Has Harry Potter Been Good for Reading?: A Look at the Evidence

by Dean Mattson

Like most people, I’ve long has the belief that the Harry Potter has been nothing but good for kids, giving millions of young (and not so young) readers a powerful experience with the written word. In fact, I’ve gone as far to say that J. K. Rowling has done more to advance reading than all the teachers combined. Not that I have anything against teachers, mind you, but it’s my belief that it’s the stories great authors write that motivate readers to keep picking up books and keep improving their skills.

So imagine my surprise this morning when I see a story on the New York Times website which says it’s not so.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a series of federal tests administered every few years to a sample of students in grades 4, 8 and 12, the percentage of kids who said they read for fun almost every day dropped from 43 percent in fourth grade to 19 percent in eighth grade in 1998, the year “Sorcerer’s Stone” was published in the United States. In 2005, when “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” the sixth book, was published, the results were identical.

I found this information not only shocking but more than a bit disheartening. What IS going to get kids reading if not this?

But after rereading the article and thinking about it throughout the day, I’ve come to the conclusion that the evidence is inconclusive at best. The statistic I quoted above is the only one in the article that suggests that Harry Potter has had no effect on reading. The only other hard statistic was positive – that three quarters of Potter readers were more interested in reading other books (though that study was commissioned by Rowling’s American publisher.)

Beyond that, I think the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s numbers says a lot more about the demands on young peoples’ time than necessarily their interest in reading. People of all ages have so many alternatives to reading these days. I like reading, but I don’t have the time to read for fun every day. During the school year, I have to sneak one in on a free weekend.

In addition, a lot happened between 1998 and 2005: young people have begun spending more time online, particularly on social networking site. Maybe it’s a credit to Harry Potter that the percentage of “almost daily” readers didn’t decline during that time.

For me to believe this article’s thesis, I’d need to see more evidence. Maybe a decline in the percentage of young people who enjoy reading. Or a decline in the percentage of kids who have read a book for enjoyment in the past month.

Until then, I’ll continue to believe that there’s millions of young people out there who have proven they can read and will enjoy it if they’re given something that captures their imagination. Now it’s up to authors to supply more of that kind of material.