Monday, July 18, 2005

Why Harry Potter isn't getting kids Hooked on Reading

Harry Potter has created a tremendous surge of interest in reading. Children read Harry Potter voraciously; they even read the books over and over again. However, many children aren't moving on to enthusiastically devour their local bookstore or school library. They get stuck on Harry, and nothing else. When they're done with Harry, they go back to TV and video games, and complain that books are too long or difficult to read (despite having read hundreds of pages of Harry).

Why is this? Why doesn't reading Harry Potter translate into a general love of reading? Is Harry Potter so spectacularly head and shoulders above the rest of the literary pack? Well, not really. Harry Potter is well written and well crafted, but that's simply on par with most other fantasy fiction. I think the difference is the marketing.

Harry Potter is a marketing phenomenon, and in our herd-like trend-following jump-on-the-latest-bandwagon society, this creates an unusual situation. Children who've never seen the inside of a bookstore before, let alone a public library, are dressed up in costumes and carted off to the bookstore with the flashiest launch party for each Harry Potter. Since the books are good, and because of the collective pressure to have read Harry, the children read the books. They enjoy them tremendously, but they don't take their newfound love of reading any farther than Harry.

You see, unless a movie is made, there isn't really any marketing for books other than Harry Potter. The Lord of the Rings is now a great movie trilogy, and lo and behold, kids are reading Lord of the Rings. But they're not reading The Hobbit. Since the only thing they know about books is the advertising for Harry Potter, children don't realize that when they're done with Harry, more entertainment awaits them in their local bookstore or library.

The problem isn't that there aren't good books out there. I have hundreds of great adventures on the shelves lining the walls of my home. The problem is that our society doesn't encourage a culture of reading in the home. Right from the time they're toddlers, instead of reading to their children, parents are dropping them in front of the TV to watch the latest DVD. In our schools, the curriculum and demands on teachers are so heavy that many teachers don't feel they have the time to read long books out loud to their classes, or to design lessons around good literature. Of course, in school, most reading is considered "work". Teachers are pressured to constantly assess, measure, evaluate; so children are too seldom encouraged to read for the simple pleasure of reading. Giving children a love of reading is best done at home.

How do we create a culture of reading, so that kids know where to go beyond Harry? It's easier than you think. Read out loud to your children from the very beginning. Read them interesting books, not poorly-written drivel that will turn their brains to mush. Keep a dictionary at hand, and when they don't know a word, tell them to look it up. Long words are interesting. They're the meat of our language. The short high-frequency words emphasized in schools are the mere bones.

Take your children to the public library on a regular basis. Make it an adventure. Make it a family tradition they look forward to each week. Regular trips to the library (and the bakery next door) with my Mom are something I remember fondly from childhood. The library was my second home back then, and now that I'm an adult, my home has become a library. Speaking of adults, you also need to practice what you preach. Children won't become avid readers if they never see anyone at home reading a book. You have to model behaviour for them. If they see you reading on a regular basis, if they can talk about books with you, then they'll become readers. Simple as that.

Some reading resources:

Helping your child to read

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