The power of reading Harry Potter
Photo by Dan Addison
By Brevy Cannon
Like many parents, Sascha Simmons discovered the Harry Potter books by reading one to her daughter. But unlike most readers, she went on to research exactly how the Harry Potter books, which have sold over 200 million copies as the highest selling children’s series in history, are affecting children’s reading skills, imaginations and motivation to read.
She examined the Harry Potter-effect as the subject of her Capstone Project, the culminating academic activity of the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program, offered by the School of Continuing and Professional Studies.
Researching her 30-page Capstone paper, Simmons found that the only comprehensive study of how Harry Potter has affected children’s reading skills was done in the United Kingdom by the Federation of Children’s Book Groups. One thousand British children, ages 8 to 16, responded to a survey from the federation, and 59 percent of them said that the Harry Potter books have improved their reading skills; 48 percent said the books are why they read more.
Unfortunately, Simmons found that no similar comprehensive studies have been done in the United States, leaving her to conclude, “I cannot definitively say that the Harry Potter series has or has not improved reading skills.”
However, Simmons did find answers to the related questions of how Harry Potter has impacted children’s imaginations and motivation to read. Envisioning the fantasy world of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry helps a child develop imagination, Simmons finds. And imagination is tied to motivation to read.
Students are drawn to this new world of a boarding school with little adult supervision. Children find common ground with the coming of age trials that Harry faces in his years at Hogwarts, including episodes of name-calling, friendship being tested and isolation from peers, explains Simmons in her paper. The Harry Potter books bring together several types of children’s stories, including tales of a hero, of mystery and of fantasy, all part of an overarching battle of good versus evil (distilled in Harry’s periodic clashes with his nemesis Lord Voldemort.) These are all factors that motivate children to read Harry Potter, to read more books within the series, and to read other books from related genres like mystery, Simmons said.
“She had some definite views about how the Harry Potter series was affecting kids academically, and found that her research endorsed some, but not all of her assumptions. Her Capstone was a good example of how our BIS students can explore a topic they are fascinated by and relate it to their studies,” said Ann Marie Plunkett, one of Simmons’ advisers.
When Sascha first started reading Harry Potter to her daughter, Jaynee, she didn’t think she would ever write a research paper about the book. At the time, five years ago, she was enrolled in a radiological science program in Roanoke, Va.
But in July 2003 the family relocated to Charlottesville. A four-year bachelor’s program for ultrasound stenography wasn’t offered here, so Simmons decided to change her focus to continue working towards a bachelor’s degree.
The BIS program offers evening classes, which allowed Simmons to attend class when her husband was home from work and could look after their three children. With her Capstone Project completed, on Sunday Simmons will earn a BIS degree with an education concentration. This past March, with her degree nearly finished, she began working as an underwriter for State Farm Insurance, a position that required a bachelor’s degree.
Does she regret having changed course from her plans to become an ultrasound stenographer? Absolutely not. “God moved me for a reason,” she said.
• BIS degrees 27
• master’s degrees 244
• education specialist degrees 34
• doctorates in education 9