J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter, the Dolores Umbridge Syndrome, & Teaching Reading

By Cambourne, Brian | New England Reading Association Journal, May 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter, the Dolores Umbridge Syndrome, & Teaching Reading


Cambourne, Brian, New England Reading Association Journal


J.K. Rowling's latest effort, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, sold 6.9 million copies in 24 hours, proving once again that she is a publishing phenomenon (Rowling, 2005). Her success has also highlighted the power that a good story can have on the reading behaviour of children (and adults).

Since she published her first Harry Potter book, the media has been rife with praise from grateful parents and teachers for the role which her books have played in re-engaging children with reading. Jay J. Ambrose's opinion piece in the Arizona Star is typical of the praise being heaped on J.K. Rowling's skill at turning kids into sustained readers of long complex texts.

Wherein lies the power of the Harry Potter phenomenon to engage so many children in sustained reading? Are there any implications for the pedagogy of reading in the Harry Potter phenomenon? Ambrose obviously thinks there are. He goes as far as indirectly hinting at what these might be, thus, "In the reading of these books, they [i.e. readers] exercise mental muscles necessary for conceptual comprehension. They learn vocabulary and grammar. "

As a journalist, Ambrose is probably not aware of the strong research evidence which supports his intuition. Had he googled "Free Voluntary Reading" he might have been pleasantly surprised to find there is a strong evidential base which supports him. This evidence shows clearly that recreational reading (i.e. "free voluntary reading") has a powerful effect on language and literacy development (Krashen 2004). Not only does this research show that time spent reading for pleasure has a stronger impact on increasing reading test scores than time spent on traditional "skill-building" activities, such as vocabulary drill and reading comprehension exercises but also that recreational readers pick up vocabulary ten times as faster, than they do lockstep, drill and practice teaching (Krashen, 2004).

It seems that if students have positive attitudes toward reading, if they find it to be an extremely pleasurable activity, if they find the material they read meaningful, interesting, and exciting, they will engage deeply with texts for sustained periods of time. Avid reading it seems, is a self-perpetuating, self-generating activity; The more avid readers read, the more avid they become. Neither the size or complexity of texts seems to be relevant. According to the research cited above, an important by-product of avid reading is a dramatic increase in readers' comprehension skills, spelling , grammar and quality of writing, increases that cannot be replicated merely by implementing intensive regimes of explicit, systematic instruction.

When it comes to implementing intensive regimes of explicit, systematic instruction, there is delicious irony embedded in the Harry Potter series. It involves Dolores Umbridge the Hogwarts "high inquisitor". She taught her speciality in magic by insisting that they read, silently, theory from a dull text book. She explicitly forbad any opportunities to put the theory into practice. The result was that her pupils disengaged with her, and formed an underground group to practice the spells they'd read.

I'm concerned that some of the practices teachers are being asked to implement in their classrooms could have the same effect on children's future reading behaviours. Unfortunately, most of students in these classrooms, unlike Harry and his peers, will not have the skills or know-how to form underground groups. The advocates of this advice can be very persuasive. They justify the practices they advocate on the grounds that it's supported by "evidence-based research", (EBR).

Unfortunately much of this evidence "base" has emerged from narrow, almost extremist views of what constitutes both effective reading and good research. While the findings of such research can give us valuable insights into how we can improve classroom practice, sometimes they contain a few grains of truth on which advocates of certain theoretical positions proceed to build huge, untested edifices of pedagogical assumption. …

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