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For the 4th year in a row, my elementary school students participated in the annual national Hour of Code activities launched during Computer Science Education Week back in December 2013. While I’ve written about the different apps students have used in my library classroom, about the idea of understanding coding as a new literacy, and how coding contributes to building a growth mindset, I decided to approach this year’s Hour of Code from a slightly different angle. This year, my goal for my K-2 students was to integrate reading responses with coding skills. At this age, coding is all about building a relationship with algorithms -- a list of instructions that can be followed to finish a task. Think about the steps involved in making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or tying your shoes or, as we did in class, drawing a smiley face or planting a seed. All instructions have to be completed in a certain sequence in order to accomplish the task. We started our mini-units with unplugged lessons and then designed algorithms to create digital projects using the Scratch Jr. app for iPad.

After reading There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Dreidel by Caryn Yacowitz (David Slonim, illus.), Kindergarten students completed a coding sheet drawing arrows in the correct order of events. I adapted this algorithm coding activity from JDaniel4’sMom. On a story grid template, students placed up, down, left, and right arrows to sequence the events of the story--the Old Lady devouring ever greater Hanukkah foods and symbols-- and thereby creating an algorithm that would at last reconnect her with her family.

Click the image to enlarge.

In our final lesson, students applied sequencing skills to create a simple animated Hanukkah greeting card. The instructions were to choose a background from the app’s library, draw a Hanukkah symbol, and then animate the symbol by sequencing block commands.

Coding requires these young students to create an algorithm in such a way that a machine, i.e. iPad, could carry it out. As such coding supports computational thinking, communication and, as these projects illustrate, is a very creative way for students to express themselves and share their ideas. For me, coding has proven to be another great digital tool to use for student reading and listening responses.

I started teaching unplugged coding lessons last year and am a huge fan as they allow students to directly master relevant concepts. When, for example, I asked one of the classes for directions to draw a smiley face, they quickly understood that it is not enough to simply say, “Draw two eyes”. Instead, students needed to provide the geometric shape and the exact location where they should appear--a good opportunity to talk about “precise instructions” and the fact that machines cannot interpret what one may mean. There are some great unplugged lessons published by I used “Plant a Seed” with my 1st-grade students, where students related the concept of algorithms back to a real-life activity, planting a seed, and I used “Move It, Move It” with my 2nd-grade students, where students practiced controlling one another using a simple combination of hand gestures. The goal here was for students to understand the importance of giving precise instructions in order to complete a task.

For the literacy piece, 1st-grade students coded the setting (a house) and the main character (a dinosaur) from the story How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Hanukkah? by Jane Yolen (Mark Teague, illus.) using Scratch Jr. Some of the students figured out how to add a speech bubble and several quickly learned how to add sound to their projects.

The 2nd-grade students focused on coding the main characters and a main event from the story Hanukkah Bear by Eric A. Kimmel, which is about a nearly blind and deaf woman mistaking a visiting bear for a rabbi. These 7- and 8-year old kids quickly figured out how to use the app’s built-in editing and drawing tools and how to best animate a main event from the story.

A growing body of research demonstrates the value of integrating coding instruction into reading curricula.  While “coding” sounds intimidating, the basic practices of sequential ordering, textual application, and using multimedia tools works well even for young students.

Reading has always been a large and very positive part of my life. I am a reader and my reading life was formed during my early childhood living in a home surrounded by books. My parents are avid readers and, throughout my childhood, I remember them reading every night. They clearly enjoyed reading and it was such a great part of their life that it became a great part of mine and my brother’s as well. I learned to read in elementary school. It was a milestone in my life and I remember proudly reading to my brother from my very first reading text, moving my index finger along each word as I read it. In their reading classes, my students are learning all about the importance of building a “reading life” and it is my goal to help my students grow a reading life that is as rich as my own.

As a school librarian, I know that not all students consider themselves readers. Over the last few years, one format of books that has increasingly become popular in our school library (and across the country) is graphic novels. Those are books written and illustrated in the style of a comic book, meaning the story is told using pictures and words in a sequence. Graphic novels can be any genre and resemble novels in length and narrative development. This format has become so popular that classic prose fiction, such as Jack London’s Call of the Wild and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, has been adapted in this format. While the prose versions of Ann M. Martin’s Baby-Sitters Club books are shelf-sitters at my school, I cannot keep their graphic novel adaptations on the shelves. So we’ve been building our collection steadily. Turns out that “graphic novel” is somewhat of a misnomer as we’ve now added biographies and many informational books on science, sports, and historical topics to this collection. The graphic novel format has exploded and for good reasons.

Motivation: Graphic novels are a great way to get kids to read. In fact, two boys from my second-grade class come to the library every day to check out two graphic novels each. They’ve read through the fiction and the sports books and are now working their way through the books about historical disasters. These boys choose what they read and clearly read a lot, including outside of school. And I see it daily. Students come to the library with follow-up requests for additional reading on topics across the spectrum: history, science, and literature. For a fourth-grade student who is learning English as a second language, graphic novels have allowed her to successfully read a book by using the illustrations as contextual clues. And a fifth-grade student whom we once characterized a dormant reader, to borrow Donalyn Miller’s term, has used graphic novels as a conduit to reading prose fiction.

Building Literacy Skills: The fact is that when reading graphic novels, readers still have to comprehend narrative structure, point of view, and more. Arguably, graphic novels place greater demands on the reader by requiring them to employ their visual literacy skills as well--reading a story through both text and images. My students are drawn by the pictures to graphic novels and my younger students in particular will choose a graphic novel over a traditional text. Making meaning from a book is not relegated only to text. Perhaps this perfectly aligns with our modern times where information is conveyed in multimedia formats?

Children become readers for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it is a certain series, books by a specific author, curiosity about a subject, and so on. The key, however, according to researcher Stephen Krashen, is to engage in “a great deal of interesting (better yet, compelling), comprehensible reading."  Based on the formal research cited here and my informal observations in our own library, graphic novels motivate reading and powerfully engage young readers. As I listen to our students recommending books to each other, it is also obvious that our graphic novel collection has created little reader communities--a librarian’s dream!


More on this topic:

“Raising a Reader! How Comics and Graphic Novels Help Your Kids to Love to Read!” by

“I’ve Got Research. Yes, I Do. I’ve Got Research. How About You?” by Donalyn Miller

“Reading: The Core Skill. Every Child, Every Day” by Richard Allington and Rachael E. Gabriel

“Graphic Novels Reading List -- 2016 Update” by Association for Library Service to Children

“Required Reading: 50 of the Best Kids Comics” by The Paste Comics Kids-At-Heart


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