Reading with our Future Fans is having an impact on literacy across the nation. The program was inspired by a student's interest in athletes at the University of Iowa.
Aug. 16, 2009
by David Meyer
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- University of Iowa student-athletes know young Hawkeye fans look up to them when it comes to playing sports. Children growing up in Iowa dream of becoming the next Ricky Stanzi or Kachine Alexander. The children's idols motivate them to succeed in athletics. What Iowa athletes may not realize is that they are also motivating children to read.
Ann Bell is a Reading Recovery teacher in the Iowa City Community School District. About six years ago, one of her students was having trouble learning to read with traditional children's books.
"I had a child who was not motivated to read fictional stories with cartoon characters. What he was really interested in was sports -- specifically Iowa sports," said Bell. "He wanted real stories about real athletes."
According to Bell, many beginning readers (ages 5-7) share this characteristic. They don't necessarily want to read conventional children's books; they want to find books they are interested in.
"I had a child who was not motivated to read fictional stories with cartoon characters. What he was really interested in was sports -- specifically Iowa sports. He wanted real stories about real athletes."
Reading Recovery teacher
Bell decided to make her student a book with pictures of Iowa athletics to help motivate him to read. She approached UI Associate Athletics Director of Student Services and Compliance, Fred Mims, to help her complete the project.
"He latched on to my idea to help motivate this child to read and he became a champion for me," said Bell.
When Bell brought the book to school for the struggling student, it was a hit with him as well as his classmates.
"Other students came into my classroom and they saw this book, and they begged me to help them learn how to read this book," said Bell.
The book was such a success that in 2005, Bell decided to create a literacy program called Reading With Our Future Fans (RWOFF). The program aims to teach kids to read about their favorite college sports teams all by themselves, and the books are classified into four levels: emergent, beginning, transitional and independent. These are four levels of the same story that grow with the child's ability to read more complex stories.
When launching RWOFF, Bell wanted to maintain total compliance with NCAA regulations. She sought the advice of Robin Harris, an attorney with Ice Miller LLP, based in Indianapolis. Harris, who served at the national NCAA office prior to Ice Miller, helped Bell get RWOFF reviewed by the NCAA, which provided compliancy guidelines enabling RWOFF to use photographs of athletes with remaining eligibility.
Working with Mims and Nancy Parker, spokesperson for the Iowa Student Athlete Advisory Committee (ISAAC), Bell started writing books featuring University of Iowa athletic teams. Parker said ISAAC decided to adopt RWOFF as a community service project because it was exciting, meaningful and consistent with their core values.
"The University athletics program has to verify that students who do service projects are doing the projects because they have intrinsic value to an individual or to a community," said Parker, "It's critical that you learn to become a good reader. If there is anything we can do to help motivate kids, let's do it."
Bell receives "behind-the-scenes" photos of ISAAC student-athletes' daily lives; these involve players practicing, conditioning, studying, competing and traveling.
"Ann writes text that wraps around the photographs and eventually evolve into sport-related themes," said Parker.
"Reading With Our Future Fans allows the young students to be vicariously mentored by the athletes. The books feature the good things that the athletes and staff are doing everyday within their community."
Reading Recovery teacher
The organization's website, www.RWOFF.org, now features 25 titles spanning 12 different Hawkeye athletic teams with more sports books on the way. Young readers and families can join in the fun of reading these electronic books on the RWOFF website. Soon, Hawkeye fans will be able to link directly to the Iowa RWOFF sports books from hawkeyesports.com.
Bell said that many children do not realize all that the collegiate athletes' lives entail.
"They think, `Oh, they can just go out and play their sport,' because all they see are the athletes on the playing field. The books show young readers how the hard-working athletes work and practice daily, not only at their sport, but also at academics, so that they can be able to perform," said Bell.
The books engage children in reading, which is essential to academic success. They help Bell answer young students' questions like, "Why do I have to read? Why can't I just play football?" The program enables children to appreciate the importance of literacy because the athletes they look up to promote reading.
"Reading With Our Future Fans allows the young students to be vicariously mentored by the athletes," said Bell. "The books feature the good things that the athletes and staff are doing everyday within their community."
There are certainly parallels between athletes excelling at their sports and children excelling at reading -- both are about commitment to excellence. Kids understand that Hawkeye athletes have to practice hard to perform well. The same concept applies to beginning readers.
"Having a book that children can read by themselves -- that is their practice," said Bell.
RWOFF can serve as a jumping-off point for beginning readers. It is intended to increase children's confidence in their reading ability. The program can spark young readers' interest in a variety of books.
"Once they understand, `I can do this,' then they begin to see, `I can read lots of books.' It just catapults them," said Bell.
Bell lavished praise on Mims and Parker for the support they have given RWOFF. She plans on deploying the program across the NCAA, and the foothold she gained at Iowa has been instrumental in introducing it to other universities. One new member has already joined the UI -- The University of Michigan. Iowa State University will soon be launched on the RWOFF website. Bell has also been in contact with The Ohio State University and The University of Notre Dame.
Parker sees major opportunity for the expansion of Bell's brainchild.
"She really sees that kids have an inherent interest in sport, especially if that sport is located in their home community," Parker said. "Involving major institutions and letting them tailor their books to their own university is a really good idea."
"I'm very encouraged and hopeful to see our vision spread so that we can help motivate other kids," said Bell. "It's an opportunity for universities across America to reach and teach one child at a time to read."