Kids reading fewer books despite Harry Potter hoopla Heidi Benson, Chronicle Staff Writer Published 4:00 am, Sunday, July 15, 2007
Despite what has been dubbed the "Harry Potter Effect" -- which credits J.K. Rowling's blockbuster book series with turning Game Boy addicts into lifelong readers -- reading is in serious decline among teens nationwide, according to a forthcoming federal study.
A decade of Potter-mania peaks at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, when 12 million copies of the seventh and last book, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," go on sale in the United States. Thus far, the books have sold 325 million copies in 64 languages worldwide.
But as educators assess the phenomenon that lured millions of young readers to tackle longer books, they find that Harry Potter alone could not stem the decline in reading rates.
"What we need is a Harry Potter every week," said Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, who oversaw the study.
The endowment's report on children's reading rates, the first of its kind, compiles results from more than 24 government agencies, including the Department of Education, the Census Bureau and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
"We seem to be doing a better job than ever at teaching younger kids to read, but when kids enter adolescence, their reading -- and reading ability -- falls off," Gioia said. "The power of the electronic, commercial entertainment media seems to be taking teenagers away from reading."
The final results of the study and the statistics regarding reading rates won't be published until October. But the general decline in juvenile reading that Gioia has observed is already sparking a debate, because reading ability is traditionally considered an indicator of an individual's future success in society.
While some experts worry that a drop-off in reading is an early warning sign of a culture in collapse, others interpret the results as part of a general shift toward electronic-based communications, which will simply require new ways of measuring potential.
"You have to be careful when you say kids are reading less," says Michael Kamil, a professor of education at Stanford University. "It doesn't mean they are incapable of reading. It means they choose to do other things instead."
Today, those things include an array of digital distractions, from video games to the Internet, text-messaging to interacting on MySpace.
Kamil is taking this "new" kind of literacy into account as the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, a group charged with updating the way reading is judged by the federal government. The board provides information used in the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Three contexts for reading are assessed by the board: reading for literary experience, reading for information, and reading to perform a task. Kamil believes that "reading for literary experience" has been overemphasized and that today "reading for information" is the most crucial skill.
When the first Harry Potter book was published in 1997, it was a runaway success. Author Rowling, a single mother who at one time was on public assistance, wrote the book in cafes while living in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her imagination seemed unstoppable, and today, Harry Potter is a billion-dollar brand that includes a future 20-acre theme park in Florida.
"I respect the Harry Potter craze because it got millions of kids to read a complicated series of books," Gioia said. "The trouble is, reading one big book a year is no substitute for the habit of daily reading."