Supporting Literacy with Coding
Amanda Strawhacker

Amanda Strawhacker

Supporting Literacy with Coding

August 3, 2021

What’s wrong with regular literacy education?

Nothing - except that it doesn’t work for everyone.

For many kids, reading begins playfully (e.g., narrating a make-believe story as they flip through picture books) but can become confusing and even stressful with prompts from adults to slow down, identify letters, and sound out words. In the worst-case scenario, negative or limited early reading experience can turn the joy of reading into an anxiety-inducing test. Writing is similarly challenging. Traditional school-based writing techniques rely on repetition and practice, clear order, sufficient and relevant detail. Children, who are commonly used to communicating through gestures, expressions, and spoken clauses, must learn to communicate exclusively in complete sentences, a new syntax specific to writing (Dyson, 1989; Hassenfeld & Bers, 2020; Kress, 1994; Nystrand & Himley, 1984).

Even the most motivated child may lose trust in the process, eventually becoming disengaged and even depressed about reading and writing. In a longitudinal study of 105 children (4 to 12 years old) from low-income families, researchers found that children who take part in reading assistance programs in fifth grade are more depressed, anxious, and withdrawn than their peers, especially when they have chronic reading problems (Ackerman et al., 2007). The researchers also found that feelings of shame, distress, and sadness related to reading in 5th-grade students could be predicted by reading difficulties in 3rd grade. The good news is that research literature generally agrees that children can avoid these emotional challenges through positive reading experiences starting as early as possible - yielding gains that last well into adulthood (National Research Council, 2000)

In addition to fostering joy and exploration in literacy by practicing alphabet awareness and letter memorization, you can support literacy by fostering more general foundational skills that are critical to reading and writing comprehension (Goodson, Layzer, Simon, & Dwyer, 2009). Many early literacy skills are fostered in other domains, such as coding and computer science. In this article, I focus on three keystone skills that research shows can support emerging literacy: symbol awareness, sequencing, and storytelling (or story recall). I’ll share how these three skills in young children are some of the strongest and most consistent predictors of later literacy success--and how coding can help children practice them in a playful, stress-free way.
 

How does coding change children’s thinking?

What is coding, and why do your students keep talking about it? In simple terms, a code is a set of instructions for a machine or computer to perform an action. Computer scientists, engineers, and many others use coding to investigate the world, ask questions, and solve problems (follow the links to sign in to learn more about these practices through PebbleGo articles). In early childhood, children can use coding for more expressive outlets, like telling stories, inventing interactive games, or even sharing greeting cards with distant loved ones! You can learn more about coding in this Computer Programming and Coding article from PebbleGo, or check out the Capstone Interactive eBook, “How Coding Works”.

When children code, they need to think about how they want the action to happen. Usually, the simplest way to do this is to (1) act it out themselves, and then (2) think about how to break that down into smaller steps. Computer science learning theorist, Seymour Papert (1980), believed that these learning strategies are so important, he developed a theory about how they work together to help children learn with technology. He called it Body-syntonic thinking when children use their own bodies and actions to test out ideas. If you have ever tried to remember the difference between left and right by making an “L” shape with your thumb and forefinger (see figure 1), then you were using body-syntonic thinking. Another example might be slowly acting out the steps of a dance move that you know by heart so that you can remember how to teach the dance to a friend.

Figure 1. An example of body syntonic learning (learning with your own body and actions) is making an “L” shape with your hands to identify Left and Right.

Importantly, body-syntonic thinking might help you to understand an action better, but an extra step is needed to clarify that thinking for someone else -- or something else, like a computer -- to be able to copy your actions. In order to give instructions so that someone besides you can act out what you are imagining, children need to move beyond examining their body actions and move into examining their own thoughts and ideas. Papert called this Metacognitive thinking: Being aware of ones’ own thought process. Another way to think of it is, examining your own thinking objectively as if examining something under a magnifying glass (this may remind some readers of mindfulness and meditation, but remember that metacognition is an active thinking process used to learn or share information). You might catch yourself engaging in metacognition when you reflect on your work or your learning, question your own logic, or think out loud while you work.

Body syntonicity (acting it out) and metacognition (reflecting on your own thinking) are useful approaches for all kinds of learning, including reading, writing, and storytelling. They are also excellent strategies to keep in mind when introducing coding for the first time. As you try some of the playful coding suggestions in this article, look for ways to encourage and model for children how they can use their bodies and reflect on their own thinking as they work.
 

Which coding language should I use with young children?

Make sure to find a language designed specifically for young children. Check that there isn’t too much text already in the language (one or two words is fine) and that it uses clear symbols, colors, or simple icons to differentiate instructions.

I love robotic languages for children because they usually have instructions for making the robot move through space (e.g., forward, backward, left, right), which means children can imitate these actions with their own bodies. The KIBO robot, Cubetto, BeeBot, or Code-a-pillar are great early robot kits.

Screen-based languages (i.e. on a tablet, phone, or computer) can be a fun and more affordable way to explore coding, animation, and project sharing. Daisy the Dinosaur, codeSpark Academy, and ScratchJr all have simple block-based languages and open-ended play options. There are many apps out there for screen-based coding languages. Puzzle- and challenge-based apps can be a great first introduction to screen-based coding. I always look for coding apps that include “free-play” modes so that when children are ready, they can make their own creative stories and projects.

In the following examples, I use KIBO and ScratchJr, two tools that I helped to develop and research, but you can apply the same techniques to whatever symbol-based coding language you wish!
 

Symbol awareness

Symbol awareness is the literacy skill that’s foundational to letter-sound correspondence and basic alphabet recognition. Alphabetic awareness, one of the most critical early childhood indicators of later success with reading (Goodson, Layzer, Simon, & Dwyer, 2009). Capstone Connect resources that emphasize alphabet letters and symbols, like The Alphabet Book or C is for Cake reinforce this awareness in written languages.

Coding is another way to foster symbol awareness. The commands or symbols of a coding language correspond to actions in a computer or robot and may require similar thinking strategies from natural literacy to decode (Strawhacker & Bers, 2019). Icons that mean the same thing even outside of the coding language (like arrows, see figure 2) are a great primer for letters, which also have universal meaning (Gellel, 2018).

Symbol Awareness Examples

Figure 2. Symbols for Backward, Forward, and Turn Left from the KIBO coding language.

Steps to support Symbol Awareness:

  • Start to model noticing letter and non-letter icons in everyday activities. Check for symbols on doors, hallways, and around the classroom. Since many languages use arrows, point out arrows on doors and signs. Think out loud about whether the symbols always mean the same thing in different settings.
  • Use body-syntonic learning by introducing children to coding instructions through physical games. Create or print paper versions of the symbols from a child’s coding language (ScratchJr provides free printable block images). Use the icons to give instructions and play games, like Simon Says, to build awareness and comfort with ScratchJr symbols.
  • Introduce a new coding language that uses symbols, such as BeeBot, or KIBO. Compare the new language with the one that you introduced in your Simon Says game (or other low-tech symbol-based activities). For example, you might focus on the same symbol in more than one coding language (e.g. a “forward” arrow). Invite children to discuss what is similar or different about them. Try testing each symbol in its own coding environment. Help children to observe and decide if each symbol results in the same action. How is a KIBO “forward” different from a Code-a-pillar “forward”? How are they each different from a child’s step “forward”?
  • If using a language with multiple symbols (such as KIBO), model how to identify human words and pictures, and machine symbols like barcodes (see figure 2). Where else can you find barcodes in your classroom or community? Wonder aloud with children why robots and computers might need non-human symbols to read.
  • Begin to notice and call attention to children’s observations and questions about symbols in daily life
     

Sequencing

Being able to sequence letters in short words and names, or rapidly name a sequence of numbers, letters, objects, or colors, is another foundational literacy skill that sets children up to succeed with later spelling, grammar, and syntax knowledge (Goodson, Layzer, Simon, & Dwyer, 2009). Capstone has excellent resources for reinforcing the idea that order matters, such as this Sequencing article from PebbleGo, or the Capstone Interactive eBook, “Sequences: Order Matters

Similarly, being able to name instructions in a line of code and sequence coding instructions in a meaningful order are important skills that children pick up quickly when learning to code. Not only does sequencing practice help with general coding mastery, but it also offers children a chance to explore metacognitive thinking, for example, by helping children to keep a goal in mind while selecting the order of actions.

Steps to support Sequencing:

  • Introduce the idea of first, middle, and last. Use story plots or events of the day as a starting point, and invite children to practice using time-related words like first, next, before, after, and last in daily conversation.
  • Project a sequence of coding instructions, or use oversized paper cutouts for children to see easily. Invite children to watch you follow with your finger along each code instruction and tell you with words or body language what the sequence will do. Play games where you change the sequence and act out the new sequence actions.
  • Move into observing and examining short sequences of code in a robot or animation (if screen-based, use a projector so children can all see clearly). Can children identify which action corresponds with which instruction? Why did they occur in that order, and not some other order? Test out the same 2-3 blocks in different sequences to check children’s hypotheses.
  • For some languages, a “start” or “end” block is required. Test sequences in which these blocks are in the wrong location. What happens to the code?
     

Storytelling and Story Recall

Storytelling is one of the most widespread and playful ways to begin exploring literacy in early childhood. Storytelling and story recall practice might involve helping children remember earlier parts of a story read aloud to make sense of later parts of the story (Goodson, Layzer, Simon, & Dwyer, 2009). This is the same skill when students are asked to remember simple, multi-step instructions from the teacher (e.g., “close your books, put them in your backpacks, and line up at the door”). Storytelling is a simple act that connects sequences of actions to cultural meaning and connection. Check out the Capstone Interactive Song eBook, “Algorithms”, to learn how you can use sequences of instructions to solve problems!

Coding can be a wonderful platform to help children share and retell stories while fostering emerging literacy skills. Once they have learned enough of a developmentally appropriate coding language to make simple actions, they are ready to begin using code to express a progression of events or activities, moving from collage-style projects to more plot-driven ones (Bers, 2019).

Steps to Support Storytelling and Story Recall:

  • Choose a favorite story or fairytale that your children are familiar with, or select a Capstone eBook available in Capstone Connect with a clear beginning, middle, and end (some suggestions to get you started are A Dollar Bill’s Journey or Airplane Adventure). After children know the story well, invite them to imagine different endings for the story,
  • Introduce a coding activity to recreate a scene from the beginning of the story (this can be very simple, such as copying a page, or coding a back-and-forth conversation, depending on their time and engagement). Then give them time to code a scene from the middle of the story. Help children use body-syntonic and metacognitive thinking to decide what steps make up the scene they want to recreate, and what coding instructions could help them act those steps out.
    • If using an app like ScratchJr, perhaps introduce the “turn page” block to support the idea of sequences of plot events in a narrative.
  • When they have 2 scenes from the story recreated in code, Invite children to create their own ending. This may be done before coding, such as with drawings or narrated descriptions to an adult. When they are ready, help them translate their ideas to a simple coded scene showing their creative ending.
  • Have a coding story party, inviting children to share their creative stories and talk about what they changed (or didn’t change) for their ending. You can also treat this like a movie viewing, with special snacks and dimmed lights, to keep the environment playful and fun! Celebrate the diversity of storytelling approaches, and highlight any scenes that were popular favorites for children.
     

Explore coding and literacy with eBooks in Capstone Connect

A time-tested way to engage children and get them curious about a new subject is to start a conversation with a book! If you are looking for non-fiction books to help you introduce robotics to your class, here are a few suggestions you can find in Capstone Connect:

  • My First Guide to Robots: This introductory book shares the history of robot machines, and describes many different kinds of robots -- including some that children may see in everyday life!
  • Robots on the Job: This book shares some of the coolest real-life robots, and how humans use them to solve problems today.
  • Tiny robots: This book focuses on some amazing robot machines that are tiny, but powerful.

After reading these eBooks, some of your students may be curious about computer scientists and jobs that use technology. If you are wondering how these skills translate to future careers for your students, check out this title on Unusual and Awesome Jobs Using Technology: Roller Coaster Designer, Space Robotics Engineer, and More!

 

References
Ackerman, B. P., Izard, C. E., Kobak, R., Brown, E. D., & Smith, C. (2007). Relation between reading problems and internalizing behavior in school for preadolescent children from economically disadvantaged families. Child Development, 78(2), 581-596.
Bers, M. U. (2019). Coding as another language: a pedagogical approach for teaching computer science in early childhood. Journal of Computers in Education, 6(4), 499-528.
Hassenfeld, Z. R., & Bers, M. U. (2020). Debugging the writing process: lessons from a comparison of students’ Coding and Writing Practices. The Reading Teacher, 73(6), 735-746.
Dyson, A.H. (1989). Multiple worlds of child writers: Friends learning to write. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Gellel, A. M. (2018). Towards a symbol literacy approach in the education of children. International Journal of Children's Spirituality, 23(2), 109-121.
Goodson, B., Layzer, C., Simon, P., & Dwyer, C. (2009). Early beginnings: Early literacy knowledge and instruction. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.
Kress, G. (1994). Learning to write. London, UK: Routledge
Papert, S. A. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. Basic books.
National Research Council. (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development.
Nystrand, M., & Himley, M. (1984). Written text as social interaction. Theory Into Practice, 23 (3), 198–207. https://doi. org/10.1080/00405848409543114
Strawhacker, A., & Bers, M. U. (2019). What They Learn When They Learn Coding: Investigating cognitive domains and computer programming knowledge in young children. Educational Technology Research and Development, 67(3), 541-575. doi:10.1007/s11423-018-9622-x