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Is coding the perfect language to unlock creative learning?

How one KCJ educator uses coding as a tool to help kids learn skills like reading

Hannah Ballard
9 September 2020

Learning to code is more than building projects. It’s about using code as a tool to solve a problem, leveraging it to explore alternative solutions, and even using it to understand learning itself.

Amanda Myerson has always had a special passion for learning how learning works. Before she joined Kids Code Jeunesse as a Community Developer for the Ottawa region, Amanda spent time as an educator. From the classroom, to nonprofits, summer camps and other community programming, coding has become an important tool in her arsenal to help kids on their learning journey.

Amanda at the Astro Pi event.

Photo: Amanda Myerson

Using code to learn to read

Amanda has always loved helping children find the tools and learning styles that work for their education journey. So much so, that she began to tutor a few children who needed some extra support outside of the classroom.

“I was really passionate about [neurodiverse] students when I was teaching -- that’s actually why I started tutoring. I missed that connection with students. I love teaching early literacy, and working one-on-one to support kids who might not be able to access everything in the classroom.” Amanda told us.

As a tutor, Amanda uses a Structured Language Approach with kids who need some help with their reading. This system involves the decomposition of words and sentences into individual sounds, or phonics.

It’s a child-led solution, which also gives the learner the tools to apply this logic elsewhere. It empowers kids to learn how to learn.

One of the most popular aspects of this approach with kids is learning aids, like tiles, which make it fun. Hands-on interaction helps bring these skills to life.

Amanda realized quickly that novel approaches tend to feel like games, or treats to kids, and changing the medium of engagement could hold a child’s attention for longer. She began using coding play-time on the micro:bit as a reward for good work, but then, she had an idea to take it a step further...

Digital skills, meet hands-on learning

The Structured Language Approach starts with vowel sounds, but even the repetition of naming the letter tiles and using the micro:bit as a treat can get boring:

“There’s only so many times a kid will enjoy pointing at a tile.”

For one student in particular, the promise of playing with micro:bits was the only way to keep them engaged. In classic KCJ style, Amanda looked at her micro:bit: could she find a way to bring this all together?

One simple animation later - she had!

Amanda coded all the vowel sounds onto the micro:bit as a scrolling animation, that could be navigated through using a button. And her student? They loved it!

Micro:bit displaying vowel sounds.

Amanda coded her micro:bit to scroll through all of the vowel sounds.

Immediately, the little innovator began suggesting fixes or new features.

“Can we make the animation scroll back? Randomize the vowel sounds? How can we make this even better?”

Without realizing, this student was moving beyond learning to code: they’re coding to learn. Coding has become a tool that they can leverage to connect their interests and to interact with the world around them - on their terms.

Adding a new element of tactile interactivity, as well as practicing problem-solving and collaborative creation, helped to support this learner’s reading journey.

The magical powers of storytelling

In addition to these programs, Amanda still uses the micro:bit as an incentive to help motivate kids through moments of struggle. For most kids, using the micro:bit to tell stories is often the treat they’re looking forward to at the end of their classes.

“Since they struggle with their reading and spelling, I don’t know how much they enjoy writing stories in school. But the micro:bit gives them a tool they can animate, and tell stories with in their own way.”

New technologies can be more engaging to kids - but more than that, they expand a child’s learning toolbox. Amanda’s favourite projects? This Code Club project, where kids create a math-themed quiz game, and our very own Canadian Animals activity, where learners tell the story of some local wildlife using Scratch.

When kids see grown ups get excited about technology, they do too. And when kids see an opportunity to learn something new alongside the adults in their lives? They thrive on the leadership opportunity.

These values of creativity, curiosity and collaboration are considered “soft skills,” but it is through these that we can create a growth mindset, and help kids learn how to learn. Learning to code and learning to read both take a lot of perseverance - but open up whole worlds of possibilities for learners.

Problem-solving, perseverance and innovation are the key ingredients of our future - equipping today’s young people with these skills now will uplift us all.

Ready to get started on your coding journey? Learn at home, at your own pace, with our resources.

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