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Julie Hembree: Adding Coding to Your Literacy Bag of Tricks


by Julie Hembree
Expert Educator Columnist, USA

I am a reader, a writer and an elementary school librarian. What I am not is a computer programmer or coder, or so I thought until recently. This fall when the wave of publicity increased about the Hour of Code, and National Computer Science week, I dismissed it. I simply didn’t think coding was anything I needed to teach during my library lessons, especially in elementary school. I have so much to teach in my weekly lessons already, why should I add more to my plate? What on earth could coding have to do with literacy? It turns out, the answer is a lot.

I visited the Hour of Code resource page and watched videos that stressed coding should be as valued as reading, writing and math. “Everyone in this country should learn how to program a computer…” they said. Intrigued I tried out one of the tutorials meant for the kindergarten through second grade students, knowing with my coding skill set, this was the perfect place for me to start. I played the new Anna and Elsa character game designed to attract girls to coding. The first time I made Elsa ice-skate around in a square, I giggled with delight! I was coding and it didn’t hurt. In fact it was quite addicting and wonderfully fun! Me-the book nerd was programming a computer. I couldn’t wait to earn my hour of code certificate?

If I could do it, then certainly my primary aged students could as well. I explained to them that coding is basically giving a computer a set of directions to follow. We practiced first without a device. My kindergarten students programmed me to walk forward and backward, and when their directions weren’t clear, I didn’t move. They began to see that details are important.

Together we played a couple of beginner games on the interactive white board. We collaborated to link the coding blocks. It was refreshing to observe these students not become discouraged when we failed. They didn’t think twice about making changes and trying again. The victory cheers even made my teaching assistants come see what the fuss was all about!

I was driving home that afternoon, when the literacy and coding connection came to me. Writing code is like writing narrative or expository text. There is a clear beginning, middle and end. The more lines of code there are in a program, the more complicated the task. The same is true with story structure. When you add details, you develop the story and make it more interesting.

Why not using coding as a way to help our young students understand story structure and write better? Perhaps the technique will help the math oriented and kinesthetic learners who struggle with traditional methods of teaching literacy. What if the youngest students physically walked the pre-plan of their stories and blocked it like you do in coding? What if after their stories were written, older grade students turned them into a coding game? These students would see value in writing and coding.

This introductory course in coding has made me wonder this week. I have discovered that there is relevance in the library classroom. Perhaps my ideas have already been tried. I have no idea since my experience with the topic is so limited. What I do know is that elementary teachers need to understand how coding is going to be a valued added component in their lessons. They need to know that it’s not adding one more thing to the curriculum.

Coding can be used as another trick in a teacher’s literacy bag of tricks. So there, I got my answer. Yes, coding does belong in my library lessons, and it’s here to stay.

julieJulie Hembree is an elementary teacher-librarian in the Lake Washington School District. In her spare time she is usually found reading and is convinced that she was born with a book in her hands. Julie participated in the 2012 US Forum and Global Forum in Prague and was a 2014 Microsoft Expert Educator in Barcelona. 

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