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Using the Language of Code to Empower Learning

By Mark Davis
 | Feb 13, 2018

For educators trained in traditional literacy, the idea of becoming proficient in—and teaching—digital literacy might be overwhelming. When I propose teaching coding to my fellow educators, the common reaction is to assume that they must have a science or mathematics background. The misconception makes sense when schools continue to teach coding as an elective and to emphasize its importance to only those interested in computers.

The past decade has given rise to a campaign to teach coding as a fundamental literacy in all schools. Some might see the movement as part of a political or cultural resurgence from the previous decades. In the late 1950s and early 1980s, many feared that the United States was losing its edge in business and scientific achievements. Educators responded with a renewed emphasis for teaching science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Indeed, STEM and the addition of the arts (STEAM), are still perceived as a critical pathway to college and career readiness. I have spoken with literacy colleagues who believe STEAM is trend that draws attention away from core instruction in literacy.

As a longtime educator of secondary literacy students, I understand this concern. There are few universal rules or grammar to the various modes of digital content. Writing, for instance, is guided by syntax, formatting, and style. We can examine text with accepted standards whereas digital grammar is still evolving. Instead, we have to rely on research in other fields.

I challenged myself to develop a digital literacy curriculum where students produced projects focused on their interests. My goal was to focus on information and media literacy with some elements of digital production. In developing the digital literacy curriculum, I had to borrow ideas from the fields of computer science, engineering, and business. During this time, I encountered the vast untapped resource of coding for experiential learning.

Today’s generation has unlimited access to videos, apps, and readily available content. Just two decades earlier, curating information required significantly more time and skill. Now our broadband access and mobile devices expedite these processes with greater ease.

This is the critical point of digital literacy: learners have to engage in the creation of content in order to fully comprehend its messaging. My students practiced decoding through the process of coding, learned syntax as a new vocabulary, and became fluent in a global language of programming. As an educator, the exhilaration of observing students bring creativity to problem-solving is empowering. Students, families, and fellow educators want to share in the excitement of innovation.

The expectations placed on technology have not kept pace with our level of understanding. Educators can bridge this gap by introducing coding. Students who become knowledgeable in the design process learn the value of understanding a problem, researching effective practices, and prototyping methods for achieving greater success. I have seen firsthand how this models literacy instruction. The gratification is unparalleled when a learner breaks the code needed to move the process forward.

Anyone can start coding without a background in computers. Websites such as provide outstanding resources, lesson plans, and projects for all ages and skill levels.

Moreover, it is encouraging to see the interdisciplinary connections that can be made; often I see an increase in motivation among teachers and students after engaging in coding. Many of my colleagues were willing to engage their students in coding because they realized how it supported core instruction and produced higher-order thinking. The products could be distributed to families and communities to offer a showcase of project-based learning at its best.

If you’re not yet convinced to integrate coding into your curriculum, I hope you might at least consider the merits of a digital literacy framework that includes coding as an essential learning process. Seek the support of collaborator and see what can be created. You might find that coding improves not only what you have taught, but also what you have learned. It’s not glamorous or mysterious; coding is just another way to empower ourselves in the digital age.

Mark DavisMark Davis is a former reading specialist and current middle school computer technology educator. He is a doctoral candidate in the joint Ph.D. in Education program at the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College and holds a graduate certificate in digital literacy. You can find him on Twitter @watermarkedu.

This article is part of a series from the International Literacy Association Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).

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