Harry Potter and Boys* Literacies - Linguistics and English Language

Harry Potter and Boys’ Literacies
Jane Sunderland
(with input from Steve Dempster and Joanne
RiGLS, Dec. 4 2013
Moral panic in UK about boys’ ‘underachievement’ especially in
PS… 1693
Locke expresses concern about schools failing to develop boys’
writing and speaking skills (Cohen, 1998).
Do boys really not read? (1)
• Manuel & Robinson
(2003) identify
assumptions about
teenage readers:
– Boys don’t read as much
[fiction] as girls
– Teenage boys don’t like
– Adolescent boys have
poorer self-image as
readers than girls.
• Manuel and Robinson
then dispute these
– 50% boys, 40% girls read
for 2hrs+ per day
– 42% boys, 46% girls prefer
fiction over other printed
• CAVEAT – Small scale
study (n=69); boys and
girls in a New South
Wales secondary school
Do boys really not read? (2)
Maynard et al. (2008)
• Boys more likely than girls to identify as ‘reluctant
readers’ (though only a minority of male pupils in each
Key Stage) (5 Key Stages in UK education system)
• More girls than boys read fiction, but only a minority in
of boys each KS said they ‘never’ or ‘hardly ever’ did so
(n = 4182; boys and girls from KS1-3)
Enter Harry Potter ...
…and claims that the series has made a positive
difference to children’s reading, (particularly boys’)...
• media claims
• folklore/articles of faith
• anecdotes
• assumptions and
• informal surveys
• ‘awards’ (e.g. ‘Smarties
Gold’ – from children)
Media claims
• ‘Like magic, they're readers’ (St Petersberg
Times, USA, 2005)
• ‘The Harry Potter effect: how one wizard
hooked boys on reading’ (The Ottawa Citizen,
Canada, 2007)
• ‘Potter's magic spell turns boys into
bookworms’ (The Observer, UK, 2005).
Unsupported claims in the literature
• “Harry Potter appears to be as popular with
girls as with boys …. While boy readers may
identify with Harry’s heroism, girl readers, like
the girls at Hogwarts, respond to him both as
a motherless boy in need of love and as a
romantic hero with special powers”
(Eccleshare 2002: 87).
‘Library practices’ data
 In 2006 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
most-borrowed book from UK children’s libraries
 “[the Harry Potter books] appear to be rich
enough to support many re-readings by the
young and less young alike …
… one of the most exciting aspects of the Harry
Potter phenomenon [is that it has] enticed boys
from non-fiction to fiction” (Ruth 2001)
Boys’ reading and Harry Potter:
interesting questions
• Do girls and boys respond differently to the Harry
Potter series?
• Has the series made a difference to
boys’/girls’/children’s literacy, in terms of
attitudes (e.g. to fiction) and practices?
• Has the series made a difference to boys’ and
girls’ reading achievements, in the short or long
• Does Harry Potter help learning generally?
The gap/niche ….
• “There have been no reliable and thorough
demographic studies concerning the purchase
of the Harry Potter books and their reception
among adults and children” (Zipes 2002: 186;
our italics)
• Timely research topic! (especially now that the
book series and film series are complete, and
now that a generation of older teenagers can
reflect on their Harry Potter experience)
• Influence of film series (now complete)
Some academic work (1):
‘Young people’s reading in 2005’ (Maynard et al.
(2008) for National Centre for Research in Children’s
(a) Harry Potter was the favourite character of both
boys and girls at all Key Stage levels (1-4)
(b) J.K. Rowling in top 3 authors of girls and boys
across all KS.
(4182 children)
Some academic work (2):
Margaret Willis’ (2001) MEd dissertation
(Sheffield University)
• Small rural North Yorkshire comprehensive
– questionnaire to Year 7 (86 boys and girls)
Finding: 74% of girls and 65% of boys had
read Harry Potter books
– focus group with 6 boys (‘enthusiasts’)
– semi-structured interviews with 6 boys
Willis’ (2007) explanatory claims
• “The boys in my study generally had a poor
image of themselves as readers largely as a
result of parents and teachers dismissing their
electronic game and computer-based reading
as being of little or no value. What Harry
Potter gave them was engaging texts that
sustained their interest and, most importantly,
convinced them that reading could be fun.
The global appeal of Potter made reading
‘cool’ ” (2007: 24; my italics).
Also positive for boys, Willis (2007)
suggests, is that Harry…
“… retains many of the qualities of the traditional
fantasy hero …. [He] takes his readers to a secret
magical place, to become members of a very
special club, where codes, rules and secret
languages provide access to another world ….”
[like fantasy computer games]
 i.e. intertextual links (e.g. codes, rules, fantasy)
may reassure boys with poor self-image as
 are these qualities particularly relevant to boys?
…and that …
• “ there is a sense of security in the familiar
style and characters for the boy reader as he
moves from one book to the next”
(Sunderland, 2011, paraphrasing Willis 2007)
• Is this ‘sense of security’ (provided by Harry
Potter as a series) particularly relevant to (or
needed by) boys?
Other possibilities which might attract
boys to the Harry Potter series
 J.K. Rowling’s ‘straightforward’ style, sustained
across 7 books, may appeal to previously
reluctant (boy) readers of fiction
 ‘focalisation’ of Harry (i.e. things are seen
from his point of view)
 authorial representation: J.K. Rowling?
Our own study: Harry Potter and Boys’
• 2 years British Academy funded (‘Small Research
Grant’), 2012-2014
• Mixed methods:
– questionnaire with whole classes
– single-sex focus groups with Harry Potter
• Boys and girls from two local state primary schools
(Years 5 and 6)
• Boys and girls from two local comprehensive schools
(Years 7-11)
Rationale for selection of participants
• primary school children may be reading Harry
Potter now
• secondary students who read Harry Potter when
they were younger may be able to assess its
influence on their current reading practices
• teenagers today in an unusual position in the
sense that they ‘grew up’ with the story; as the
books were being published, anticipation of next
title/film release may have added to hype
• e.g. a 16-year-old, born in 1997, may have been
reading the books before the film series (20012011) was complete
Original RQ (1): Literacy practices
(a) Do boys borrow or request Harry Potter books?
(b) How many of the books do they read? How many
(c) Do they talk about the books with friends or
family, outside class? If so, who?
(d) What (do) did they go on to read?
Original RQs (2) and (3)
(2) Achievements
a) Do these boys feel that
Harry Potter has help
them improve their
reading? If so, in what
b) Do they think the
books have changed
their attitudes to
reading? to fiction?
(3) Responses
a) What do these boys
think of the Harry
Potter books, broadly?
b) What do they like
about them?
c) What do they dislike
about them?
Schools and number of pupils involved
(+ 2 who
did not
Some interim questionnaire
findings …..
Children in general ….
• 606 of the 621 children had heard of Harry Potter
• 49% (298) of the 606 have read at least one Harry Potter
book themselves (‘readers’)
• 28% (161) of the 606 had had a Harry Potter novel read
to them; 85% of the 161 also self-identified as Potter
readers (N.B. importance of home literacy practices)
• mean number of Harry Potter books read (primary and
secondary) is four
• BUT Harry Potter readers are most likely to have read
either one or all seven books
• just over two-fifths of Potter readers (41%, n = 122) have
re-read at least one book at least once; 37 pupils (12%)
have re-read all seven
Children in general, continued ….
• the Harry Potter books reportedly inspired a
majority of readers to read (a) more books
generally (59%); (b) books that are more
difficult than Potter (54%); and (c) more
fiction in general (65%)
• association between Potter readership and
self-identification as a ‘good reader’(sig., p <
.05). Potter readers are approx. twice as likely
as others to self-identify as ‘good readers’.
Is gender relevant?
• In the main, no
• As usual, there are many ‘gender similarities’
between girls ands boys and differences
among girls and among boys (for example,
around half the girls and half the boys had not
read a Potter book)
• Very few statistically significant differences
• Need to be careful not to view these
phenomena through a populist, ‘gender
binary’ lens (‘some boys’ ≠ ‘all boys’ and ≠ ‘no
Some quantitative gender tendencies (1):
boys and Harry Potter?
 Boys overall are more likely than girls to have
read at least one Harry Potter book (44% of all
girls; 55% of all boys; stat. sig. p < .05); also sig. at
secondary level alone but not at primary level
• In each sector (primary and secondary), boy
readers outweigh boy non-readers, and girl nonreaders outweigh girl readers (not sig.)
• The biggest library borrowers were secondary
school boys (not sig.)
Some quantitative gender tendencies (2): girls
and Harry Potter?
• The biggest borrowers of all seven books were
secondary school girls (not sig.)
• With the exceptions of Chamber of Secrets
and Half-blood Prince, a higher percentage of
female readers engaged with each title; sig.
for Goblet of Fire
% of Potter readers reading each title
% of Girls
% of Boys
Chamber of
Prisoner of
Goblet of Fire
Order of the
Half-blood Prince Deathly Hallows
Some quantitative gender tendencies
(2): girls and Harry Potter? (cont.)
Higher percentages of girls than boys overall reread each title, sig. for Chamber of Secrets (p < .05)
% of Girls
% of boys
Chamber of
Prisoner of
Goblet of Fire Order of the
Half Blood
Some quantitative gender tendencies
(2): girls and Harry Potter? (cont.)
• Girls were more likely than boys to rate each
book as ‘easy’ (not sig.)
• More girls than boys overall reported positive
‘post-Potter’ reading behaviours (more books,
more ‘difficult’ books, more fiction) (not sig.)
Themes and findings ‘emerging’ from
the focus groups of Harry Potter
‘enthusiasts’ (SS1)
importance of the ‘bedtime story’
influence of family and friends
much criticism of the films
some felt the books influenced their later
reading; others said they were reading
(fiction) anyway
• ‘thickness’ of the books
• vocabulary-building potential of the books
What do (some) boys say they like
about Harry Potter?
• mythical
• magic
• characters
(e.g. Snape,
Fred, George,
Boy 1: it’s something that … you want it to
be real and I think that’s why you get so
hooked into them … especially when
you’re younger you think how exciting it is
Steve: and what do you mean when you
say you want it to be real
Boy 2: like you want that to be a true story
as if it could actually happen ….
Boy 1: want to play quidditch and …
Boy 2: yeah things like that
Learning (1)
• Jo: do any of you think that erm Harry reading Harry Potter
helped you improve your reading in any way
• Girl: I learned most of my spelling from the Harry Potter books
• Jo: what spelling in general
• Girl: yeah
• Jo: okay that’s interesting
• Girl: yeah I think I probably got a bigger vocabulary from
reading them
• Jo: right
• Girl: well it was the first big book I read so it like made me
read like other bigger proper books
• Girl: yeah
• Girl: yeah
• Jo: okay so do others agree that it made them read other long
books afterwards
• Girl: yeah I read The Lord of the Rings after
(Younger SS girls)
Learning (2): other books
• Boy: well these sort of books did get me onto
other really in-depth books like I read something
by an author who worked for Star Wars … and it
was like a buffed up diary of one of the characters
and I got so engrossed that I re-read it four times
• Steve: yeah
• Boy: and it was kind of because I’d read a few
Harry Potters
Learning (3): other books
• Girl 1:
Girl 1:
Girl 1:
• Girl 2:
• Jo:
• Girl 2:
… these were like the first books that I read properly
‘cause before that … I hated reading
ah interesting
so after Harry Potter I then started to read other things
okay so it kind of
and it really helps with my reading as well ‘cause I think I
went like two levels after reading from when I like
started reading properly …
I think I did a lot of reading anyway like all the time I think
being able to read the last three in particular because
they’re so thick they encouraged me to read things like
Lord of the Rings
is that what you went on to read afterwards
no it was a couple of years but I knew I could manage
thick books
(older SS girls)
Influence of friends
• Girl: my friend she is Harry Potter mad so she
kept going on at me to read them so in the
end I decided to read them too
• Girl: yeah my friend did that to me too Libby
told me about them and she was like ‘you
have got to read these books’ and I was like
‘okay’ [exasperated tone] so I did
(younger SS girls)
Gender in the focus groups
(our first impressions, pre-analysis with
• boys tended to mention non-fiction more than
• boys tended to cite book series more than
girls did
• boys tended to prefer male characters; girls
liked both female and male characters
• but no children said they saw Harry Potter as a
‘boys’ book’ or a ‘girls’ book’ ….
• Jo: do you think more boys read Harry Potter
than girls generally or
• 3 girls: no
• Girl: I think it’d probably be more girls than boys
• Jo: right okay what does everyone else think
• Girl: I’d say equal spread
• Girl(s): yeah
• Girl: I don’t think it’s either a girls’ book or a boys’
book really like some books … are more targeted
towards girls but it’s not really that
(SS1, older girls)
And to finish with ….
• Jo: and why do you think it is that some
people don’t like reading er don’t read
the Harry Potter books
• Girl: because they’re peasants
Thank you
Thank you
References (selective)
• Connolly, P. (2004) Boys and Schooling in the Early Years, London:
Routledge Falmer.
• Department for Children, Schools and Families (2009), National
Curriculum Assessments at key Stage 2 in England 2009, Statistical First
Release, source:
• Department for Education (2010), Key Stage 1 Attainment by Pupil
Characteristics, in England 2009/10: source
• Epstein, D. (1998) Real boys don’t work: ‘underachievement’, masculinities
and harassment of sissies’, in: Epstein, D., Elwood, J., Hey, V. and Maw, J
(eds.), Failing Boys? Issues in Gender and Achievement, Buckingham, Open
University Press.
• Frosh, S., Phoenix, A. and Pattman, R. (2002) Young Masculinities:
Understanding Boys in Contemporary Society. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
• Gillborn, D. & Mizra, H. (2000) Educational Inequality:
Mapping Race, Class and gender: a synthesis of research
evidence, London, OFSTED.
• Gorard, S., Rees, G. & Salisbury, J. (1999) Reappraising the
apparent underachievement of boys at school, Gender &
Education 11(4): 441-459.
• Manuel, J. and Robinson, D. (2003) Teenage boys, teenage
girls and books: Re-viewing some assumptions about gender
and adolescents’ reading practices, English Teaching: Practice
and Critique 2(2): 66-77.
• Maynard, S., MacKay, S. & Smyth, F. (2008) A survey of young
people’s reading: thinking about fiction, New Review of
Children's Literature and Librarianship 14(1): 45-65.
• Millard, Elaine (1997) Differently Literate: Boys, girls and the
schooling of literacy. London: The Falmer Press.
• OECD Programme For International Student Assessment
(Pisa)/UNESCO Institute For Statistics (2003) Literacy Skills
for the World of Tomorrow: Further results from PISA 2000,
• Spender, D. (1982) Invisible Women: the schooling scandal.
London: Writers and Readers Press.
• Sunderland, J. (2011) Language, Gender and Children’s
Fiction. London: Continuum. (Chapter 10; surveys anecdotal
and passing references to boys; literacies and Harry Potter.)
• West, A. & Pennell, H. (2003) Underachievement in Schools.
London: Routledge Falmer.
• Willis, Margaret (2007) Harry Potter and the great reading
revolution. Literacy Today, September 24-25.