Let the code do the talking

By Paul Gordon. Posted

Students with English as a second language can and will succeed in coding classes. Giving support and implementing strategies creates the atmosphere for any student to learn

I was born and grew up in Upstate New York but have since moved to Palm Springs, California. The differences are drastic: I was from a small farm town that smelled like cows which can gets a metre plus of snow a day and everyone knows everybody, while in Palm Springs the temperature can reach nearly 50C.

The biggest learning curve, however, was understanding the new culture and language of Southern California. I learned to enjoy my fish in a taco rather than wrapped in newspaper and, most importantly, I have learned the language of Spanish. In my school 70% of students are English Language Learners (ELLs). To be classified as an ELL, the student or someone in their household speaks any other language than English.

This presents a very unique opportunity challenge as a teacher. Many students, when compared to the national average, would be considered low or behind in their reading and writing abilities. For these students, learning can be difficult because of the challenges in comprehending text and limited background knowledge of much of the vocabulary.

My decision to start a Code Club was a no-brainer. This was the outlet needed to reach my English Language Learning students. With very little setup and preparation, I was able to start this program after school.

Success not failure

Students learn at their own speed. You cannot teach every single student the same way. Unfortunately, this is not how most classrooms are managed. Most classes are taught to teach to the state test or to district benchmarks. This should never be the measure of what a student is capable of. To fully understand whom a student is, you need to witness their strengths, no matter what topic it may be.

Coding is a topic that many students strive to learn. This is because they are able to see their outcomes. Code on the computer creates something that is real, tangible, and most importantly theirs. ELL students are often told to follow along and play catch-up with their learning. Just imagine being taught in only sign language or braille. Even if you were a mathematician, you would never learn how to do long division, or learn the Pythagorean theorem, because you do not learn the why. Coding for ELLs students can be easier than for native English speakers. This is because they are accustomed to learning a new language. Native English speakers struggle with this because they are not normally tested, and confused on what words mean and the actions each take, while coding Python syntax is very much tested.

If you do not feel bold enough to have students jump directly into Python, Scratch is a wonderful starting point. Block coding is not just for primary students. Block-based programming reduces the need for learners to be able know the syntax, which reduces cognitive load. With Scratch, students do not have to worry about writing words down perfectly into their code. All they need to know is how to connect the pieces. This levels the playing field for all students, not just English Language Learners.

Strategies for ELL students

I have found out that good ELL teaching strategies are good strategies for all students. We live in a world in which students are used to instant gratification, and get easily frustrated when they need to work for the objective. There are limitless strategies for helping students, but here are some that I have found to work well.

The first thing you must teach students is what coding is. Every year I start out with one strategy that I picked up at Picademy Denver. Learning to code through Total Physical Response. Total Physical Response, or TPR, is when you have the students physically move their bodies. On printer paper, write different exercise movements on the cards and hand them out to the students. Have them stand in a line and treat each exercise movement as a line of code. After the students go through the code, you add the ‘Start’ and ‘Stop’ lines by giving those cards to the students at the front and end of the line. Once you explain how code is read, you then will have to add pauses and loops. Teaching students to code through Total Physical Response allows students to learn how coding works even before they sit down at a computer.

Total Physical Response is a way to get students moving and talking. Use Total Physical Response early, while students are still learning how code works. Have students write down their favourite animal sound or dance move and, when it is their turn, make them do what they wrote down on the paper. The crazier the move or sound the better!

Pairing up

Another requirement I have seen is that every student needs a coding buddy, otherwise known as pair programming. Pair programming allows the students to work together and has two students per computer.

Using pair programming, the students can problem-solve with each other and work together. Just like when my students are writing an essay in class, I require them to go through a peer review, the pair programming approach is exactly the same. When creating buddies you have two options. The first option is to let the students work with whomever they choose. The benefits to this are that the students will be willing to take more risks when they are most comfortable with their partner. However, the downside to this is that behaviour issues appear more with this model.

The second way is to make buddies based on ELL status. I create groups based on one student being ELL and the other student as a native English speaker. With this model it is very clear that ELL students learn the more difficult vocabulary and have a deeper level of thinking. Forcing students to work with people they are not the most comfortable with always can create issues.

When using pair programming you need to view it as co-pilots, whereby one person ‘drives’ and another ‘navigates’. This allows EEL students to develop English language skills at the same time as developing their programming skills.

One way I have reduced the burnout is by giving students cheat sheets. These cheat sheets are index card-sized papers with a few codes they are to use. Physical objects are the most useful resources for students. When resources become tangible, the students are able to understand more clearly what it means. This really works with students who are visual learners. Teaching students through visual concepts resonates with ELL students most.

Embrace the learners

Many students join Code Club because they do not feel as comfortable in a formal education setting. Empowering the students to have their own projects gives them confidence and creates a sense of belonging. Next time a student who is not a native English speaker asks about joining, don’t brush it aside, but rather embrace it. Every single student learns a new language while coding. Just remember an ELL student has already gone through the feeling of not understanding the words in front of them.


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