Using the power of football to transform children’s futures

Our Sport and Literacy Programme Manager Jim Sells explains how football can motivate children to improve their literacy.

Football has always been a big part of my life so I count myself lucky that I’ve been able to combine my love of football with a career in education, having been involved in the National Literacy Trust’s sport and literacy programmes for the past 20 years.

I’m also a dad of four, so I know how important it is to instil a love of reading and writing in my children from an early age. The sad truth is that kids who can’t read and write well will find it hard to succeed in life. They are more likely to leave school with poor qualifications, be unemployed as an adult and end up living in poverty. No father wants that for their children.

So how do we get our children to pick up a book, when it’s often the last thing they want to do? Tapping into their interests is the key, and that’s where football comes in. We use the excitement and passion surrounding the beautiful game to motivate children and young people to improve their literacy skills. I’ve seen first-hand how combining football and literacy can turn a child’s life around.

Freestyle football is a growing phenomenon, with millions of young people following their favourite freestylers on social media, such as F2 and Tekkerz Kid, so that they can learn the latest tricks. We wanted to tap into this craze so created Skills Academy — a reading programme for 11 to 13-year-olds which rewards their progress with exclusive football tricks from some of the world’s best freestyle footballers, including Jamie Knight and Agnieszka Mnich.

One of the challenges on the programme is to read a page of a football story and answer a number of questions relating to it. Another challenge asks students to predict what happens next in the story and create a comic book strip with their ideas. Have a go — it’s free!

The programme has been a huge success. 1 in 3 students who take part improve their reading age by an incredible 11 months in just 10 weeks. One of the first students to take part was in danger of being taken out of mainstream education, but the programme has had such a positive impact that he is now in the top set for English. Another boy has seen his reading age go up by a massive 23 months. But don’t just take our word for it — hear what the kids have to say for themselves. And why not give one of our freestyle tricks a go yourself?

We also work with The FA and the Premier League to develop competitions, resources and activities to help teachers and parents get children and young people excited about reading and writing.

We regularly join forces with The FA and top children’s football author Tom Palmer to provide stimulating resources around major international tournaments. Reacting to events as they unfolded at Euro 2016 (thank you Iceland!) Tom wrote a daily story that weaved in the anniversary of 100 years since the Battle of the Somme — these were downloaded by teachers and read out in assemblies and classrooms across the country. This year, Tom will be writing a daily story that reacts to the events on and off the pitch at the World Cup, called Defenders: Russia. You can download the first chapter now.

We have also teamed up with Walker Books to create a range of fun activities, themes, and projects for schools using the Football School books by Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton and illustrated by Spike Gerrell.

Last year, we developed a series of fun writing challenges with The FA around the SSE Women’s FA Cup Final. Videos from top female footballers, including Millie Farrow (Bristol City forward, on loan from Chelsea) and Mary Earps (Reading and England goalie), challenged youngsters to write rousing half-time speeches, inspirational poetry to put on the dressing room walls — something which can be replicated in your Sunday League huts — and take on the role of a player writing a newspaper article from ‘inside the camp’. The winners got an unforgettable class trip to Wembley to see the final and their winning entry displayed on the big screen.

We also have a 15 year relationship with the Premier League, developing and delivering programmes like Premier League Reading Stars, which uses the appeal of professional footballers, coaches and clubs to improve struggling 9 to 11-year-old readers.

Children who take part in the programme make an average of 6 months’ progress in reading age after just 10 weeks, which is incredible. Often, the programme delivers even more benefits for kids; one lad I worked with in London called Cordell was always getting into trouble, but after the programme, his confidence, attendance, and ability to get on with other pupils skyrocketed — all as well as his reading ability.

When the programme is delivered by club coaches — which is something new that we’re doing — we see even better results. Children respond really well to the coaches because of their association with a club, and the fact they come dressed in their club coaching gear is really exciting! They’re great role models to pupils and they really look up to them.

We recently ran a poetry competition with the Premier League which generated an extraordinary 25,000 entries from children — no doubt because the poems were judged by Frank Lampard and Yannick Bolasie. The competition was part of the Premier League Primary Stars programme which aims to provide top quality English, maths, PE and PSHE resources for free to every school in England and Wales — plus a load of activities for parents too. So many teachers have got in touch to tell us how inspired their pupils were by the competition.

Over the years I have had the pleasure of interviewing plenty of top footballers about their favourite reads as child and as an adult. Liverpool’s Adam Lallana loves the children’s book The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson, West Brom’s Gareth Barry raved about Sir Terry Pratchett’s Dragons at Crumbling Castle, and Tottenham’s Ben Davies opted for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling. When children see that their favourite footballers love books, they begin to understand the value of reading to their lives and are encouraged to pick up a book themselves.

Football really does have the power to change children’s life stories.

This article was originally published in When Saturday Comes magazine.