The only penalty is not to have a good book

4th September 2009 at 01:00
SPL footballers take part in a reading scheme for parents and children

Arild Stavrum, an urbane Norwegian footballer who used to play for Aberdeen, once told me of his dismay at the players' reading habits on the bus to away games. Teammates would glance over suspiciously as he absorbed Chuck Palahniuk's latest challenging satire, then every one would settle back into Alex Ferguson's autobiography.

Scottish footballers may not be renowned for their reading, but a group has been sharing a little-known passion for books that proved crucial in turning families of reluctant readers on to reading.

The SPL Reading Stars scheme required a player from each of the 12 Scottish Premier League teams to recommend a favourite adult book and a children's book. These then featured in a series of six-week literacy projects in libraries around Scotland.

For the SPL clubs, two groups were formed, each with 10 children (aged seven to 11) and 10 parents. The aim was to find adults who struggled with words and numbers, and give them the enthusiasm and skills to help with their children's reading.

Adult literacy and numeracy worker Helen Purves, who has a background in family learning, led projects in Edinburgh, where Hibernian's Joe Keenan chose The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas and the Hardy Boys series by Franklin W Dixon. Hearts's Michael Stewart nominated Blink by journalist, author and pop sociologist Malcolm Gladwell and The Twits by Roald Dahl.

The footballers' approval lent credibility to the books, says Ms Purves. The theme ran right through the workshops, in quizzes, storytelling tasks and "boot bags" containing goodies such as sticker books and T-shirts. The prospect of visiting a stadium at the end and receiving certificates from their adopted player also served as a constant spur through the six two- hour sessions.

These included visits to bookshops, author visits, and work with Comic Life software, which transforms photos into comic strips. (One showed Keenan meeting a dad who reveals his enthusiasm for the project in a thought bubble, "even though I support Hearts!")

There were some teething problems in working around football clubs' busy schedules - Stewart has not yet been able to meet any of the youngsters involved - but also some memorable contributions from footballers.

Hamilton Academical's Czech goalkeeper Tomas Cerny impressed SPL Reading Stars' project manager, Jim Sells of the National Literacy Trust. Cerny spoke "extremely eloquently, and passionately, about his love of reading, and his belief in its force for good", he says. He travelled to libraries in Hamilton by himself to talk to families about his chosen books and what reading meant to him, and handed out certificates and signed autographs.

By the end of the six weeks, some significant battles had been won. "I don't know if I would read a book, but I'm really aware of what's involved and what I need to support the bairn," said one dad.

A mum reported being inspired to retrieve a pile books and games from under a bed, while another talked about finding a joke book which made her realise her son did not have to find reading a "chore".

The scheme ran in the spring and was funded by the Big Plus, the Scottish Government's adult literacy campaign. Ms Purves would love to see it happen again, although it is not yet clear if money will be available to continue the project this year. She is convinced her groups would not have flourished as they did, without the catalyst of the footballers' involvement.



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