Harry Potter and the Literacy Phenomenon

By Tanaqui

In 1997, a little book about a young wizard was published. Two years later, a second and third sequel followed, and suddenly the series was receiving a considerable bit of attention from school children and teenagers. By the time the fourth book was published, special parties had been planned and were held in bookstores and libraries. Adults started to take notice and were sheepishly slipping into children and teen departments of libraries just to see what the fuss was. With the advent of the fifth book, Bloomsbury, the publishers of the Harry Potter books in England, realized it was not just a book for young people and designed a set of covers that would appeal to adults. A standard trade paperback size was also introduced by both Bloomsbury and Scholastic (the American publishers of the books).

As a downside to this, many adults were also starting to call negative attention to these books by banning or condemning them, causing yet more people to want to see what all the fuss was.

Then last year, the sixth book arrived after much waiting, with parties around the world, and is now available in over forty languages.

What is it about this book that has captured the imagination of millions? More importantly, has Harry Potter truly revived reading and become a phenomenon, that is, a marvel? Many people believe so:

The [New South Wales Sidney] Education Department's Deputy Director-General (Schools), Alan Laughlin, said the popularization of literature ’ especially the Harry Potter publishing phenomenon ’ was partly responsible for the lift in literacy because it had taken reading out of the "egghead" realm.1

The National Endowment for the Arts released "Reading at Risk" last year. This is a study which shows adult reading rates have dropped ten percentage points in the last decade, with the steepest slump among those eighteen to twenty-four years old. [...]More critically, the [Harry Potter] books enchanted struggling readers as well ’ kids like seventeen year old Mike Cossairt of Stafford, Va., who credits Harry Potter for his discovery of pleasure reading and its effects.2

Almost six out of ten children (59 percent) think the books have helped them improve their reading skills. And 48 percent say Rowling's creation is the reason they read more. [...]Colin Harrison, Professor of Literacy Studies at the University of Nottingham, who contributed to the research, said: "The sheer pervasiveness of JK Rowling's books means Harry Potter will certainly have impacted on children's literacy levels." 3

Harry Potter has had a particularly strong impact on boys' reading habits, even more than on girls'. According to a study by Yankelovich and Scholastic, 57 percent of boys have read the series, compared with 51 percent of girls. This also has increased reading for pleasure, with 61 percent of boys saying J.K. Rowling's books have stimulated the "fun" aspect of reading. Parents are also noting what kids are saying about Harry Potter, and have overwhelmingly said they see positive results from their child(ren) reading the books. Out of 260 parents surveyed, 85 percent said their child wanted to read more frequently and 76 percent noted that this had helped their child in school.4

Statistics demonstrate literacy has increased, thanks to Harry Potter. But why has this set of books exploded across literature circles internationally, and how are teachers and librarians (and booksellers, too) keeping people reading and expanding their reading?

One example is Mary Kooy, Professor at the University of Ontario, who has observed firsthand how Harry Potter books have a powerful effect on students, especially after witnessing the crowd that turned out for Rowling's public reading in 2000 in Toronto. She began to study the relationship between teachers and reading. She moves beyond Harry, however, when studying this relationship. In her classes, she has her "students reflect on how they became readers (or not), what reading means to them, which germinal texts shaped their thinking, their reading preferences and frequencies, their favorite authors and books, and school reading experiences. In addition to writing, some students include pictures, school projects, stories, poems, awards, or book covers." 5 She realized that despite how they answered the questions, all had a unique story to tell with their reading experience, and all were able to identify how they got to where they are literarily.

So if everyone comes from different reading backgrounds, why does Harry Potter have such a broad range of appeal? The key is what readers chose to identify within the books.

Harry Potter seems to have a little something for everyone: romance, action, adventure, magic, friendship, the school experiences, different kinds of families, sports, and humor. There is also a dash of mystery and horror, mixed with a few fantastic animals. Rowling has blended all the above elements to make a rather believable story, especially for those who wish an alternate world existed.

For a while, librarians and booksellers capitalized on the magical aspect of Harry and began to push other books involving magic while people waited for the next Potter book to be published. "If you liked Harry Potter, then try this!" signs popped up and tables were filled with fantasy read-alikes. Educators loved the fact people were reading again and wanted to keep the trend going. Publishers loved that people were buying books and wanted to keep that trend going.

But, as noted before, Harry Potter is more than a book about a wizard, and slowly those creating displays began to branch out to find other books to fill empty hands. Studies show that 51 percent of Harry Potter readers say they will move on to another series when they're done with the teen wizard.6 Many kids and teens were saying they didn't really like fantasy, though they liked Harry Potter, so books that take place in boarding schools, books with magical creatures, books with strong friendships or books with an unlikely hero were marketed. "Anything to keep them reading" might be heard in teachers' lounges or librarian staff rooms.

"Anything", however, may not be enough to keep the literacy levels soaring, as quality is just as important as likeability. For twenty-seven years, Jim Trelease has studied reading, comprehension and what kids like to read,. He specifically looked at why Harry Potter is a good series, comparing it to some of the more mass-produced ones, and concluded there is better imagery, text, plot and characterization in Rowling's books. Trelease also noted that language in these books is not highbrow: "There is less for a reader to stumble over. And that's good." 7 If people are ingesting more words, their reading comprehension increases. Rowling isn't the only one to help readers gain vocabulary: Lemony Snicket has done this in a roundabout way with his Series of Unfortunate Events books. When the narrator uses a big word, he'll stop and clarify, not shying away from strange or unfamiliar words to tell the story. Once vocabulary increases, other books (especially classics) seem less intimidating, and thus more reading occurs.

Knowing a book has been turned into a movie also makes a large tome like the fourth Harry Potter book less intimidating, and has people doing still more reading for pleasure. People either read the book before the movie comes out to prepare, or read the book afterwards to fill in the rest of the story. Of course, there are several who say they don't need to read the book once they've seen the movie, but most are curious to know the inspiration. In the case of Harry Potter, book sales soared after the first film was released. Many teachers capitalize on the matter, too, and help students learn the difference between the book and the film.8 Many librarians have compiled lists and made displays of books turned into movies or books that are similar to other movies released (e.g. "If you liked Pirates of the Caribbean, then try Pirate's Diary (Platt)"). Due to the visual nature of today's society, people enjoy seeing the written word come to life on the screen. I believe it's no substitute for reading, though. The things you can see in your imagination are always greater than even the most up-to-date technology.

Overall, the amount of fantasy being published and pushed at readers is still considerable, but authors are realizing they just need to lure the reader into their world, and weave a different kind of magic to capture readers. Kate DiCamillo has written The Tale of Despereaux, a book crafted in an old-fashioned style, and it has won the Newberry Award. Gregory Maguire has written a backstory for adult readers to the popular children's classic, The Wizard of Oz (Baum), drawing readers back to the original book through Wicked. Louise Rennison has used frank humor, diary format and honest emotion to draw teenage girls into her Georgia Nicholson series.

Harry Potter has truly influenced the literate world by bringing people of all ages back to reading. He has garnered much attention by expanding people's imaginations in print and film, bringing a world to life. He also tells a good story using a variety of elements to capture a wide range of interests. Publishers, teachers and even authors have capitalized on the teen wizard, to encourage increasing literacy and enjoyment of reading, whether in the classroom through literature circles, in bookstores with the variety of new books available or when creating new stories, regardless of the genre. Harry Potter is a phenomenon to education and reading.


1. Doherty, "Potter helps literacy rates' paragraph 4.

2. Hallett, "Power' paragraph 3.

3. MacMillan, "Potter works wonders' paragraphs 4 and 6.

4. Yankelovich and Scholastic, Scholastic Reading Report, 6, 12.

5. Kooy, "Riding the coattails' 138.

6. Yankelovich and Scholastic, Scholastic Reading Report, 18.

7. Trelease, Readaloud Handbook, 176.

8. Ibid., "Harry the movie' paragraph 4.


Doherty, Linda. "Harry Potter helps lift school literacy rates." The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Sept. 2002. http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2002/09/19/1032054870385.html.

Hallett, Vicky. "The Power of Potter." US News & World Report, 25 July 2005. http://www.usnews.com/usnews/culture/articles/050725/25read.htm.

Kooy, Mary. "Riding the coattails of Harry Potter." Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, Oct. 2003: 138.

MacMillan, Arthur. "Potter works wonders for kids' literacy." The Scotsman, 9 July 2005. http://news.scotsman.com/scotland.cfm?id=765922005.

Trelease, Jim. "Does Harry the movie hurt Harry the book?" http://www.trelease-on-reading.com/harry_movie.html (accessed 16 July 2006).

”””. The Readaloud Handbook. New York: Penguin, 2001.

Yankelovich and Scholastic. "Harry Potter data." The Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report, June 2006. http://www.scholastic.com/readingreport/ (accessed 26 July 2006).

Comments? Discuss this essay here on the Scribbulus forum.

The Leaky Cauldron is not associated with J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros., or any of the individuals or companies associated with producing and publishing Harry Potter books and films.