Be a Sport! Lessons for Increasing Literacy Using Sports Heroes

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One method for engaging reluctant readers is to provide books and activities that connect to their interests and passions. Making this connection is especially helpful when introducing nonfiction reading materials to students. Matching the appropriate books and articles to individual students takes time but provides long-term rewards, such as increased interest in reading. 

Many students enjoy sports, and using sports heroes in lessons and activities is an excellent way to match student interest while developing literacy skills. Baseball season is around the corner, and one of baseball’s greatest heroes is Jackie Robinson. Let’s use him as an example to build a variety of literacy lessons – but remember that these lesson ideas and activities are appropriate for any other sports figures or famous characters with some slight adjustments. 

Begin with a Google search to find interesting facts to use as a hook. If you teach older students, ask them to research the accomplishments of the person they chose. A quick search reveals that Jackie Robinson is much more than a baseball legend – he is well-known for many business and sports broadcasting achievements as well.

Start with some Jackie Robinson trivia to engage students and encourage curiosity. Make it even more interesting using the Image Reveal tool found at Classtools (reviewed here) to reveal a portion of a Jackie Robinson image with each trivia item like the ones below.

  • He was born January 31 in Cairo, GA, but his family moved to Pasadena, CA soon after.
  • His middle name is Roosevelt, inspired by Teddy Roosevelt.
  • His major league debut was April 15, 1947, at Ebbet’s Field in Brooklyn, NY.
  • He was a six-time all-star.
  • List of firsts: first African-American player in Major League Baseball, first Rookie of the Year (1947), first black MVP, first African-American vice president of a major corporation (Chock Full O’Nuts), first African American inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame (1962), first African-American MLB television analyst, and the first athlete to have his number universally retired across all MLB teams

Lesson Ideas:

If you teach reading and literacy, you are probably familiar with ReadWriteThink (reviewed here). ReadWriteThink has several sports-related activities, including some specifically related to books about Jackie Robinson. Use these lessons as inspiration for teaching about Jackie Robinson or adapt these ideas to fit your students’ interests.

  • Elementary Level:
    • Take Me Out to the Ball Game podcast activities (Grades K-5) –  Did you know that ReadWriteThink has a podcast? During each episode of Chatting About Books, the narrator chats with kids and teachers to share reading tips and activities. Episode 34 discusses books about sports with an award-winning author known for his sports alphabet books. Include this chat with your computer center activities to introduce your unit on Jackie Robinson or as a model to use for students creating their podcasts. 
  • Upper Elementary and Middle School Level:
    • Boars and Baseball (Grades 4-7) – Using the novel In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, this five-part lesson reinforces reading comprehension through making connections to text. Strategies include using a double-entry journal and selecting a final project from several options, including writing a feature article for a sports magazine or creating a timeline sharing an immigrant’s journey to the United States. This unit includes links to several interactives and worksheets useful for any biography project.
    • Play Ball! Encouraging! Critical Thinking Through Baseball Questions (Grade 6-8) –  This instructional plan is designed with three lessons and provides practice for developing critical thinking skills by analyzing sports trivia questions. As a final project, students develop questions to play a Jeopardy-style game with their classmates. 
    • Swish! Pow! Whack! Teaching Onomatopoeia Through Sports Poetry (Grades 6-8) – This unit includes an interesting section titled “From Theory to Practice” that shares thoughts from Ralph Fletcher about male students and writing in the classroom. It states, “Fletcher believes that we can further engage male students by incorporating drawing into writing activities.  Brain research shows that girls’ brains are more verbal, whereas boys are more spatial.  Fletcher notes, ‘allowing boys to draw while writing will make it more fun and help them feel invested.’ ” Building upon this theory, these four 50-minute sessions teach students about onomatopoeias and use that technique to inspire students to create a sports poetry flip book.
  • Middle and High School Level:
    • Jackie Robinson was born on this day in 1919 (Grades 7-12) – Students use the date of Jackie Robinson’s birth as a starting point for discussing and researching historical events related to civil rights and the role of athletes in society. Although it isn’t a complete teaching unit, this site includes several useful links for students to use as they research Jackie Robinson, including information from the Library of Congress and a transcript of an interview with Jackie Robinson’s wife. 

Additional ReadWriteThink Resources to use with sports topics:

  • Suggested booklist for Jackie Robinson – This list includes several books to use with guided reading lessons. For a more comprehensive list, try this result found at Goodreads (reviewed here). Goodreads is an excellent resource for searching and creating book lists for any topic. Use it to make a list of other athletes or biography subjects.
  • Timeline Creator – Use the timeline creator to help students organize information by day, date, or event. The timeline features make it easy to add, drag, and rearrange information as needed. Find other timeline creators at TeachersFirst Edge
  • Printing Press – Use the templates found in this interactive to create newspapers, brochures, and flyers. Be sure to introduce students to the included planning sheet to gather and organize information before starting their articles. Use this interactive to have students write articles as a sports reporter, advertise for an upcoming ball game, or create a flyer featuring their favorite athlete. 
  • Hero’s Journey – This interactive guides students through patterns and circumstances found in many stories of heroes. Use this interactive to help students identify and share highlights from Jackie Robinson’s life or that of the person of their choosing.
  • Creating a Persuasive Podcast – Expand persuasive thinking and writing skills through creating a podcast. These five lessons include handouts and a persuasion map interactive that teaches students how to organize information by creating short, persuasive podcasts. Students researching Jackie Robinson could use this opportunity to persuade others that he is the most outstanding athlete of all time or convince peers that they should read his biography instead of another athlete’s. Publish student podcasts using tools found in the digital storytelling resources at TeachersFirst Edge.  

ReadWriteThink provides many excellent lessons and interactives that engage students in the literacy process. Think beyond the suggested activities and imagine how to adapt them to your students’ interests. Many students enjoy sports and have heroes they admire – use their interests as a hook for learning opportunities.

Do you have suggestions for teaching literacy with sports? Leave your ideas and tips in the comments below.


About the author: Sharon Hall

Sharon Hall was a recipient of the Presidential Award of Excellence in Math teaching. With over 15 years of classroom experience as a National Board Certified teacher, Sharon shares her content knowledge and reflections on ideas for basic classroom technology integration with us.

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