Learning Coding vs. Coding Learning

As part of the controversially named “Explicit Language” group (we are inquiring into discipline specific language registers and how best to incorporate them into our teaching so as to benefit learners of varying language skills), I couldn’t help but see connections as I began to develop new lessons on coding for primary students in the new year.

Scratch code for making an animated bat's wings flap.
Scratch code for making an animated bat’s wings flap.

Coding, or computer programming, has come a long way since Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine in 1822. There are hundreds of independent “languages” and their products can be seen in the world around us from our smartphones to our cars, light up shoes, weather predictions, architecture and animated greeting cards. Computer code is everywhere, and demand is growing, faster than any other discipline. There are efforts being made worldwide to formally incorporate coding into school curriculum, as a STEM discipline, and as a tool that builds understanding of logic, problem solving, creativity… and language.

As I develop some new lessons to introduce coding to young learners, and collaborate with our Secondary school design team to make it a formal part of our curriculum, I myself am a language learner. Both of the programming languages I had studied in University are obsolete now, the syntax has all changed, but the concepts remain the same. Much of the key vocabulary remains the same. The symbols, the logic, the same.  Even a glance at these three images, featuring adult code from 1947 and two modern images of children’s programs using Scratch, can reveal similarities. I don’t speak French or German, but I can still understand the majority of the code in the two latter images with only a few words of vocabulary, for I have an understanding of the logic of the code. It instills within me an appreciation for programming, and maths, as universal language.

Advanced Coding in 1947
Advanced Coding in 1947
Scratch coding in French
Scratch coding in French
Scratch coding in German
Scratch coding in German

I spend much of my prep time connecting new syntax to the essentials that did not change with time, by associating symbols or visuals to words I understand or reactions within programs that I can witness. When I reflect upon this process, I develop respect for those language learners immersed in the new (to them) syntax of English throughout their entire student experience. I also begin to develop my own strategies for problem solving instructions and language. Perhaps through the stripped-down, algorithmic approach to language that coding provides, our students might achieve the same?

Over the next few months I hope to roll out some new exercises in coding for primary students and develop strategies that target the commonalities between language learning and computer programming. The discipline specific or “explicit” vocabulary will be new to almost everyone, so how might we connect it to our problem solving skills and creativity, and learn it together?

I’d love to hear them if you’ve got any suggestions, and look forward to discussing my progress and observations as I learn to code with the kids.



Conversation starters: Games-based learning opportunities

Hey folks!

Those who have worked with me in the past know I’m a big fan of games-based learning. Nothing in my experience starts conversations with students in the way that games do: critical thought provoking, problem solving, challenge- or creativity-oriented circumstances where students are motivated to interact.

Games such as Pokemon go and Minecraft motivate students to use language in new ways so that they can engage with the content, and they are so motivated to do so they will reach out to others with the language they already have.

I made a little video for my digital literacy blog (Tiny Humans) about the engagement of games-based learning, how I think it fits into the PYP, and my experience using it with language learners. Check it out and let me know what you think about games-based learning in the comments!


Want to tell a digital story?

Hi folks,

Something I love using with kids of all ages is a digital story. Being able to tell stories with visual, audio and interactive components helps students transcend some of the limits of language in written, traditional stories.

When working with the excellent app Explain Everything Classic (iOS, Android), I like to make a collaborative story with the students providing story elements or dramatic support as a way to introduce the tool. After that, students create their own stories (or other explaining videos) using the techniques I demonstrated in the story. Although in my stories the narration is a strong focus, language learners can do much with few words in Explain Everything, having the option to add video, audio, images, motion and text to support their story elements.

Here is a collaborative digital story called Asteroid Hero, as told by me with some story elements and characters provided by students. It’s recorded during a live, 15 minute demonstration of the tools for students:

During the making of this story, I demonstrate the following tools for the students:

-Drawing, moving and resizing objects.

-Adding and cropping photos or (cc licensed) images from the internet.

-Grouping and ungrouping objects

-Arranging objects into layers

-Adding video

-Recording and fixing our mistakes

If you’re interested in learning those same things, I’ve made you this handy  “The Making of Asteroid Hero” video using Quicktime to screen record my actions on an iPad.

I’d love some feedback in the comments and especially, if you try out your own digital story in the manner, I would love to see it, hear about it, or perhaps someday even collaborate with your class for one!


Visuals, Infographics, and the Noun Project


Lately I’ve been learning a bit about design, and this week I’ll be starting new lessons on creating infographics with Grade 3 students studying the solar system. An infographic is a powerful and easy way to engage audiences with content, help readers connect with information through the use of visuals, and an opportunity to inquire into new media types and literacies. To make this happen, I want to softly introduce the CARP design principles (contrast, alignment, repetition and proximity, a.k.a CRAP outside of schools) and create links for the English language learners (ELLs) to connect their understanding of their solar system inquiry with the new tools. That’s a lot of new stuff for third grade.

I decided I would start with a look at how we can make design principles and language accessible to ELLs and non-technical readers (3rd grade).

While exploring resources to help teaching design, I loved Keri-Lee Beasley’s (@klbeasley on Twitter) free iBook Design Secrets Revealed for it’s accessible language and clear tutorials, but for now the design elements aren’t the focus of the lesson. Third grade is inquiring into our solar system. I needed to incorporate some of these principles, while keeping the spotlight on the unit. I decided to minimize the new vocabulary and focus on the project element with a demonstration.

Luckily for me there are tools that help students with the CARP design elements without us having the time to make teaching the language explicit. For this exercise, I will use a free version of Piktochart. The built in ruler tools and easily scaled/recoloured vector images will help students visualize concepts like contrast and alignment from my demonstrations, taking some of the pressure off of teaching these aspects explicitly until the students have some practical understanding.


As I search through the clipart and prepare my demonstration, I realize that although there are great graphics included on Piktochart, there is no icon for the planet Jupiter, which students may want to display as the largest and heaviest planet in our solar system. Third grade students are already well versed in searching for “labeled for reuse” images, but for infographics (and language learners) there is no better site than The Noun Project, an easily searchable library of freely licensed vector images indexed by keywords.

Now things are starting to come together. I have a lesson that embodies the integration of design, language supports, and unit research.

  • Students will work with the librarian and homeroom teacher to research and gather facts about the solar system. This will be ongoing over several weeks.
  • I will introduce the tool with minimal focus on design vocabulary in the first lesson, while students get comfortable with the interface, tools within Piktochart will help students visualize design principles.
  • With subsequent lessons I will shift focus in live demonstration toward the vocabulary of the CARP design principles, making connections to the hands-on experiences of the students without distracting from the unit focus.
  • The use of The Noun Project connects students with resources that can help build understanding and extend that understanding to others in a non-divisive language.

I’m pretty excited to be using such a vibrant, relevant form of new media and visual literacy with young learners.
Keep an eye out on Twitter or future postings to hear how it turns out!


Google Translate vs. The Telephone Game

Raising student awareness of the limitations of Google Translate.

Many of us rely on Google Translate as a tool to get through to the English language learners in our classrooms, as do many of the staff, students and parents in our community. It can be a fantastic support, enabling lesson modifications and differentiation that did not previously exist, but it is also important that it’s users understand it’s limitations. Automatic translations often subtly change the meaning of phrases, and when repeated those changes can accumulate for drastic results.

One way to demonstrate this is by using Translate to play the infamous “Telephone Game” (also known as Chinese Whispers). Rather than repeating a word or phrase to the person next in line to see what mistakes accumulate along the way, try changing between languages multiple times in Google Translate. In order to work properly, each phrase must be translated into a new language, swapped with the previous language, then translated again. Repeat enough times for interesting results!


The Long Game

In search of EAL goal setting strategies for team teachers and coaches

They call me a “technology coach” around here. When I first heard the title, even coming from a background of technology education and experience working with adults, it immediately conjured images of me shouting suggestions from the sidelines instead of being a player in the game. In my experience, that’s rarely been true, as we are all learners of technology in this rapidly changing world. Being a coach has called me out as a “subject matter expert” who brings a certain skill set to the team, but I’m still a player in the learning game. I rely on the strengths of my team to achieve student erudition, and sometimes they rely on me.

Karen Johnson’s article for Edsurge discusses coaching in learning communities and cited studies discussing implementation as a key factor in the success of those initiatives. I like where the research is heading… teachers value coaching from peers, rather than administrators, and see increased value in coaching when it becomes a regular part of their work experience. Aside from every teacher’s struggle with time, I think I’m with it there. Now let’s try add being a language teacher to the mix.

When I try to apply my understanding of my role to being a language teacher, I have difficulty defining where I stand among the impressive experience of my peers. I have tactics for tech. How do I set goals to improve them for English language learners, while supporting those of the teachers I support? Techniques for coaching adults do not always apply to teaching children. My greatest obstacle in teaching children is the breadth of material and the lack of time to differentiate. Many lessons are “left hanging” as the next thing comes along. How do I ensure that the lessons I design integrate unit, skill, language and the individual learner? It’s a little bit daunting. 

So it’s time to play the long game, the one that needs strategy as well as tactics. I need to identify attainable goals before I can set them. I wrote previously on the codification of language and I hope to use that as a starting point… leveraging the multimedia, symbols, gestures and simulations of technology to find common ground, whether coaching or teaching. I would like some coaching feedback from teachers and TAs who do not have English as a first language to better develop my tech teaching tactics for the professionals I work with (@emilieqi, @theanysiv, @valeriealpanes, I’d love to hear your comments). As for teaching children, my first step is to make differentiation and language support part of my collaborative planning for tech integration as opposed to leaving it as the responsibility of “the classroom teacher” or “EAL specialist” that I then rely heavily upon. It’s a start, but as in all things, I’d love to talk about making it a team effort. 



Ones and Zeroes

Why hello there, language educators! Or wait, was that language learners?

When we were ramping up for this SPELTAC experience, I caught myself saying some things to my peers as we singled out the multi-linguists among us. Things like “I always get languages mixed up, I panic and use the wrong one” or “I’ve never been very good with languages”. It’s sort of true, I’ve studied French, Arabic and Khmer and though I revel in the cultural exploration, I am terrible at all of them.

But wait!

A big part of how we were celebrating the multi-linguists in our community was focusing on the depth and variety of our literacy skills, not just their ability to hold a verbal conversation in something other than their mother tongue, but their ability to read, write, analyze and interpret the nuances of these languages. When I think about it through that lens, I can bring into focus a tiny glimmer of hope for those of us whose guts condense into an impregnable ball whenever someone asks us a question in another tongue. We have literacy skills for both teaching and learning language, those that transcend a specific culture or enunciation. We employ visuals, models, gestures, expressions, and emotions to communicate. We utilize tools that speak for themselves when demonstrated, and invent new languages and codes to support them. Whether you are an artist, a musician, an actor, an athlete, a hacker, dancer or astrophysicist, we have ways that communicate our understanding other than verbal discourse. We have literacy strengths, and in those, I believe we are equipped to teach academic language.

I can’t resist the shameless technology link, the comparison to the language of machines and how it can be used as an analogy for this musing and it’s effect on my practice as an educator. On a base level, machines only understand “on” and “off”, the 1’s and 0’s of the binary language. Despite the simplicity, humans quickly realized that it was difficult to convey complex ideas using such limited means. We built scaffolds using “code”, a blanket term for the massive variety of acultural symbols and syntax that then are translated into complex arrays of 1’s and 0’s. There are layers and layers of code, from ancient mathematics to colour coded symbols, that flawlessly convey meaning from the human to the machine.

We, as both educators and learners, are not binary. We are not one or the other, on or off. We can use our literacy skills to create scaffolds for academic language by leveraging our strengths and expertise and codifying them in ways that our students mutually understand. Through action and reaction, visuals and emotions, modeling or just the good old “point at something that is happening”.

I guess I’m not really “terrible at languages other than my mother tongue”, I just need to consider the variety of ways I communicate with students, switch my attitude to a “one”, and identify the code that is our common ground.