooh! I love this one,” I exclaimed (honestly). Odval looked skeptical. “Look,” I said, “give it a try with me and if you don’t like it, you can put it back. There are lots of other choices.” Giving her the power to put it back seemed to suffice and we returned to the table.

Partner Reading

I asked if she wanted to read the first page or if she wanted me to. She chose me. I read the first page, she read the second, and so on. Although fluent and her rate was slow and choppy, Odval was persistent. She correctly read most of the words, occasionally asking me for a word. Odval is an artist and began to smile and even chuckle at some of Dr. Seuss’s outrageous drawings. She was adamant about taking her turn. About halfway through the book, Odval read her page and then continued reading “my page” without pausing or even noticing that it was my turn. I said nothing as she continued reading. Near the end she paused for a moment and I offered to read the next page. She shook her head and kept going. By the last page she had a big grin on her face. “That was funny,” she said. I wanted to jump up and down and shout, “See! You did it!!” But I didn’t. I kept my cool and smiled, willing her to get my telepathic message that she did it, that I knew she could, and that’s what happens when you read a book at your level. Turns out I didn’t need to. She turned to me and said, “Can I check this book out and take it home? I want to read it to my mom.” It seems she got my message loud and clear.

[ed. the Lexile levels for the Harry Potter series run from 880 to 1030.]
Annie Alcott is a primary teacher. She has used DSC’s programs for several years. She has experience in second-language acquisition and teacher education and worked for five years at the University of California, Berkeley, in the Developmental Teacher Education Program as a supervisor and a lecturer.


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Comments (8)

I found this article to the

I found this article to the precisely the reason why our children can not comprehend reading novels at a young age. My daughter, jusin wt going to third grade, is on the fourth harryhst  potter novel. I have her explain what she had read, talk and interact with her about it, and she comprehends the series just the same as an adult.   I agree that 95% of her classmates would fail miserably at this, but I believe this is due to their parents lack of interaction and their willingness yo work with their child. My daughter is eight years old, and is also able to do basic calculus mentally. This isn't a protogey child, this is an accomplishment from myself, and her mother, spending a tremendous amount of time helping her achieve these goals.   Parents should make attempts for their children to break age restrictions on when their children are able to work with something that may be a higher grade level. Simply stating that something is flat out NOT suitable is failing our children and our society.

Posted on behalf of the

Posted on behalf of the author Annie Alcott:

You raise some good points about the importance of parents reading to and with their children of all ages. I could not agree more.  If I woke one day to find myself with a functional magic wand, one of my first acts as a teacher would be to put books in the hands of every parent and child and have them read together from birth on up. All children, prodigies or not, can learn to read almost anything fluently and with good comprehension. (I say almost because while I myself could decode a medical textbook, I cannot say that I would fully comprehend it. 95% comprehension is our goal.) All children are capable of great things. What I argued for in the blog was not to limit children in any way. My argument was that in order to be able to read anything and everything, children have to read books at a level that is accurate and appropriate to them in that moment in time. I sometimes rankle at the use of the term "grade level text." I know I used it in my blog and that is because it is handy. But the idea of "reading at grade level" is a ballpark estimate meant to describe the average child. And in speaking about finding a great book at the correct level for an individual child, my point was to acknowledge that it is individual children we are speaking about. Odval could not read Harry Potter in second grade. But by the time she was in fourth grade (this past year), she could read it. And love it. Teachers and parents need to know each child's reading levels in order to guide children in elevating those levels to great heights.

Harry Potter taught me to

Harry Potter taught me to read. I was 8, and not all that interested in the idea. I had no trouble with the book, maybe it is because I grew up with nteractive educated parents. And part of it is because I WANTED to understand it. If I happened to not know a word, I'd ask my parents. I couldn't understand "A Wrinkle in Time" for the life of me when it was taught in class a few years later. I don't think it was necessarily more complicated, I just really didn't like it. I even re-read it as an adult, still don't like it. But maybe for the general population this is true about Harry Potter, but the most important thing is finding books with compelling stories, which is hard to do for every student. 

I agree with the other

I agree with the other commenters...I believe HP can be effective at the 2nd grade level for some students. ihave tutored extensively and we used Harry Potter for children with dyslexia because there are so many words that must be sounded out. The early elementary children did very well with it. We focused on comprehension as well as decoding, and the students displayed a good knowledge of the story line. I believe that by telling people, "this is never the case," forces every student to learn at the same level and ignores that some students are more gifted than others and/or are more gifted in one subject than another. My own child, who is 8, is capable of reading and comprehending at a 6th grade level. Why should I force him to read 2nd grade level books that he finds uninteresting simply because he is 8? One-size-fits-all education models are not ideal, in my opinion.

I don't think some of the

I don't think some of the above commentets quite understand what the author is saying. What this teacher is doing is the OPPOSITE of one size fits all, she's providing a perfect example of differentiation. She didn't deny tge student Harry Potter because she was 8,she did it because the child was independently reading on a DRA level 6, which is roughly the beginning of first grade. Harry Potter is about a DRA 44-50+ book. The concept is to start where the child's zoneof proximal development is and accelerate the child from there as quickly as possible, using a gradual release model to gain independence as quickly as possible. You will notice that the teacher encourages the student to have someone read Harry Potter to her, which exposes the student to extended text, higher level vocabulary, and the enjoyment of the subject. Way to go, teacher!

I fully disagree with the

I fully disagree with the fact that Harry Potter is too advanced for a second grader because when I was six (and just started second grade) I started reading the first Harry Potter book by myself and finished reading it sometime after my seventh birthday.  According to my parents, and the  few memories I still have of the time I first picked up the book, I was able to understand a good portion of the book without the help of any one.  Then one day the teacher found out that I was starting to read the Harry Potter series she scolded my parents for letting me read the series because it was way over my comprehension level.  It really wasn't.  The teacher then made me pick a different series, but when I picked a significantly easier book, she again said it was too difficult for me to understand.  That book series was a second grade level book.  That teacher's pessimistic attitude towards my reading abilities was one of the reasons I was dettered away from from my favorite past time. Teachers should not tell discourage their student from reading books that challenge the students vocabulary.

My 7 year old daughter just

My 7 year old daughter just graduated the 2nd grade, and will be going into 3rd. She is currently reading me Harry Potter, out loud. We do one chapter at a time a couple times per day. She reads it easily and is even beginning to use some character voices. After each chapter she can give me a description of what she has read. So as far as this article is concerned, I call BS. Each child progresses at their own pace and has their own strengths. My daughter is an accelerated reader but needs a little extra help in math, just like I was as a child. She should not be held back in her reading because other children are not at her level. That is just silly.

While I can agree that most

While I can agree that most children are not capable of reading these books there are children who can. My 7 year old who frequently rrads and comprehends fourth through sixth grade books is being told at school she is not capable of such reading. So while keeing books appropriate for the child children should not be discouraged from reading.

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