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.
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.