Members of NU's men's basketball team showed Cataract Elementary School students the basics of the game during the Linking Literacy to Movement program.

Elementary school children in the Niagara Falls City School District have a unique opportunity to learn and play through a collaborative effort among the school district, Niagara University, and the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Niagara Community Center. Linking Literacy to Movement, launched in 2018, is an afterschool program that integrates literacy and sports for children in grades 3 through 6 who are specially selected to participate. The program also gives students in NU’s College of Education valuable experience working with children in the grades they will eventually teach. Although the program paused for more than a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it resumed this fall.

For seven weeks, 12 preservice teacher candidates worked with small groups of students from Cataract Elementary School. Drawing on what they learned in Dr. Elizabeth Falzone’s Foundations of Literacy Instruction class, the students developed lesson plans that taught reading, focusing on a specific sport each week and covering content areas such as history, math, and ELA.

“Each week, the preservice teacher candidates’ instruction improved as they built rapport with their students, identified learning needs, and implemented evidence-based strategies to address those needs,” said Dr. Falzone. “They were reflective throughout the program, identifying their challenges and successes as invaluable learning experiences that will better prepare them for their futures as educators.”

As the elementary students learned the basics of the sports, they also worked on literacy skills such as reading, writing, vocabulary, oral language, comprehension, and fluency.  

“It was really nice to see the students progress through their time here, from being nervous to read aloud to sharing their voices at the end,” said Lydia Chunco, a sophomore from Newfane, who is also a member of the university’s track and field team.

Following the lessons, the children and the NU students spent an hour of play at the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Niagara Community Center, where student-athletes from the corresponding sports-- track and field, women’s soccer, rugby, men’s basketball, men’s hockey, and women’s lacrosse—volunteered to teach them the foundation of the games, encouraging teamwork and serving as role models for the youth.

“It was great to be able to introduce them to new sports that they don’t usually get to see, and they had so much fun,” said Amber Daley, sophomore from Rochester, N.Y., who is on the women’s lacrosse team and also taught in the afterschool program.

An added benefit of the program is the connections made between the NU students and the children, as well as among the children themselves.

“The three kids I had didn’t really know each other coming in, and they are leaving as best friends,” said Christian Gorscak, a junior from Jeannette Pa., and a member of the men’s hockey team.

“The Linking Literacy to Movement program is beneficial to all who are involved,” said Dr. Chandra Foote, dean of the College of Education. “The students in the program have reported an increase in both their knowledge and interest in sports, as well as an interest in the literacy lessons that precede the structured play. Our preservice teachers gain valuable experience working with students in the grades they plan to teach, and our student-athletes gain experience in a leadership role, as they act as coaches and mentors to the youth.”