My old English teacher smiled in surprise and approval when, as a 12-year-old, I peppered my essays with words like “erratic”, “prolific” and “mercurial”. But these descriptions didn’t flow from a precocious love of high literature – they were the result of my obsessive consumption of newspapers’ football reports and their idiosyncratic use of language.
Last weekend, I was chatting at a wedding to a primary teacher from Northern Ireland and he told me I was not alone in being inspired academically by the beautiful game. He had never seen his class so switched on as when he assigned each child a country from the upcoming World Cup finals and challenged them to learn everything there was to know about their adopted nation. Even girls whose only previous interest in football came about when One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson turned out for Doncaster Rovers in a PR stunt were looking forward to the topic.
The kaleidoscope of nations, the competitive edge, the sheer driving force of the football behemoth – something about the World Cup penetrates minds in a way that even this most omnipresent of sports cannot achieve at other times. And just as it was for me, football can be a powerful force in turning children on to reading.
With that in mind, an ambitious World Cup-themed idea from the National Literacy Trust and children’s author Tom Palmer (pictured) may well on to something. Palmer will write a live story, Foul Play: Brazil, updated by 8am after every match day of the five-week tournament.
The story, which is supported by Chelsea and England player Frank Lampard, aims to be a grander version of something similar Palmer did for the 2010 World Cup. It will feature two fictional 15-year-olds, Charlotte and Danny, who are sent to cover the tournament for a children’s newspaper, but find themselves embroiled in what Palmer calls a “terrifying thriller scenario”.
Real events on and off the pitch will affect how the story twists and turns over 24 chapters, each designed to be read aloud and last no more than 10 minutes. Chapter 1 – the only pre-written chapter – can be read here.
The story and accompanying toolkit are an attempt primarily to hook boys into reading. National Literacy Trust research in 2012 suggested that 76 per cent of schools were concerned about boys’ underachievement in reading and that 60,000 boys failed to reach the expected level at age 11.
“When I was a boy it was very difficult to motivate me to read for pleasure,” says Palmer. “I take part in football writing and projects like this because this is the kind of thing that would have worked for me."