Linking Literacy and Computer Science in Elementary School
A summer program in Los Angeles Unified School District shows how teachers—even ones new to computer science—can foster literacy and coding skills simultaneously.
It has been my experience that many teachers perceive computer science (CS) as a content area that only a CS educator can support. However, with the right training and mindset, any educator can teach CS—and all should be aware of the broader implications of CS concepts and content.
With my colleagues Sophia Mendoza and Dominic Caguioa, I’ve developed a few strategies for integrating computer science education and storytelling.
Be open to reimagining computer science education: While computer science includes both coding and programming, it’s much more than those two things—it’s an instructional opportunity to cultivate computational thinking among our students. It’s about breaking down problems into smaller steps and representing abstract information in concrete terms, such as in a multimedia project or animation.
CS encompasses the skills and dispositions we aim to develop across key content areas, such as mathematics, literacy, and science. Keep in mind that coding is a means to an end—the end being the ability for a learner to learn from failure, problem-solve, and welcome productive struggle.
Be prepared to be a learner: Having a growth mindset is critical to incorporating CS concepts into your tool kit of instructional strategies. As educators, we must be willing to try out CS strategies in order to model them for students. This means that we must be willing to tinker and play—so that we can support our students in doing the same.
The outcomes of CS exist across our world, from the mobile devices we use to the digital platforms we engage on. Therefore, the sooner we can take on a CS learner identity, the sooner we can support the next generation of innovative designers.
Be comfortable with articulating learning in different ways: We have been trained to assess knowledge through quizzes, essays, and other linear methods. However, CS invites educators to consider different ways of demonstrating learning. CS requires students to express their knowledge in their own voice and their own way.
Multimedia artifacts not only enable students to bring digital storytelling to life but also provide educators the opportunity to go behind the scenes of students’ creative processes to understand how they made computational choices. For instance, a student might explain, “I choose to program this here to show character development, and I programmed this music and movement here to highlight the conflict in my story, etc.”
Storytelling Through Computer Science
It’s important for teachers to feel empowered to personalize CS content and integrate culturally responsive pedagogy in a way that fits their students and content areas.
For instance, this summer, third graders in the Los Angeles Unified School District used Scratch, a block-based visual programming language, to explore digital storytelling.
In one unit, students created a project with a narrative story line, and using Scratch helped deconstruct storytelling. (Here is one exceptional student-created animation from the unit.)
To integrate storytelling and computer science education, we encourage incorporating the following key lesson elements when teaching with Scratch:
Character development: Discuss character development through the use of coding blocks to show a character’s personality. To show the characters’ actions and appearance, for instance, students might show their feelings and motivations in speech bubbles.
Dialogue: Introduce the concept of dialogue alongside sequencing to bring characters to life. Students create dialogue—and move the plot along—by programming blocks in sequential order. This deepens their understanding of computational thinking, which involves creating steps in intentional, meaningful ways.
Setting: Create a dynamic story setting by programming backdrops to support the narrative. Using computer science concepts of looping and randomness, students can program various backdrops based on the story’s events. For instance, to invoke a sense of mystery, students can select a dark, dreary setting as the background to their evolving story or a bright, calming image to create a happy scene for their characters.