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Harry Potter and the magic of reading

With the final book due in July, teachers assess the impact the popular series has had on children's learning.

Sitting at a table in the library of Lehman Alternative Community School in Ithaca, N.Y., sixth-grader Marcus Weathersby makes a confession.

"As soon as I get the next Harry Potter book, I'm going to read the last page," he says. "I can't wait. I just cannot wait."

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The seventh and last Harry Potter book will be released in July. Millions of Potter fans won't have another book to look forward to after that. But Harry's effect on many young people – and their love of reading – may be magical enough to last a lifetime.

A 2006 study by Scholastic and Yankelovich found that the Harry Potter books have had a positive impact not only on kids' attitudes toward reading, but also on the quality of their schoolwork. The Kids and Family Reading Report surveyed 500 children ages 5 to 17 and their parents or guardians. More than half of Harry Potter readers said they hadn't read books for fun before the series, and 65 percent said they have done better in school since reading the books. The study also found that the reading habits of boys – who consistently have lower literacy test scores than girls – changed the most as a result of reading the books.

Back in the Ithaca library, Marcus's friend, seventh-grader Daniel Carroll, says that he's going to read the end first, too. The boys belong to a group of students who compile book reviews for a blog on the school's website. Their teacher, library media specialist Claire Michelle Viola, doesn't quite seem to understand their strategy.

"That doesn't ruin it for you?" she asks.

"No," says Daniel, smiling. "I always forget [the end] by the time I get there."

The boys are eager to know the answers to many looming questions, including Will Harry survive? But they will have to wait until July 21 – a day that will mark the end of an era. At midnight, a record-breaking 12 million copies of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" will be released in bookstores across the country. Fans of all ages will stand in line to pick up the 784-page final installment of J.K. Rowling's popular series.

As in past years, kids will sport black-rimmed glasses and colorful capes. Release parties will offer prizes, food, and fortune-telling through the early morning hours. But this July will be different. Amid the celebration and excitement will be the realization that the young wizard's journey is nearing the end.

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Nancy Kellner, library media specialist of the Peaslee Elementary School in Northboro, Mass., has been a fan of the series since it began in 1997. The books will become classics, she says, but some of the excitement will be lost after the seventh one is released.

"I can't imagine the original magic of Harry Potter will remain," she says. "The magic is waiting for the next book."

Marcus credits the series for getting him interested in reading. He says his grandfather read him the first five books, but he wanted to read the sixth one himself. Since then, he loves to read medieval, fantasy, and science-fiction books, he says. He also now likes the many books he reads for school – even though the majority aren't his favorite genres, he says.

"I whip through 50 books a year," says Marcus matter-of-factly.

Finding a book that can engage a reluctant reader is not easy, says Jennifer Groff, the library media specialist at Belle Sherman Elementary School in Ithaca, N.Y. Children can feel defeated if by age 9 or 10 they haven't found a book they can connect with. Ms. Groff, who reads Harry Potter aloud to fourth- and fifth-graders at lunch three days a week, says there is something about the way the story is told that captivates kids.

Ms. Kellner points out that Harry Potter is not written in advanced language, as are books by fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien. But neither are they "dumbed down," she adds. Kids like it when authors take them seriously, she says, and Ms. Rowling does that while still making the books graspable.

According to Alice Ball, library media specialist at South Hill Elementary School in Ithaca, the Harry Potter books hit on some major themes that kids commonly like in fiction books. These include being special, going from poor to rich, and knowing more than adults.

Daniel, the Ithaca seventh-grader, says he definitely feels an emotional connection with the characters. "I started reading them when I was younger, so I sort of thought, 'Oh, this is how every book is,' " he says. "So when I read other books, I would put them down after like 50 pages because they weren't as exciting."

Daniel picked up Harry Potter at an early age.

"When I was in kindergarten," he says, "I saw a bunch of people reading them, so I pretended to read them even though I couldn't read."

Such peer pressure is not uncommon among Harry Potter readers. The Kids and Family Reading Report showed that 63 percent of boys and 44 percent of girls say that it was important to read Harry Potter to feel "in" with their friends.Reluctant readers are more willing to make an effort with a book when they see their friends reading it, Groff says, as opposed to a teacher handing out books.

While most teachers have not rushed to make the popular series a part of their curricula, many have found ways to incorporate the books in their classrooms. Eileen Bach, an English teacher at Ithaca High School and a Harry Potter fan herself, says she doesn't teach the books to her students, many of whom are familiar with the series.

"I try to teach literature to students that they wouldn't pick up on their own," she says. Instead, she might use a passage from one of the books in extra practice lessons on identifying parts of speech. Ms. Bach says that high school students are definitely still interested in the books, and while some "don't dare show too much enthusiasm" about the series, she thought using it would encourage students to do the extra work.

Kellner says it would be hard to make a thorough study of Harry Potter – the sixth book was 672 pages – when she sees her students for only 40 minutes at a time. But she references the books, especially when she teaches mythology and fantasy genres. The books have great vocabulary, and all the major elements of a fantasy book – such as time travel and good versus evil – can be found in Harry Potter.

On the whole, parents enjoy Potter, too. The books are often challenged by those who say they promote witchcraft and anti-Christian values. The series topped the list of the American Library Association's most challenged books from 2000-2005. Half the parents surveyed in the Kids and Family Reading Report are Harry Potter readers themselves. They also see how the books have benefited their children – 89 percent of parents say that reading Harry Potter has helped their child enjoy reading more, and 76 percent say that reading the books has helped their child do better in school. In England, publishers offer a children's and an adult's edition of the Harry Potter books, each with different cover art.