Literacies - Linguistics and English Language

Research in Gender, Language and
Sexuality (RiGLS)
Harry Potter and Boys’
Steve Dempster , Jane Sunderland and
Joanne Thistlethwaite
Jan. 16 2013
Moral panic about Boys’
PS… 1693
Locke expresses concern about schools failing to develop boys’ writing
and speaking skills (Cohen, 1998).
Why boys “fail” Based on (Epstein, et al., 1998)
‘Pity the poor boys’
Boys’ “failure” is due to faults
in a “feminised” primary
education system
‘Failing schools’
‘Boys will be boys’
Boys “fail” due to “natural”
male tendencies and
‘The male teacher responded by advising parents not to worry
about boys reading books – “it’s not their thing”. Boys are
“more interested in doing active things like sport and other
physical activity. ”’ (Manuel & Robinson 2003, p 67)
Why boys “fail” Based on (Epstein, et al., 1998)
‘Boys will be boys’
Boys “fail” due to “natural”
male tendencies and
• Academia (particularly reading) is “feminine”;
• ‘Substitute girls’ (Spender, 1982) or ‘poofs’ (Epstein et al.,,
• Greater investment in football and messing about.
‘...being viewed as “clever” or a
“swot” was not really masculine
and was likely to make for
(Frosh et al, 2002, p 198).
‘There appears to be only limited
engagement in reading among 15year-old males beyond what is
required of them... twice as many
males as females see reading as a
waste of time’.
(UNESCO, 2003, p 155)
Do boys not read? (1)
• Manuel & Robinson
(2003) assumptions
about teenage
– Boys don’t read as
much [fiction] as girls;
– Teenage boys don’t
like books;
– Adolescent boys have
poorer self-image as
readers than girls.
• M & R dispute these
– 50% boys,40% girls
read for 2hrs+ per day;
– 42% boys, 46% girls
prefer fiction over
other printed media;
– 2/3 both genders see
themselves as ‘good’
• CAVEAT – Small
scale study (n=69)
Do boys not read? (2)
Maynard et al., (2008), n=4182:
• Boys more likely identify as ‘reluctant readers’
(though a minority of pupils in each KS)
• More girls than boys read fiction, only a minority
in each KS “never or “hardly ever”
Boys’ reading and Harry Potter
• Has the series made a difference to
boys’/children’s literacy, in terms of
attitudes, practices and/or attainment?
• The issue is not so much whether more
boys read and/or benefit from Harry Potter
than do girls, but whether the Harry Potter
series has made a difference to boys’
reading, in the short or long term
 folklore/articles of faith
 anecdotes
 assumptions and speculation
 informal surveys
 ‘awards’
For example ….
• “… one of ‘the most exciting aspects of the
Harry Potter phenomenon [is that it has]
enticed boys from non-fiction to fiction”(Ruth
• “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) - no support provided
for this claim.
‘Library practices’ data
 In 2006 Harry Potter and the Order of the
Phoenix most-borrowed book from UK
children’s libraries
 ‘return trade’: ‘[The Harry Potter books]
appear to be rich enough to support many
re-readings by the young and less young
alike …’ (Ruth 2001)
Naysaying: unsystematic surveys
• When Jack Zipes (2002: 185) asked 5th/6th graders
whose teacher was reading the book to them, who had
themselves read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
(US title) ….
“only half the students raised their hands …
mostly girls …. Some of the students called the
books boring. For they most part, they liked what
was being read to them [i.e. by their teacher] ,
but they liked other books equally well”.
Naysaying: unsupported claims
• “… while children are not adverse to
reading the Harry Potter adventures ….,
they are adverse to spending money on
them. They certainly do not buy them.
Adults have clearly been buying the
majority of the Harry Potter books” (Zipes
2002: 185)
On the plus side, Harry Potter
is clearly an award-winner
• in the UK, accolades for Harry Potter from
children have included the Smarties Gold
award, Children’s Book award, Young
Telegraph Paperback of the Year award,
Birmingham Cable Children’s Book award,
Sheffield Children’s Book award
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
Since Zipes made his ‘naysaying’
claims ….
• (1) ‘Young people’s reading in 2005’
(Maynard et al., for National Centre for
Research in Children’s Literature’)
• Findings
(a)Harry Potter was the favourite character
of both boys and girls at all Key Stage
levels (1-4)
(b)JK Rowling in top 3 authors of girls and
boys across all KS.
(2) Margaret Willis’ (2001) MEd
dissertation (Sheffield University)
• Does the Harry Potter Phenomenon confirm or
challenge what we think boys like to read?
• Small rural North Yorkshire comprehensive
– Questionnaire to Yr 7 (86 boys and girls, open and
closed questions)
– Focus group (6 boys boys’ interests and their interest
in Harry Potter books)
– Semi-structured interviews (6 boys with interest in
the Harry Potter books)
Findings: preferences and behaviours
Prefer Fiction
Prefer non-Fiction
Read every day
Do not read often
Have read Potter
Fiction helped them to use their imagination and ‘escape into
the adventure’ ; one boy interviewed said this was a
particular case with Potter
Appeal of Harry Potter (1)
• JK Rowling favourite of 32% sample;
• Top author for boys (girls – Jacqueline Wilson);
• Potter (in questionnaire):
‘imaginative and exciting’,
‘wicked’ and ‘brill’.
full of cliff hangers lets
readers ‘escape into another world’ .
• Self described ‘not very good reader’ recalls he ‘begged
and begged’ for book one to read himself.
• No films released at the time of research but boys
interviewed were anxious film might ruin their view of
characters and the stories
Appeal of Potter (2)
• ‘their own choice’ to begin
reading Potter for
• Some introduced to books
via media or having it read
to them at school;
• Boys re-read the Potter
books –things they'd
missed, or needed to relive
when reading a later book;
• Many boys pleased they
had managed to finish the
• Few moved on beyond
the Potter series to other
• But Willis later wrote:
“The reading habits and interests of [these
boys] were clearly influenced by their
discovery of the Potter novels and … this
marked a new-found enthusiasm for books
and reading in general” (2007: 24).
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).
Also positive for boys, Willis
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)
…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
Other possibilities
 JK Rowling’s sustained. ‘straightforward’
style may appeal to previously reluctant
boy readers of fiction
 Focalisation of Harry (i.e. things are seen
from his point of view)
 Intertextual links (e.g. codes, rules)
reassure boy (more than girl) readers with
poor self-images?
Our own study
• 2 years British Academy funded (‘Small Research
• Mixed Methods:
– questionnaire
– single-sex Focus Groups with “enthusiasts”
– 'situated literacies' approach: discussions one boy from
each Year group)
• Boys (and girls) from a local state primary school
(Years 5 and 6)
• Boys (and girls) from two local comprehensive
schools (Years 7-10)
RQ (1): Literacy practices
(a) Do boys borrow, buy or request Harry Potter books?
(b) How many of the books do they read? How many times?
(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?
Assumption: primary school boys 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
RQ (2) & (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
(3) Responses
a) What do these boys
think of the Harry Potter
books, broadly?
b) What do they like about
c) What do they dislike
about them?
Research Question (4): Practices
What are the wider contextual practices surrounding
certain boys' (lack of) engagement with Harry Potter?
• 'situated literacies' approach
• discussions with six selected boys (one from each
Year group) in the physical contexts of their families,
schools and friendship groups about their engagement
with Harry Potter, and whether they think this affected
their later reading.” (from funding application)
Practicalities of the study
(and challenges!)
• Stage 1 - Getting schools to participate
• Challenge – communicating with schools!
• 3 schools (so far):
– 1 Primary School
– 2 Secondary Schools
The Schools
• The Primary School:
• Years 5 & 6 (age 9-11)
• n = 46 pupils (22 boys, 24 girls)
• Secondary School 1:
• Years 7-11 (age 11-16)
• n = 200+ q’aire respondents (still counting)
• Secondary School 2:
• Years 7-11 (age 11-16)
• n = 707 (hopefully...)
Methodology (plan)
• Questionnaire
• Analyse responses
• Identify Harry Potter ‘enthusiasts’ for
Focus Groups (have read 2+ books)
• Run focus groups with ‘enthusiasts’
• and later
• Case Studies of selected boys.
Methodology (and more
• Questionnaire
o challenge – switch from paper to electronic
o Link sent via parent email
= decreased response rate (200 out of 1320 at
Secondary School 1)
• Analyse responses
• Identify Harry Potter enthusiasts for Focus
Groups (challenge here too)
• Run focus groups with ‘enthusiasts’
• Case Studies
Progress – The Primary School
– 46 pupils (22 boys, 24 girls)
o Pilot questionnaire (10th October 2012)
= Issues arising
o Questionnaire (October 24th 2012)
= sampling of FG participants
o 2 x Focus groups (December 18th 2012)
Questionnaire – Initial Findings
(Primary School)
(n = 46 ), 52% Girls, 48% boys), Yrs 5/6
All but one had “heard of Potter”
85% self-identified as “good readers”
33% had read a Potter book (53% were
• 71% whole sample had seen a Potter film
• 31% had done both
Potter Readers
Non Potter Readers
• 47% had a Potter Book
read to them;
• 93% had also seen a film;
• 36% boys and 14% girls
have Potter toys;
• 38% boys and 29% girls
have other merchandise;
• 40% played Potter games
• 60% had seen a Potter
• 42% boys & 13% girls
had video games
• 16% had Potter
merchandise (mainly
• 20% played Potter games
In the majority of cases, children’s awareness of and engagement
with Harry Potter is more likely to be due to other media– particularly
the films – than their personal engagement with the books.
Readers (n = 15)
• 53% had attempted all 7 books, 63% of
whom were boys;
• Chamber of Secrets: most read title
• Prisoner of Azkaban: least read
• Few pupils found any of the books “hard to
• Philosopher’s Stone judged easiest
• Deathly Hallows judged most difficult
Further reading?
• 53% said HP had made them want to read
• 60% said they wanted to read books more
difficult than HP
• 67% said they wanted to read more fiction
• Boys tended to be more positive than girls
Progress – Secondary School 1
– 1320 pupils (+ 350 in years 12-13)
• Timeline:
o Pilot questionnaire (22nd October 2012)
= switch to electronic
o Electronic questionnaire launched (16th
November 2012)
o Reminders on Facebook and via email
o 200 + responses (small proportion)
o Next stage: Focus Groups.
Progress – Secondary School 2
• 707 pupils
• Timeline:
• Electronic questionnaire to be launched
very soon...
Progress: Focus Groups so far...
• Pilot Focus group
– Issues: familiarity, overlapping speech, silly
‘Do you think that reading Harry Potter has
improved your reading?’
Girl 1: No
Girl 2: Never
Girls 3, 4 & 1: No!
Girl 2: Never, because I
Girl 3: No!
Girl 1: I was reading way before, way before then
Girl 3: way before then
Girl 2: [yeah]
Girl 4: [yeah]
Girl 1: well, a little bit,
Girl 2: we just read them for fun
Girl 1: a little bit, it was like the first proper novel
that I’ve ever read, it’s like the proper big novel
that I’ve ever read so I guess that it can make
me a bit more patient
Focus Groups so far...
• Actual Primary School Focus Groups:
– 1 x boys
• 6 boys, very successful, next step: transcription
– 1 x girls
• Issues: very quiet group, only 3 girls, one very shy
and one had limited knowledge of Harry Potter.
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,
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,
• 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, Paris,
• 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.

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