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.
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.
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.
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.
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.