World Cup: Lessons in the Language of Football

I will admit that the start of the world cup leads to my partner and I adopting stereotypical roles: him an excitable, uncharacteristically optimistic die hard patriot and me beleaguered and abandoned, seething with resentment at having to switch over Love Island in favour of yet another crucial match. This year though I have decided to embrace it. Well in the classroom at least. During the World Cup, students who are sometimes almost comatose with apathy in class are transformed; it is quite amazing to see them so energised and animated in the corridors as they debate the relative chances of different nations with an encyclopaedic knowledge of players, coaches, managers and strategies. It seems too good an opportunity to let pass which has got me thinking about the power of not just the topic and subject matter but of the language which surrounds it.

There’s a sense of passion that pervades the rhetoric of football and how writers achieve this is really interesting. We can break down lexis into its component parts and consider the power of semantic fields, euphemism, idiom, colloquialisms and even cliché. The dense complex sentences brim with embedded clauses and provide efficient delivery of lots of information; they become goldmines for constructing and dissecting syntax.

I know there are many much more knowledgeable football fans than me that will have a wealth of ideas for making rich linguistic points. Even a novice like me though can quickly see that the world of sporting literature is an area full of potential for lesson ideas that are sure to engage and excite.

Lessons on Lexis

Cliché – Remove some of the key words from a match report like the one you can find here and see if students can guess the words that appear; you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to predict them. Have a discussion about clichéd language – we are surrounded by it but how do we feel when we read it?

Use the cliché cards to write a typical match report. It would be interesting to explore how clichés diminish the impact of our writing. Challenge students to rewrite changing their clichéd language into something more original. For a fun spoken language alternative, play part of a football match and challenge students to come and commentate live on what’s happening. Before you begin, create a list of clichéd verbs/phrases and swap commentators every time they use one of them.

Semantic Fields and Extended Metaphor – Encouraging high ability students to write with a motif running through their writing is one of the best ways to gain top marks in Paper 2 but sport literature of full of excellent examples. In this really interesting article Gunnar Bergh explores the link between warfare and football language, exploring semantic fields that run throughout sporing literature and commentaries. The account available here of a particularly fraught clash in 1962 is a great one to explore a military semantic field. Play ‘Articulate’ with key words from the article and group and discuss the impact of the words before reading the actual text. follow it up by giving students one of the ‘as it happens’ accounts of the match from any newspaper website and get them to write up a match report experimenting with a distinctive lexical field.

Lexical Components – Whilst exploring words in detail, take the opportunity to think about the power of lexical selection by breaking down the general term ‘lexis’ into word classes, devices and categories.  Set students up as ‘investigators’ and select a focus to explore in some sporting literature or clips of commentaries. Break students up into groups and get them to feedback on their language investigations. Students can join up with someone that has taken a different focus and come together to write an analysis of the language of football, synthesising their findings. Presenting an element of choice and framing this as an investigation leaves this kind of activity open to students sourcing and bringing in their own material; a great opportunity to direct reluctant readers to sources of non fiction available through newspaper websites.

Lessons on Syntax

Multiclausal Sentences -Consider this headline:

Cristiano Ronaldo hits hat-trick as Portugal deny Spain in six-goal thriller

How many pieces of information does it deliver to us? Ask students to physically write them out as a list and come up with ways of describing information rich sentences e.g. dense or efficient. A match report like this one is full of multiclausal sentences that can be explored in detail. As well as an opportunity to recap how to manipulate clauses, there’s a lot of satisfaction to be had from students seeing how much information they can work into a single sentence.

Setting an arbitrary word limit is a good way to get students to think about efficient sentencing. Take a match account – there’s one from Iran vs Morocco here  and challenge students to write a 100 word summary of the entire match.

Sentences for Tension – dramatising tense moments is as much about sentencing as it is  lexis. There is a good example of a tense account of a football match  here:

In this extract, there is so much to be gained from breaking down the impact  of the short dramatic sentencing and considering how it echoes the fast pace of a game. One way to show students the power of this writing is to break it first.

It was one of those matches in which every goal changed the balance of power. Portugal led, Spain drew level; Portugal led again, Spain equalised; Spain took the lead, Portugal pulled it back. Six goals, six swings. If this is repeated as the final next month, no-one will complain. Heavyweight title fights get rematches; why not this?   

Have them rewrite a tense passage, like the one above, removing the ellipsis and filling out details. Get them to read their accounts and hear how the tension disappears. Taking a mundane household chore and getting them to rewrite it using this style can be a lot of fun; students have to understand the balance of sentence length, the careful managing of tension and effective use of ellipsis to really master this.

Lessons on Structure

Headlines – We don’t often talk to students enough about the power of titles, often assigning them one along with whatever task we have asked them to do. Allow students to explore the power to have an impact on your reader before they have started reading by considering different publications’ approaches to headlines. In the competitive world of World Cup coverage, the headline is crucial in drawing in an audience and writers are very skilled at doing this. Here are a collection from the recent  Portugal vs Spain game:

Ronaldo steals the spotlight despite Diego Costa’s best efforts

Ronaldo’s Revenge and Iran’s last-gasp win

Cristiano Ronaldo and the record-breaking hat-trick: Could he be the greatest footballer the planet has ever seen?

Portugal 3 Spain 3: Cristiano Ronaldo nets a hat-trick and Diego Costa gets two

Invite students to rank these according to which they are most engaged by and then draw together a list of the features for a really effective headline; students could then create headlines for imaginary matches. Inject an element of competition by getting the class to compete for the best headline to be taken forward by the class into a more extended piece of writing.

Cohesion – In this Daily Mail report available here  the writer links his paragraphs with every conceivable technique: ending with a question and starting with an answer, discourse markers, connectives, referring back to previous ideas and making use of cataphoric and anaphoric reference throughout. One of my favourite paragraphing activities is to group students and give each individual a focus (in this case an event within an imagined England match) and get them to craft an effective paragraph independently on a slip of paper. Once finished they have to arrange their paragraphs in a logical order, stick them down and then edit their work to ensure they are linked effectively and the writing flows.

We would love to hear about other creative ways people are taking inspiration from the World Cup and bringing it into the classroom – please feel free to add any ideas to the comments below.

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