Read to Your Dog, Your Cat—Just Read! NCAA Boosts Literacy for Indy 3rd Graders

Basketball game tickets, contests, prizes, free books, messages from celebrities for kids and parents are building excitement about reading.

This is a photo of third grade students at an IUPUI basketball game.
Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis

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Since 2016, the NCAA has been tackling the literacy crisis through its reading incentive program, Readers Become Leaders. Indianapolis, home of the NCAA, is just one of many cities where the organization hosts a “Read to the Final Four” challenge, where dozens of participating schools go head to head in a March Madness-style competition to see which will log the most reading minutes over 10 weeks.

In Indianapolis, the NCAA also partners with local TV station WISH for an “I Love to Read” challenge that encourages third graders to log their daily reading time. This year, more than 30 Indianapolis schools participated from five districts. The NCAA entices students and schools with prizes ranging from Scholastic Books and Visa gift cards to invitations to college basketball games.

Each third grader attending the Indiana-Purdue-Spalding University game on Nov. 6 was given a free book from Scholastic. (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis)

Over the last decade, reading scores in Indiana have been on a steady decline, to the point of stagnation. This year’s state Reading Evaluation and Determination (IREAD-3) test results showed that third-graders’ scores rose just 0.3% from 81.9% proficiency last year, and that number hasn’t improved much in years. Earlier this year, the state passed HB 1558, a science of reading bill that places greater emphasis on phonics than context clues and guessing. Since third graders who aren’t proficient in reading by the end of the school year are less likely to graduate from high school on time and more likely to drop out altogether than those who are proficient, the NCAA hopes to help teachers by encouraging students to spend more time reading.

Earlier this month, nearly 5,000 eager third graders filled the Indiana Farmers Coliseum for a showdown between Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and Spalding University. During the free event, which Indiana-Purdue won 70-63, encouraging messages from college student athletes and even celebrities like Taylor Swift and Usher played during timeouts and halftime to promote the importance of reading daily. The third graders are invited to attend another game Nov. 20, hosted by Butler University. 

Indiana-Purdue beat Spalding University 70-63 on Nov. 6 to start the regular season. (Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis)

At the game, which was preceded by a pep rally, each student was given a free book to take home. Other prizes include thousands of dollars in credits from Scholastic and new books for school and classroom libraries.

Messages from student athletes and celebrities played during timeouts and halftime encouraging the third graders to continue reading daily. (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis)

Victor Hill, the NCAA’s associate director of inclusion, education and community engagement, said the organization decided to develop the literacy program after superintendents of Indianapolis’s four districts emphasized the impact the national reading crisis was having on their schools. The NCAA launched the program in Houston in 2016 with more than 7,000 students from Title I schools, and since then more than 300,000 students nationwide have participated. 

“We don’t want to take credit for what the teachers do, but they did say the competition really sparked an interest in a lot of the kids, and they saw kids reading who hadn’t been reading before,” Hill said. “They sent us pictures of kids reading during lunch, during recess, and the school library saw a spike in books being checked out.”

Nearly 5,000 students from five school districts attended the basketball game at Indiana Farmers Coliseum on Nov. 6. (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis)

In Indianapolis, the response from students and teachers has been overwhelmingly positive, even from students not in third grade. The competitions get the entire school excited as they cheer on the third graders to read as much as possible. But Hill said the biggest challenge is getting parents to initiate at-home reading. Through ads on WISH-TV and announcements geared to parents at the pep rallies and basketball games, the NCAA encourages families to read with their children for at least 30 minutes a day, hoping the excitement will continue when students are home.

Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

“We tell the children during our pep rallies, ‘If your parents, your brothers or sisters are busy, if you’ve got a cat or a dog, sit and read to them. Read to your goldfish. Just read,’” Hill said.

Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

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