I'm using Harry Potter to teach a first grader literacy skills

May 9 | Guest post by Mo

I am a nanny for a first grader who does not like to read. Her teacher requires a bare minimum of 15 minutes of reading practice Monday through Thursday, and getting this kid to slog through early reader books or flash cards for a quarter of an hour is a tricky daily swamp her parents and I traverse with her. She's definitely making progress, but it's slow going. I know she'll get the hang of reading and writing eventually, but her parents and I have been scratching our heads as to how we can best help her get there.

Even though she balks at sounding out sentences, she loves hearing stories. She will listen raptly for as long as you are willing to read to her. She's breezed through the usual serial suspects already: Magic Tree House, Junie B. Jones, Bailey School Kids, Ramona Quimby. She is insatiable.

About nine months ago, we started reading the first three Harry Potter books aloud, and she is totally, completely hooked. Sometimes when I pick her up from school she entirely forgoes greeting me and skips straight to "Can we read Harry Potter when we get home?" She plies me with endless questions about Harry's universe, she describes favorite scenes in meticulous detail, she plays Quidditch with whiffle balls and pipecleaner hoops, she paints the characters as she pictures them, and she has decided that Hermione Granger is so awesome that she has cited that character as the sole reason she's been raising her hand in class more often.

Luckily for this seven-year-old, she got a full-on Harry Potter geek for a nanny. I know more obscure, inane things about the Harry Potter universe than anyone could ever need outside of a trivia contest. Our shared interest in Harry Potter has both brought us closer together and provided me with the perfect vehicle to spark her interest in reading.

That's right. I'm capitalizing on her Harry Potter fixation to help her develop literacy skills. Here are a few of the Potter-themed literacy activities we've done.

Harry Potter flashcards

I wrote out note cards with one Harry Potter related word per side. When possible, I paired related words together, so one flashcard says witch on one side and wizard on the other. Other words include: owl, rat, toad, robes, school, class, magic, spells, charms, pumpkin, train, professor, quill, and wand.

Memory Charms

This is a variation on the classic game of Memory, but instead of matching identical images, players match a word on one card with an illustration of that word on another card. Simple nouns that are simple to draw like wand, cat, rat, hat, broom, Snitch, and pumpkin make good cards. I really like to draw, so I picked some more challenging ones to illustrate like dragon, train, castle, and unicorn. (If you're not much of an artist you could always print images and paste them to the cards.) This activity helps her develop the skill of using context clues to decode words.

Wizard Rock

This girl loves to sing and dance. When I informed her that there is a whole genre of Harry Potter themed music called Wizard Rock, she was instantly intrigued. So I burned a mix CD of Wizard Rock songs by eight or nine different artists. It took a while to compile a playlist I was happy with, because I had to screen all the lyrics for both age appropriateness and relevance — we've only read the first three books, so any songs that centered around events from the last four books were off the table. I gave her the CD along with a track list. She loves singing along with the music, especially songs that mention Sirius Black (her favorite character after Hermione), and the ones that entail Slytherins being rude.

Name Game

I wrote the names of the characters on different color cards, first names on one set and last names on the other set. The object of the game is to match first names with last names. She knows all major and many minor character names in full, so this activity really is more of a reading exercise than a guessing game for her, which is exactly what I was going for.

Parchment, Ink, and Quill

We practiced writing like Hogwarts students by first making our own parchment (blot steeped teabags onto printer paper, allow to dry), then writing on it with feathers (courtesy of my housemate's molting chickens) dipped in black India ink. The first time we did this activity she mostly used it as an abstract painting exercise, but she did write her name and a few simple words, so we're working up to full-blown letters (to be delivered by owl, no doubt).

Harry Potter Reader

Since most early reader books are super boring, and the Harry Potter books themselves are too advanced for her reading level, I wrote her a super abridged Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone book (endless apologies to JK Rowling). Each page has three or four easy-to-sound-out sentences covering major characters and plot points, with the last third or so of the page left blank for future illustrations. She very often selects this "book" for her 15 minutes of reading homework.

Writing Fanfiction

When she asked if we could "write the Harry Potter books, but with changes," which the rest of the world calls "fanfiction," I wholeheartedly embraced the idea. Usually she dictates what she wants me or her mom to write out for her, but sometimes she writes her own sentences too. And there's almost always a full-page illustration to go along with the story. We're storing all the pages we write in a labeled folder so we can pull them out and read them over and over again.

Harry Potter Hangman

Just doing Harry Potter related words in regular ol' Hangman ups the appeal. Hangman is a great activity because it disguises reading skills as a game. She will play Hangman with me for a surprising amount of time, and she often uses it as a way to practice her class's weekly spelling words (which are not, regrettably, Harry Potter themed).

Sometimes I let her count the more reading-intensive activities, like the flashcards, as her 15 minutes of reading homework, but often she doesn't need that carrot; the Harry Potter theme is incentive enough.

Just as caretakers have been surreptitiously sneaking veggies into kids' favorite foods for eons, I have been hiding literacy skills in games and activities that center around JK Rowling's brilliant, alluring universe. And it's working. I might even say… it's just like magic.

  1. This is awesome! One question, is she spooked by some of the darker parts of the books? I freaked out as a kid at Harry hearing the basilisk talking in the walls in Chamber of Secrets and after that wasn't ready to read the books until I was a good bit older, but this made me realize it might not be that long until my kid is ready for them, since he isn't nearly as sensitive as I was as a child.

    • That's exactly the reason we've stopped at book three. We talked about how the next book would be too scary for her, but that she can read them when she's older. She didn't want to watch the movies for a long time because she thought it would be scarier to SEE the scary stuff than to just imagine it from a read aloud. When she watches the first movie she always stops it about 3/4 of the way through, right before the creepy Forbidden Forest detention scene, and skips to the ending feast. She has seen the second movie once, with parents nearby to pause/skip scary stuff, and she doesn't want to see the third one for awhile.

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  2. What a great idea! My son is in occupational therapy, and there is an older boy whose sessions basically consist of LARP-ing in the Harry Potter and Star Wars universes. It's a great way to engage kids on their level.

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  3. How creative! I love the ideas you came up with, and I'm sure your future students will thrive thanks to your innovation ๐Ÿ™‚

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  4. This is one of those kids I gather WILL voraciously read one day. When she's ready. Which…she's not yet. She loves stories, loves the written word, and she'll totally read like a champ when the time comes. But for a lot of K-3rd graders, they aren't on the mandated read by 6 train. They might read at 8 or 9. And start blowing through grade proficiencies.

    Home schoolers, Montessori teachers, and teachers of other alternate education see as normal, unfortunately more traditional schools don't allow for it and assume something is wrong.

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    • Yeah, I think she'll be a voracious reader once the fundamentals fall into place. She did used to be in a Montessori program but her parents mainstreamed her into public school mostly for financial reasons. I wish alternative programs (that didn't emphasize standardized tests and benchmarks that don't fit individual needs) were more accessible for families!

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    • Hello!

      I wanted to respond this this comment (and the original post) because I am a teacher who works for an Independent school that serves children with reading difficulty, specifically, dyslexia.

      As a specialist in this field, my heart aches for the truly countless families I have worked with who have all been told that their child "just isn't ready to read yet" but that "don't worry, they'll get there."

      A lot of times–I venture to say most times–they won't "get there" unless given the correct type of instruction, instruction that is widely unavailable in the public school system. There are so many myths and so much misinformation, and so many well meaning educators and administrators that are simply totally uninformed with regards to dyslexia.

      Dyslexia is NOT rare. Mo, the activities you are doing with your student are fantastic. I can see how much you deeply care about supporting her development into a reader. However, if she is dyslexic, these activities will not teach her how to read.

      The only way a dyslexic child will learn to read fluently is through a direct, sequential, multi sensory intervention, such as Orton-Gilingham or Barton Reading & Spelling.

      Mo, if your student is a poor speller and has trouble decoding (sounding out), you may want to check out Susan Barton's website, Bright Solutions for Dyslexia. There is a ton of great information, and Susan Barton is a leading expert in dyslexia. She's also incredibly nice (Barton is the system I use with students).

      Anyway, just wanted to chime in.

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      • Thanks so much for these resources, I will look into them and pass them along to her parents; we have discussed the possibility of dyslexia but I don't think her parents have taken her to anyone who specializes in diagnosing learning disorders.

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      • I wanted to come back to this comment thread now that it's been a few weeks and say THANK YOU for this comment. I've been looking into dyslexia (and the resources you suggested) and although I'm certainly not trained to diagnose dyslexia, I have noticed that the kid has a lot of the symptoms (including genetic history of dyslexia). I'm doing reading tutoring with her this summer and I'm hoping to train myself in the Barton or Orton-Gilingham approach… and maybe I'll even find ways to make some of it Harry Potter-themed. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • I really appreciate this comment. My kindergartner (6 in July) is not reading yet and her teacher is very 'concerned'. She sees a reading specialist at school 2x a week, will attend summer school this summer and we are looking into getting her a tutor over the summer as well. We are doing all of this because it is recommended, but I can't help but think that maybe she just isn't ready and her school is being overly pushy (she attends a highly regarded public school).

      This article is so encouraging as well. I've never read the Harry Potter books (truthfully I've been waiting until my kids were old enough) and maybe it's almost time to start on the first one. With my worries about the school being overly pushy, it's really important to me to keep reading /writing lighthearted and fun.

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    • As a first grade teacher I cannot THIS this enough. Also writing their own. Or whiting out the dialoge on comics cut from the paper so they can fill in their own.

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    • I can confirm that she is — she also baby-sits my son on occasion. ๐Ÿ™‚

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    • For reals. I'm a nanny, and I feel put to SHAME. My little charges are 9 and 13, and while I definitely got their grades into shape (no easy task considering they're in private school), I'm not half as good at enticing the 9 year old to read. Luckily, he has a few types of books that he loves – Diary of A Wimpy Kid, Captain Underpants, things like that. The maddening thing with him is that he's offended by the fact that he HAS to read 20 minutes a day – he keeps telling me that he would read on his own, but it takes "all of the fun" out of it because it turns it into homework. I'm not sure he's the only kid who thinks that way, either… but what do you do? I can't change what he has for homework. Tis the way of things.

      Sigh. At least I can help him bust out some fantastic book report projects. The arts, they are my specialty. ๐Ÿ˜›

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      • I heard a parenting trick somewhere twixt the pages of the internet (which may not work if you're the nanny but you could suggest it to the parents?) which I think is awesome: if kids are ready before their bedtime (say, 8:00), they get to stay up an extra half hour reading. This has the double potential of knocking out the bedtime routine struggle and making reading into a reward rather than a punishment or an assignment.

        'Course, your mileage may vary by kid, and it might not be the best way to insure that the 20 minutes of reading homework gets done each night, since it's an "if-then" situation.

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        • My parents did this from the time we were 3 or 4. We went to bed super early (I think that's part of what made this work — they didn't want us asleep at 8 but let us stay up till 8.30; they wanted us asleep at 8 but put us to bed with books at 7.30), but we could stay awake in bed with the light on for quite awhile, as long as were in bed and looking at books. We all learned to read really early.

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  5. Yes! Harry Potter made me into the avid reader I am today so just the other day I was saying that I need to start reading them to my boys (4 and 2)

  6. This is the most adorable thing I've seen all day, and I started my day with pictures of baby hippos, so that's saying something. I have to tell you, I was completely swept off my feet by the fanfiction part, because I'm a writer-by-vocation now, and I started this whole thing by writing little stories with full-page illustrations when I was just a little older than her. It's cool seeing someone else doing the same thing. She'll catch on!

    I'm also deeply heartened to see someone working so hard to help a kid learn to LIKE reading. Liking it is just as important as being able to do it. You sound like an awesome nanny.

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  7. Just a tip in general if you want your kids to be interesting in reading (but dang, this Harry Potter themed stuff is awesome!):

    Make sure everyone around your kid is reading, and I don't mean to them.

    I learned to read very, very early as I was the youngest by 5 years and EVERYONE around me (sister, brothers, mom, dad) read all the time. We'd watch Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, and then if it wasn't NOVA or American Experience, everyone would grab their books, congregate in the living room and read. It was the main source of entertainment in our house.

    Weekly trips to the library for me were always conscious in how many books I was allowed to check out (13) because I read so often.

    All 4 of us kids read quite a bit to this day, although I admit I don't read as much as I used to because of grad school.

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    • Agreed. My friends that it was weird that I liked to read to my mom while she cooked dinner. : ) It was such a normal part of our life. Everyone in my family read. We basically had bookshelves in our bathrooms for the big poops too! Hehe

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  8. That is a great idea. Some parents would scoff on the idea of reading "lowly fantasy" with kids, but I think whatever gets them to love books is great.

  9. All of your ideas sound fantastic! I am going to be adding them to my reading-skills repetoire.

    Another suggestion: scrap the "fifteen minute rule". This has come up in the book "The Homework Myth" (a fantastic read for parents and educator) but the argument is that by putting a minimum mandatory time for reading does more harm than good. Basically, a minimum time takes something pleasurable and makes it into a chore. It becomes something kids dread, and starts a countdown clock of sorts "only five more minutes of this and then I can do something fun" as opposed to make reading something that kids look forward to and enjoy. It also has a negative affect on kids who already love reading, because minimum times basically cause kids to fly through their work and then quit, as opposed to keeping on with something that they actually like doing. I also dislike the fifteen minite rule because it ignores the other reading that occurs during the day: street signs, menus, cereal boxes, etc.

    I know teachers are often trapped by stupid policies, so changing or abolishing the rule is easier said than done. My general advice is to stop timing: kids WILL make their minimum quotas, and probably exceed them.

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  10. I so need to save this blog post for the future with my son! Great ideas. I love how you are catering the learning experience with something she enjoys. That's the real key.

    I want to make all of these games, and I don't even have kids ๐Ÿ™ my preschoolers are probably too young for this…

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