Part Three of Three: The Importance of Concept Imagery, and A Book List For Adventurers Not Quite Ready for Harry Potter

Stock image of a young student reading a book, while making a movie in her head.

We’ve been tracing the amazing success of Astrid from Part One, where she was a second grader obsessed with all-things Harry Potter, but she was reading at a Kindergarten level. By working specifically on improving her Visual Processing and targeting her reading fluency in Part Two we saw her heading toward her goals.

One day, after we had been working together for a couple months, Astrid told me offhandedly that the first Harry Potter movie scared her to the point that she had repeated nightmares of characters turning into snakes. Her descriptions were lively and vivid. She begged me not to tell her mother, but I was obliged to discuss it.

Her mother was mystified at first. She explained that Astrid had only seen the movie one time, and a while ago. But she’d been reading some of the books to Astrid, and of course Astrid was pouring over them herself, but in general she suspected Astrid was still looking at the illustrations when reading alone.

After some thought, Astrid’s mother and I suspected that her daughter had been visualizing the stories as they were read to her in her head. Aha!

The images that haunted Astrid’s sleep were not things she had seen in a movie, but those she’d imagined from a book.

The practice of making a ‘movie’ in her head at the same rate she reads is called ‘Concept Imagery’, which helps all readers build comprehension and fluency skill sets. Many students are not coached to think of this movie-making process in school, so they aren’t using it. This practice is crucial to develop with students who cannot remember what they read, or cannot listen and hold on to information, since our brains use this to read, listen, write and speak out our ideas.

If so, that was a useful bit of data—whatever Astrid’s other difficulties might be, the mechanics behind comprehension were not among them, since visualization is a metacognitive anchoring process toward stronger comprehension skills. Astrid’s fear of the serpents that her brain so ably conjured from Rowling’s descriptions, however, indicated that the content was developmentally inappropriate for a second grader.

Snake from the movie Harry Potter.

Did you know that the reading levels of the Harry Potter books match the main character’s age as he moves through the series? The first books start with Harry at the age of 11, and it’s labeled at the reading level of 9-12 years old, depending on maturity with certain types of content.

But the series ends with Book 7 at the 11-17-year-old reading level, and Harry finishing his formal wizarding education. Especially because of its exploration of death and other much darker subjects, the end of the series poses more of a quandary­­ in that students may not have the life experience to fully understand the content.

Did they make a picture of what they read in their heads when reading the words? Here are some questions to ask readers to get an idea of their ‘Concept Imagery’ skills.

Infographic of questions to gauge imagery skills.

Although Astrid’s motivation started off high, she wasn’t making much progress after the first few months of practice. I realized she was bored silly with the low-level primers she needed to practice fluency skills while reading for meaning. Astrid’s goal was to read Harry Potter, and much of her identity was aligned with that complex fantasy world and the rich characters that inhabit it. But the books at her reading skill level were predictable and “babyish” for her.

It became my goal to see if I could find a better fit for Astrid’s reading level while still capturing the excitement of her strong interests. At the same time, I certainly did not want to be a teacher who told her challenged reader to put away the book that she craved the most.

After months of searching, I found some books that fit the bill, complete with great characters and imaginative plots. To me, this meant finding adventurous stories in which kids seek solutions to huge issues and overcome incredible odds to ultimately triumph through perseverance and their natural abilities.

Below I’ll provide you the sequence of the books that served as great lead-ins to reading Harry Potter—an ‘Astrid-approved’ list that bridged her initial abilities and her ultimate goal.

To be better readers, we all need to read regularly, and I challenge my students to read more than one book at a time. Readers have different moods, and might want to read something lighter, like a graphic novel after their regular reading for school, and maybe have a bedtime book that’s different, too. Practice makes for enjoyment, and sometimes my students think reading is just for school hours.

Hopefully a few of these ideas will help your aspiring wizards, explorers, dancers, tree climbers, astronauts, and inventors to enjoy reading at elementary-aged reading levels. After Astrid read a few of these selections, I would ask her if she liked the book. She would comment with a smirk that the book was “good, but not as good as Harry Potter.”

Still, it felt successful to have a dyslexic child who craved a book she couldn’t read yet still progressing toward her goal. At the end of the school year she (slowly) read the first chapter of The Sorcerer’s Stone to me. Her parents could not believe the transformation, as well as the other educators on her team.

More importantly, Astrid was a reader, and a voracious one at that.

Keep in mind that there are some excellent graphic novels for students who may be weaker readers. Graphic novels help such kids generate interest in reading, yet still provide a basis for developing comprehension skills, such as making inferences. For my students who get hooked on only reading graphic novels, I often recommend a 50/50 ratio with regular books and graphic novels, so they continue to develop important visual-tracking skills needed for speedy reading in print.

Astrid’s Path to Potter: (Listed with an approximate Grade Levels)

  • Ghosts, by Raina Telgemeier, 2.6 Grade Level – Graphic Novel
  • The Witch Who Was Afraid of Witches, by Alice Low, 2.7 Grade Level – Picture book
  • The Golden Compass: The Graphic Novel, Volumes 1 and 2, by Philip Pullman, 2.9 — 3.4 Grade Level – Based on the series, these graphic novels are exciting, yet at a lower reading level as the original books.
  • The Magic Finger, by Roald Dahl, 3.1 Grade Level – This book is not predictable in plot, and if students are engaging in ‘Concept Imagery’ and making a mental ‘movie’ in their heads as they read, they will have a blast with this book.
  • Sideways Stories from Wayside School, by Louis Sachar and illustrated by the amazing Adam McCauley, 3.3 Grade Level (and the whole Sideways School series) I love this series to teach from because the characters are interesting, the stories are very creative, and the plot is off-beat. This book is great for having students practice ‘Concept Imagery’ by having students describe what the characters look like.
  • Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq, by Mark Alan Stamaty, 3.9 Grade Level – Graphic Novel– This is the inspiring true story of an Iraqi librarian’s courageous fight to save books from the Basra Central Library before it was destroyed in the war.
  • George’s Marvelous Medicine, by Roald Dahl, 4.0 Grade Level – This lesser known book by Roald Dahl delights my students who have great imaginations.
  • Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, by Roald Dahl, 4.4 Grade Level – A classic book for all students. I try to have them read the book before seeing either movie. If they have seen the movies, though, I’ll have them compare the plots because the story from the book only matches one of the movies. Which one?
  • Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, (Book One:) The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordin, 4.3 — 5.3 Grade Level – This series can feel familiar to the Harry Potter series in that a boy is half-Greek God and half human. He is tasked with retrieving Zeus’ lightning bolt to save the world from another war between the Olympian gods.
  • The Uncommoners (series), by Jennifer Bell, 5.3 Grade Level – Two siblings stumble on a family secret that leads them to magic, adventure and the land of the Uncommoners, where ordinary objects have amazing powers.
  • The Cloak Society Series, by Jeramey Kraatz, 5.9 Grade Level – This series features a supervillain-in-training who develops doubts about his capacity for evil and struggles with how to use his telekinetic powers.
  • Pennyroyal Academy, by M.A. Larson, 6.0 Grade Level – A girl from the forest arrives in an unnamed kingdom, only to find herself in the middle of a world at war. She enrolls in a school that trains princesses and knights.

What other books do you think belong on this list?