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Coding Simplified: 7 Books to Help Your Students Learn to Code

tagged: coding, code, 49th teachers

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With December comes one of my favourite weeks of the fall, the Hour of Code. This year it takes place during December 9–15th and provides an excellent opportunity to introduce coding skills to your students. I usually run the Hour of Code for a two-week period, when students can participate in a variety of analog and digital coding activities. Depending on experience, they may start with the basics or try to code an animation, video game, website, or app. When I started running the Hour of Code a few years ago, my knowledge of coding was minimal. By sharing this fact with my classes and learning together with them, we created a community in which we could help and support one another as we worked through the process. Kids are always excited to try Hour of Code activities and many use their new skills throughout the year. If you don’t know where to start, here is a list of books to help introduce and/or reinforce coding concepts with your students.

A good place to begin the coding conversation is with an exploration of technology. When kids understand the purpose for coding, learning to code becomes a more authentic task. What is Technology? by Cynthia O’Brien is an excellent starting point. Using simple text and colourful images, this book takes readers through the different technologies they may use within a given day. From pencils to video games, students learn what technology is and why it’s important to their lives. The book includes pre and post reading activities and a STEAM project idea that educators can use in the classroom.

In Class: After reading the book, students can brainstorm the ways in which they use technology throughout the day. Inevitably iPad, computer, and videogames will appear as items on their lists. This can launch conversation starters like: How are videogames made? Who creates the apps we use on the iPad or tablet? How does a search engine work? How are websites created? Your class will discover how learning to code can give them the knowledge to create some of these technologies for themselves.

Critical thinking and problem solving are important skills to use when learning to code because they help us look at situations from different perspectives and come up with innovative solutions. One Is a Lot (Except When It’s Not) by Muon Thi Van and illustrated by Pierre Pratt allows students to look at the same numbers in different ways. This simple picture book, with beautiful watercolour illustrations, shows how one nut can be a lot for one squirrel — but when there are two hungry squirrels, it is not enough.

In Class: One Is a Lot can inspire conversations about other situations we can look at in different ways, including multiple ways to solve a problem.

One of the important basics behind coding is the algorithm, or in simpler terms, a set of instructions the computer/app/game needs in order to run properly. How to Give Your Cat a Bath: in Five Easy Steps by Nicola Winstanley, illustrated by John Martz, shows the importance of writing instructions correctly and refining them to achieve the desired result. With minimal text and adorable illustrations, the book takes the reader through the steps required to bathe a cat. Unfortunately the instructions don’t go to plan because the cat doesn’t want to follow them. The instructions evolve as the plan goes awry.

In Class: Have your students create a list of instructions for a simple task like brushing their teeth. The instructions can be written on separate pieces of paper and then be mixed up by the teacher. The class can determine if the instructions still make sense. They will learn that coding instructions to run a program must be direct and in the proper sequence in order to work.

You Can’t Dance to These Rhythms: What are Algorithms? by Brian P. Cleary and illustrated by Martin Goneau uses rhyming text to teach students about algorithms. The book explains that an algorithm is a set of step-by-step instructions created in order to complete a task, and gives the examples of a bedtime routine and feeding a cat. The book includes suggestions for further reading and websites to use for coding activities.

In Class: The free app Scratch Jr is a great place for primary students to practice using algorithms. A simple line of code can be constructed with a triggering block (the green flag) and some motion blocks in order to make a character move around the screen.

Conditionals, or if/then statements, are integral to coding. Once Upon a Rainy Day by Édouard Manceau is a delightfully creative book that can help with this idea. It tells a story that would be happening right now, if it wasn’t raining. All of the illustrations show what’s happening in the rain (which is basically nothing). Students need to use their imaginations to picture images and characters to match the action-packed text. The story told in the book happens over and over again, every single day, and starts when a man named Mr. Warbler steps out of his cottage and knocks on the big bad wolf’s door. This is essentially the ‘if’ of the story. All of the other exciting adventures are the ‘then’. Because the ‘if’ doesn’t happen when it’s raining, neither does the ‘then’.

In Class: The free web program, Scratch, is a fantastic tool to explore if/then statements. Junior students can use an if/then block to create a simple trivia game where, if the answer is correct, a specific action will occur (eg. a soccer ball will go into a net).

Nothing Loopy About This: What Are Loops and Conditionals? by Brian P. Cleary and illustrated by Martin Goneau uses rhyme and silly characters to explain conditionals and loops. It uses simple examples to show that loops are actions repeated a given number of times and enable the programmer to write a repeating command once instead of over and over.

rotated

In Class: Teachers can have their class brainstorm a simple clap/snap sequence and then use a loop to repeat the sequence a given number of times. The students can also expand on their Scratch Jr code by adding a repeat button to their sequence.

In order for code to work, instructions need to be accurate and in order, but sometimes also directional. Giraffe and Bird Together Again by Rebecca Bender provides an opportunity to practice directional instructions. This book takes the comedic duo of Giraffe and Bird on another heartwarming adventure. Although Giraffe is not as adventurous as Bird, he is worried that something has happened to his friend and embarks on a dangerous journey to find him. He travels through a dark forest, up a craggy mountain, to a dusty plain, and into quicksand in order to rescue Bird.

In Class: Students can use large grid paper to draw a compass rose and the four places where Giraffe travels. They can then give detailed directions to move Giraffe from place to place (2 squares north, 3 squares west etc.). The learning can be enhanced by using code.org tutorials to learn basic coding skills and use directional commands in order to move a character.

Useful Websites:

Scratch Jr
Scratch
Code.org
Hour of Code

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Allison

Allison Hall is a Teacher-Librarian at a K–8 public school in Brampton, Ontario. She is passionate about creativity and empowering students. She is also a bit of a Lego addict.
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December 5, 2019
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