Lessons Learned from a Summer With Harry Potter

This blog post first ran in August of 2011. As you are deep in your own summer reading, keep these tips in mind for your own children or future students.

This summer I watched my daughter work through all of the Harry Potter books. I’d always wondered when the famous wizard would make an appearance in our house, and the summer of her ninth birthday proved to be the time.

Watching her work through the series was fascinating. The first few books were easy for her; comprehension was not much of an issue. But with the fourth book, she began to struggle a bit. There were themes new to her and syntax she was not familiar with. The characters were older and therefore dealing with more mature issues. At times her comprehension broke down and she could tell she was missing some things. At the end of book five, for instance, she said she understood what happened but she wanted to read the last section again with me because something did not quite seem right. There was something she felt she had missed.

As a teacher, I know the last few books were probably not quite right for her. If she were in my classroom, I probabl would have steered her clear of them and toward books closer to her level. As a parent, however, I know that when it strikes, Pottermania is hard to resist. Denying her the last few books of the series would mean waging a bit of a war.

So we decided to let her work through the series as a summer reading project. As she read, I was reminded of a few things.

First, when a child is motivated, it’s amazing what they are willing to work through. These books are really long. The later books are over 800 pages. These were by far the longest books she has ever read. Even when she found it rough going she stayed with it. Self-motivation was the only push she needed. Tapping into a child’s intrinsic motivation has always been a cornerstone of my work, but it was fascinating to watch it play out with my own daughter.

Second, when kids really care about what they are reading, they stop to make sure they understand it. Oftentimes I’ve seen kids rush through things that are too hard. I have watched students skip difficult sections of books-they are more than willing to move on even if they don’t get it. Because Karina knew that what happened at the end of book five had a direct impact on book six, she was unwilling to just accept what she did not understand. Her caring about what happened made the difference here.

Third, choice is critical. Earlier in the year I had suggested that she read the first Potter book. At that time she rejected it out of hand. It was only when a friend started reading the series that her interest peaked. Choosing the book gave her a sense of ownership she would not have had if she was reading because I told her to.

Fourth, talking about books makes a difference. When Karina had a sleepover with a friend, all they did was talk about the books. They discussed interesting sections, rehashed details, and clarified what each thought about important passages. They even re-read parts aloud together, giggling over Hermione and Ron. All of this was unsupervised and unprovoked book talk. The conversations did two things. They helped deepen both girls’ understanding of the books and it continued to build their motivation for reading.

So as schools open, I am reminded of these things while I help teachers set up their reading time. Motivating students, tapping into things they care about, giving them choice, and providing the space and time to talk about their reading makes a big difference-not only in how much students read-but also in how much they end up understanding.

Lessons learned from a great wizard.

Note: The Lexile levels for the Harry Potter series run from 880 to 1030.