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Reading Like a World Cup Champion: Three Things Messi Can Teach Us About Literacy Education

by Spencer Salas |

Happy April from University of North Carolina at Charlotte! Just about a year ago, and on the heels of the 2022 World Cup, Lionel Messi announced that he was leaving Paris Saint-Germain for Inter Miami and U.S. Major League Soccer. When the news broke, I Googled the Charlotte FC schedule and saw that Messi would be coming to town in July. My son bought a pair of tickets that same night — and so did 40,000 other people.

I’ve written recently about global literacies, Taylor Swift, and the nexus of literacy and cross-cultural awareness. Lionel Messi is another example of how the planet has somehow gotten smaller. Whether you’re in Kathmandu, Nepal; or Lima, Peru; or Charlotte, North Carolina, you’ll most likely see a child (and probably even a couple of adults) wearing a Messi jersey at some point in the day. He’s everywhere all at once.

Here are a couple of thoughts about what Lionel Messi can teach us about literacy — and teaching literacy.  

Lesson #1: Show Up  

In a 2010 interview, CNN reporter Pedro Pinto asked Messi about his chances of winning a World Cup. Messi famously responded, “But you have to show up in the World Cup, and in the World Cup anything can happen.”

Reading is like that, too. We have to “show up.” As I have explained in related theorizations, reading comprehension is both a product and a process that requires purposeful and strategic effort on the part of readers. We anticipate the direction of the text, see the action, correct any misunderstandings, and connect what is in the text to what is in our minds as we make predictions and consolidate understanding. In their ensemble, these dynamic and recursive reading procedures play an important role in comprehension because they allow us to construct coherent mental representations and explanations of the text before us. In other words, as readers, we have to come to the text with a purpose and focus, lean into the texts we’ve read before, and tap into the various strategies we’ve accumulated for meaning-making. We have to show up for reading.

Lesson #2: Get Better

When asked about success as a player, Messi is said to have explained, “The day you think there is no improvements to be made is a sad one for any player.” That’s also a lot like reading and teaching reading. The more we read, the better we get at it; and the more we teach reading, the better we get at it too.

The truth is, at least in the United States, TESOL professionals don’t receive a whole lot of formal exposure to literacy education — maybe just a single undergraduate or graduate course. Otherwise, we learn it on the job and from our colleagues across disciplines (Elementary Education, Theatre Education, Reading Education). Growing our reading and the ways we teach reading depends on us recognizing both endeavors as lifelong processes and the limits of our own professional preparation and community of practice.

Lesson #3: Have Fun!

Finally, when questioned about a possible retirement from the game, Messi was reported as saying, “I have fun like a child in the street. When the day comes when I'm not enjoying it, I will leave football.”  

As I’ve explained in related posts, these days, dozens of state legislatures across the United States have implemented requirements for “evidence-based reading instruction” across university-based teacher education programs to recast literacy as the systematic and explicit teaching of phonics and other basic, technical skills that allow readers to access print (paper and electronic). No one can deny Messi’s technical wizardry. It’s part of what makes him great — but to be the Greatest of All Time (G.O.A.T.) takes more than skills. It’s his joy that makes us want to watch him play — and win.

Joy has a place in the literacy classroom — the kind that comes from singing in unison, from sitting in a circle and listening to a teacher read a great book as only elementary school teachers can, from rereading an old favorite.

It’s that same joy that grows and sustains us as readers, as teachers, as champions — just like Messi.

About the author

Spencer Salas

Spencer Salas, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Middle, Secondary, and K–12 Education at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he leads the PhD in Curriculum and Instruction Urban Literacies/TESL subconcentration. An award-winning District of Columbia Public School ESL teacher (1994–2001), he has been a Fulbright Fellow to Romania (1998), Guatemala (2007), and South Africa (2013); and, a frequent U.S. Department of State English Language Specialist (2003–present). His scholarship focuses on Black and Brown teachers’ lives and the potential of humanizing dignity and care as K–16 best practice.

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