Use of Sport-Based Literature to Increase Moral Theme Comprehension and Overall Literacy Appreciation

“But in reading great literature I become a thousand and yet

remain myself.” — C.S. Lewis


The article is a guideline for parents and teachers reading with elementary-aged children. As parents look for creative ways to teach their children sport-based literature offers a fun way to learn about teamwork and respect. This article offers a research-based model for teaching moral theme comprehension. Use in conjunction with the PLUS Manual and Players SportFolio

For many youth, sports provide numerous aspects of our deepest human needs, especially competence and enjoyment. The PLUS Program attempts to utilize kids’ natural interest in sport as a bridge to other topics they need for healthy development, but are frequently less interested in — especially literacy.

The importance of developing basic literacy skills cannot be argued. Not only is reading ability critical for academic development, it also is a basic life skill that is necessary for successful functioning in our society. The elementary years are a critical time for shaping students’ literacy development and reading motivation. As children go through school, reading becomes more directly related to academic success, and students with poor reading ability find themselves falling behind in other subjects. If a fourth grader, for example, has a difficult time reading and comprehending material, they will fall behind in other subjects that require them to read and comprehend the subject matter (such as history or science). This becomes a vicious downward spiral as the child becomes discouraged and possibly labeled as a poor student.

Unfortunately, upper elementary students frequently lack important opportunities to develop these vital skills in the classroom, as well as the motivation to work on them independently. In his book, Raising a Reader, Paul Kropp points out, “Though most kids are developing the rudiments of reading in primary school, many of them stop developing as readers in grades four and five” Kropp, P. (1996). Fourth graders spend an average of five minutes per day reading in the classroom, which may explain, at least in part, why the National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that 74% of fourth graders cannot read at their own grade level. Further, as children get older, their motivation to read typically diminishes, and they spend less and less time reading for pleasure. One study reported that kids spend less than 1% of their time reading recreationally. Thus, children need additional opportunities to read, as well as greater motivation to read.

Using Sport Stories

The literacy component of the PLUS Program attempts to accomplish two central goals: First, it attempts to increase kids’ interest in and appreciation for literature by exposing them to different kinds of stories they like and are interested in — namely, sport stories. Encouraging children to read is much easier when they can read about subjects they are interested in and care about. Sport stories have this natural attraction for many kids and can help them develop positive attitudes about the pleasures and value of reading. They include a great deal of action and characters, as well as a recognizable setting and unpredictable outcomes. Like a game, these stories stretch the mind and stir the emotions. Most importantly, sports stories are engaging and fun to discuss. Clearly, the development of reading skills is an important part of the reading equation, but developing a lasting interest and desire in reading is also a critical component in the reading equation.

Second, PLUS attempts to increase kids’ moral theme comprehension by providing them a script for considering the important elements regarding the moral of the story. Learning to ask critical comprehension questions of a text allows kids to consistently extract the moral of future stories they read or in which they are involved. PLUS isn’t simply about developing reading motivation and skills; it also views literature as containing rich material for promoting social and cognitive development. Through reading sport stories, children learn to listen, speculate, share and take turns, as they interact socially with others. Sports literature also is an excellent medium for building children’s mental muscles. The ability to identify conflicts, generate solutions, predict outcomes, and consider potential consequences, all constitute critical thinking skills that are developed through PLUS literacy component.

Sports-based literature also has the power to engage kids’ moral sensibilities by allowing the reader to get inside the hearts and minds of characters and to experience their successes, struggles, worries, and hopes. Reading and interacting with sport stories, youth better comprehend the moral dimensions of literature, and by extension, of life — a process that is not as simple as reading good books. Research by Narvaez (2001) indicates that “reading moral stories to children does not guarantee that they will understand the moral message or theme as intended by the author” (p.483). In fact, discerning the “moral of the story” requires active engagement of readers, supported by guided reflection, which is exactly what PLUS attempts to accomplish.

The PLUS approach is not simply to give kids the moral of the specific stories covered in the program — although it does that too. Instead, PLUS attempts to teach kids a process, a series of critical questions that they can consistently utilize to understand the essential moral dimensions of any story they encounter. Utilizing a consistent pattern of questions, or moral theme scheme, the program attempts to provide kids with the proverbial fish — the moral of the story — and the fishing pole — a series of questions to consider for every story they read. For example, Box 7.1 contains a sample moral theme scheme questions utilized in the Sport Shorts and Theme Books.

Kids gain rich experiences in language through sport books, current events, poems, and quotes from prominent athletes. They improve their language skills as they read on their own and in groups, discuss with others the lessons from the stories they read, and spend time writing in their journals. PLUS unique lesson plans are carefully crafted to develop important skills, such as moral theme comprehension, problem-solving, moral imagination, perspective-taking, and decision-making. Box 7.2 provides some sample questions from an Instant Replay, which asks kids to consider the feelings of various stakeholders and to generate different solutions for creating the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Moral Theme Scheme Questions

1. Who are the main characters in this story?

2. What is the main problem these characters face?

3. What are some ways that Andy might handle the situation?

4. What would happen if the problem were handled in this way? How would Andy feel? How would Jessie feel? How would the other kids feel?

5. If you were Andy, how would you solve the problem?

6. What about your solution would be difficult to do?

7. What if you were Jessie, how would you handle the situation?

8. What might make it difficult to do this?

Kids gain rich experiences in language through sport books, current events, poems, and quotes from prominent athletes. They improve their language skills as they read on their own and in groups, discuss with others the lessons from the stories they read, and spend time writing in their journals. PLUS unique lesson plans are carefully crafted to develop important skills, such as moral theme comprehension, problem-solving, moral imagination, perspective-taking, and decision-making. Box 7.2 provides some sample questions from an Instant Replay, which asks kids to consider the feelings of various stakeholders and to generate different solutions for creating the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

PLUS literacy component is specifically designed to maximize the benefits of using sport stories to promote kids’ cognitive, social, and moral development. The Lessons from Literature refers to the reading activities included in the PLUS program. Each kid receives a personal Player Portfolio on the first day to be used during the Lessons from Literature, as well as in a variety of other activities. The Player Portfolio is designed not only to provide a personal journal for each student with stories, cartoons, and pictures, but also to motivate and encourage kids to write. Where possible, the stories are printed directly into the portfolios and all discussion questions and journal topics are included there. Lessons from Literature is comprised of four distinct types of reading activities:

9. Sports Shorts and Theme Books — short stories and chapter books that present a lesson on a particular value.

10. You Make the Calls — short scenarios that present a conflict or dilemma and challenge kids to find creative solutions.

11. Instant Replays — brief plot descriptions that kids first read and then act out through role-plays.

12. Sports Extras — magazine articles, news events, and other stories that kids bring to share with the group at the end of each theme unit.

The reading activities follow a similar format (including setting the tone, reading the story, and discussing questions about the story), but each type of activity is specifically designed to promote different skills.

Sample Instant Replay Reflections

13. First, consider how the different characters are feeling and what they are thinking.

How is Amanda feeling?

How is Vern feeling?

What is Kenny thinking?

14. Next, ask the audience if they have any suggestions for how the situation could be resolved. Suggestions could be listed on poster paper.

15. Choosing one solution, say, “OK, let’s rewind and it out!” Actors then try out different solutions, each time repeating the preceding process.

16. After a few rounds of role-playing, ask kids to sit together in a circle. Lead kids in a discussion about the different solutions, using the following questions as a guide to help them identify the advantages and disadvantges of each solution. (Responses should be written on poster paper by a volunteer.)

Is the solution good for the person making the decision?

Does the solution help others solve the problem?

Is anybody harmed by the solution (physically or emotionally)?

Would this be a good solution for everyone in a similar situation to use?

Are there any ways to improve this solution? If yes, what are they?

Sport Shorts and Theme Books

These short stories and chapter books include children as the main characters, as well as biographies about athletes and sport-related, historical situations (e.g., Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough into baseball). Each story relates directly to the theme unit and is important for developing kids’ moral theme comprehension abilities. This type of reading activity can be broken down into three steps:

1. Set-up — Set-up guidelines are included at the beginning of each Sport Short or Theme Book to help you set the tone for the story. The stimulating questions and/or brief summaries are related specifically to the story and are designed to get kids thinking about some of the issues the story will raise. This step is very important for focusing the kids’ attention on the task at hand.

2. The Story — During this step, you will a) read the story aloud as a whole group, and b) have students work through the discussion questions in their Player Portfolios, either in pairs or as a whole group.

3. Discussion Questions — Finally, the group will come back together to answer a series of questions called the 8-Question Theme-Scheme. Question 1–4 are knowledge questions, asking kids to name the main characters and to identify the problem or challenge they face. Responses should be given in a round- robin format so that several pairs will have an opportunity to share. Question 5 is a focus prompt that asks kids to identify the lessons learned by the main character. It should be answered in an exhaustive format, allowing kids to continue giving responses until all new answers have been heard. Question 6–7 are behavior questions, which ask kids to think about what they would do in the main character’s situation, and all kids who want to share a response should have an opportunity to do so. Finally, Question 8 is a focus prompt that kids should complete in their Player Portfolios.

You Make the Call

In this type of reading activity, students are asked to develop creative solutions to realistic social situations. The scenarios are short and present situations with which most children can easily relate. They are intentionally open-ended so that kids can choose an appropriate course of action to resolve the conflict. The You Make the Call reading activities are important for promoting kids’ problem-solving and moral imaging skills. These activities, too, can be broken into three steps:

1. Set-up — Similar to the Set-up section described above, a few sample questions are included to help you set the tone before breaking kids into small groups of 3 or 4. Once again, the story should be read aloud together as a whole group.

2. Discussion Questions — The questions for this type of activity are designed to challenge the kids’ thinking about the dilemma presented in the story. The Knowledge Questions ask kids to identify the main characters and the primary dilemma. The Prediction Questions ask kids to think about possible solutions to the problem, as well as the resulting consequences of taking that solution. The Behavior Questions ask kids to think about how they personally would respond if they were faced with a similar dilemma.

3. Group Share — Once the Discussion Questions have been completed in small groups, the large group gathers together to talk about the different solutions. Each small group shares the solution(s) they thought of, and their responses are tracked on large poster paper or newsprint. Once all the possible solutions have been laid out, the group as a whole spends a few minutes talking about the consequences of each solution and decides which solution would be best (i.e., the most good for the most people).

Instant Replay

This type of reading activity is designed as a role-play. Each one presents a sport-related social situation and a cast of characters. Some kids act out the character-parts; others participate from the audience, while you lead the group as director. Instant Replays are important for promoting perspective- taking and decision-making skills and for developing a sense of empathy. The steps for this type of reading activity are as follows:

1. Set-up — This step is important for setting the scene, describing the players (or characters), and explaining the plot.

2. The Play — After setting the stage, choose a few volunteers to play the different roles. (Typically, an Instant Reply will have only 4 or 5 characters, so it is important that acting responsibilities are rotated so that everyone who wants to will have an opportunity to participate at some point during the year.) With you as director, help the players act out the continuation of the story in front of the group. When an ending of the story has been acted out, call out, “Actors, FREEZE!” Actors will then stand in place as you facilitate a short discussion with the audience, asking them to describe how each character is feeling. Next, ask the audience for possible alternative endings to the story. Choosing one, direct the actors by saying, “OK, let’s rewind this!” Actors then try out different solutions, each time concluding with a brief discussion about the character’s feelings.

3. Discussion Questions — The discussion questions for this activity are designed to help kids identify the advantages and disadvantages of each solution. After a few rounds of role- playing, gather the group into a circle to discuss the different solutions that were played out, using poster paper or newsprint to track kids’ responses.

Sports Extras

This type of reading activity is intended to help kids apply what they are learning during the Lessons from Literature by encouraging them to recognize examples of people in the news who exemplify the core value for that theme unit. At the beginning of each theme unit, kids are encouraged to bring in a newspaper or magazine article to be shared with the class at the end of the theme unit. Prior to presenting their story or article, kids will spend a few moments responding to a few questions about their story in their Player Portfolios. Volunteers then have an opportunity to share their story or article in their own words.

New Knowledge, New Skills, New Worlds

The PLUS Program doesn’t claim to be a panacea for the difficult reading challenges facing today’s families, schools, and communities. However, it does claim to provide important knowledge (about important values and other life-lessons), to provide important skills (such as how to elicit key thematic elements from a story), and perhaps most importantly, to open kids to new worlds (as they learn about the potential of literature to open our eyes to people and places we may have never known).

The world of sport is a mosaic of people from different time periods, backgrounds and cultures. Many sport stories (both fiction and nonfiction) illustrate athletes who push racial, ethnic, physical or gender barriers. For example, in Jackie Robinson: Bravest Man in Baseball, the reader can go back in time to 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers and learn of Jackie’s experience of playing in a sport dominated by whites. In Baseball Saved Us, by Ken Mochizuki, we learn how an American boy of Japanese descent endured injustice and racial prejudice during World War II. Through these and other sport stories, children expand their understanding of the experiences and lives of others, and in turn, learn more about themselves.

​Dr. Beedy is a leader in the field of child development. At Harvard, he studied with psychologists Lawrence Kohlberg and Pulitzer Prize winner Dr. Robert Coles