Readability Magic

The Language of Harry Potter

OVER the years, as we watched Harry Potter and his friends get older, their adventures became darker and more dangerous. Their language also matured. It went from the 6th-grade level in the first volume, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, to the 8th-grade level in the final work, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Get it on Amazon A great boon for parents and teachers of reading.

Author J. K. Rowling is an exceptional storyteller whose language appeals to the widest possible audience. She has created a world of witches and wizards that is accessible to readers of all ages.

In the publishing world, there has never been anyone like Harry Potter. In July, celebrations were held all over the world to greet the arrival of Deathly Hallows. In the U.S., 21 million copies had been printed in the first run. In the first 24 hours of sales, 11 million copies were sold in the U.S. and the U.K. Over a thousand readers have already posted their reviews on Amazon. Of the previous six volumes, over 325 million copies have been sold world-wide in 64 languages. Five successful movies based on the series have already been released. The 6th will be released in November 2008.

Harry's adult readers

Storymaster Rowling

The series is extremely popular among young adults—not just among parents reading to their kids, but also among workers and professionals reading the story for their own sake. Rowling's work has won not only several children's book awards, but at least two awards for best adult fiction and a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. This popularity prompted the British publisher, Bloomsbury, to produce editions for adults with grown-up covers.

The appeal among young adults should be no surprise. After all, they grew up in the parallel worlds of video games and comics. As we have noted in these pages, the average adult in the U.S. reads most comfortably at the 7th-grade level. Writers of blockbuster fiction from Mark Twain to Harper Lee and Dan Brown have all written at that level.

Rowling's easy readability and crisp dialog enhance her well-staged narrative. She balances sentences long and short, difficult and easy, keeping them at a 7th-grade average—the sweet spot of the reading public.

It is language that adults find familiar and are not embarrassed to read.

Harry's young readers

In spite of the popularity of Harry Potter among children, younger readers find the books hard to read. Rowling frequently slips into more adult language. Look at these samples:

Perhaps because he was determined to make up for having walked out on them, perhaps because Harry's descent into listlessness galvanized his dormant leadership qualities, Ron was now the one encouraging and exhorting the other two into action.
He knew that his whole story would collapse with the smallest investigation, but on the other hand, he only had until his face regained its usual appearence before the game was up in any case.
"Well, well," said Greyback, and Harry could hear the tiniest trepidation in that callous voice.

Although the publishers promoted the books as suitable "for 9-to-12-year olds," many parents found their children struggling with the language. They ended up either reading the books to their kids or helping them along. No matter. Harry's story motivated even 1st and 2nd graders to struggle with the text and, over time, to master it. Because of Harry Potter, children and others who were once poor readers are no longer afraid of fat books.

Many generations of readers in the past profited from adventure stories like The Hardy Boys. Time will tell whether Harry Potter will be a classic, but it is already a great boon for today's readers.

Reading expert Maria Salvadore, in "What Can Harry Potter Teach Us about Children and Reading," noted its many benefits:

Harry Potter is such an action-packed story that it motivates and moves kids along so they willingly tackle words, sentences, and paragraphs that by any other measure would be above their readability level. When a child reads text, she gets practice at decoding, learns to read with less effort and with expression (what reading specialists call fluency), and is more likely to want to read some more!
Some books are too mature for readers regardless of their ability to decode the words and read them fluently. Themes can be difficult or beyond a child's experience, making the book tough for readers to handle.
Books grow with readers. Rereading books offers opportunities for greater insight and practice with reading text fluently. Books like Harry Potter can be a shared experience that builds a community of readers.
So, here's to Harry Potter and the hope that you and the children in your lives find your own magic in reading!

Los Angeles County Forges Ahead

Plain-Language Program Expands

Department of Consumer Affairs Website
L. A. County's consumer Website: "where government is reponsive to taxpayers and good writing triumphs over bad."

IF YOU have a dispute with your landlord, your car is repossessed, or you are facing foreclosure, there is no better place to go for information than Los Angeles County's Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA). That is what more than 700,000 troubled consumers do every year. What they find is information that is highly accessible, with 7th-grade readability. What is usually couched in wordy legal jargon is, instead, clear, simple, and to the point. As one consumer wrote, "The information was very helpful and easy to understand and read. Thank you very much."

It all began in 2002 when the consumer-information phone system broke down. Tim Bissell, Chief Deputy Director of L.A. County's Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) began looking into plain language. He brought in William DuBay, a local plain-language consultant. DuBay told Bissell that what he needed was not someone to rewrite his phone scripts, but someone to train his staff in plain language. DuBay got the job.

As Bissell stated in a recent county presentation, "I realized we had to take a brand-new approach in creating documents, one centered on the reader's needs. The information had to be complete, reliable, and easy-to-read."

The County Takes Up Plain Language

Shortly after, members of the County's Quality and Productivity Commission (QPC) discovered what Bissell was up to and became very interested. In 2004, they set up a Plain Language Committee to bring plain language to other departments. They also funded Bissell's project to re-write the consumer phone messages in plain language.

As reported in these pages, when the new consumer phone messages were installed, they reduced call-backs 30 percent and saved the department $58,000 yearly in staff time. In 2005, the project won the County's Best Quality Improvement award.

The same year, the QPC began a series of plain-language workshops for the Quality Managers representing all the departments of the county. It set up a plain-language Web site, and distributed posters promoting plain language throughout the County. The QPC set up a Managers' Network and a Writers' Network with the aim of promoting plain language in their respective departments.Their current plans include plain-language training for all writers in the County government.

Last year, the QPC conducted a four-month pilot study of the StyleWriter writing-aid software. In March of this year, the County Board of Supervisors awarded the QPC $208,706 to purchase the software for use throughout the County's departments. The editors of The Los Angeles Times immediately applauded the grant and wrote: "It's always satisfying when government is more responsive to taxpayers—and when good writing triumphs over bad."

Los Angeles County offers a model for other governments adopting plain-language: fund an internal agency that can promote plain language in the rest of the organization. It can use pilot projects and workshops to demonstrate the real-world benefits for both the organization and its citizens.

L.A. County's plain-language leaders, left to right, QPC Chair Jaclyn Tilley Hill, DCA Chief Deputy Director Tim Bissell, and QPC Executive Director Ruth Wong.

Plain Language in the News

Plain-language version of federal court rules wins Burton Award:

Seniors with weak reading skills have shorter lives: http://www.cbc.ca/health/story/2007/07/23/elderlyliteracystudy.html

America's other drug problem: poor medication adherence: http://www.marketwire.com/mw/release.do?id=756583

Study reports health-care illiteracy among workers:

Majority of seniors still not online:

Literacy cards proposed:

Brain's response to action verbs:

Today's business jargon:

Readability software for writers:

Judge Gerlis on plain language in the law:

Buzzword balance sheet:

Results of SEC's financial disclosure rules:

Florida's plain-language progress: