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5 tips for teaching preschoolers coding before reading

Here's why and how to create a great coding experience for younger students

Early learning experts agree that the five areas of child development are physical, social, emotional, thinking, and language; however, many people disagree on when and how to introduce these concepts to younger learners. To prepare the next generation for a world in which flexible problem solving and the creative use of technology matters more than domain expertise, I’m proposing we teach all preschoolers to code.

Yes, kids should learn to code even before learning to read or write. I’m the son of a high school honors English teacher and the husband of an author, but I have learned that teaching coding and computer science to young kids is crucial to lifelong success.

I’m not arguing that coding and logical thinking are more important than reading. There are very few rewarding life paths that don’t require language literacy and there is no replacement for reading. However, our work with millions of kids on codeSpark Academy, the award-winning computer-science platform I co-founded, has proven that young kids can and should master the basics of coding well before they learn to read.

I’m not the first person to make this argument. Several experts have found that the logic and sequencing skills developed while learning to code enhance reading and math skills. Marina Umaschi Bers, a professor of child development and computer science at Tufts University, has published research studies showing that a simple eight-lesson coding introduction improved young children’s skills on traditional sequencing and reading-comprehension tests.

And consider this example from a 2015 NPR story:
“…before going through a robotics and programming curriculum, when asked to describe the process of brushing their teeth, children gave just three or four steps. Afterwards, they were able to break down the process into 20 or more steps.”

(Next page: How to create the best coding experience for younger children)

At its core, reading is a sequencing skill. Letters are put in order for word construction, words are put in order for sentence comprehension, and ideas are put in order for story construction. Just one out-of-sequence word or idea can obliterate meaning and functionality. Coding provides a natural way to teach the importance of understanding order.

An added bonus is that the study of computer science and coding can help build essential non-STEM skills such as perseverance, curiosity, adaptability, and impulse control. The natural flow of problem analysis, solution construction, solution testing, and solution optimization rewards those traits like almost nothing else can.

Today, all companies are tech companies and the automation revolution is accelerating daily. Experts estimate that artificial intelligence and automation will displace or eliminate as many as 800 million jobs in the next dozen years alone. Even if you set aside the fact that the 15 highest-paying fields of study are all in STEM, having any job at all in the near future may depend on a basic mastery of computers and software. Today, it doesn’t matter if your career path is a marketer, ballerina, or general contractor—there is no downside to establishing an early familiarity with how and why computers do what they do.

If you are as convinced as I am that it’s important to get kids coding early and often, here are some suggestions.

Look for research-based apps. There are dozens of apps, board games, and robots that claim to teach coding to young learners. Many of them are fun but shallow experiences; only a few leverage recent research on early learning. Luckily, there are several good options for each age group. Do your research on how effective the product has been for other kids.

Pay attention to setting and approach. Just as not all early-learning coding tools are based on solid research, they also vary greatly in their setting, approach, and age appropriateness. For example, our research-backed computer-science platform for four- to 10-year-olds, codeSpark Academy, uses silly characters called The Foos to create high levels of engagement and a “no words” interface to maximize accessibility. Plus, the first characters kids see are female in order to reinforce interest for young girls. If things like accessibility and gender parity are important to you, look for resources that share your values. They’re out there!

Level to interest and ability. Many beginning coding concepts are learned quickly. Therefore, monitoring and scaling tools to your students’ interest is important; don’t let them get bored by the easy or frustrated by the complicated. Resources should offer a mix of activities so kids can practice transferring knowledge from challenges to creative play and vice-versa. For older students, advanced products such as Scratch and Hopscotch that let kids create their own games are readily available and quite good.

Don’t stick to digital. The number of in-person computer-science opportunities has exploded in recent years–even for young learners. Many community groups, schools, and nonprofit organizations such as Family Code Night offer introductory coding camps or events. Look for curriculum created with early-learning experts that balances the use of digital tools with worksheets and unplugged activities. Group learning can also be important by introducing coding as a collaborative and social activity.

Focus on creativity! At codeSpark, we believe computer science is for problem solving and creating. Any resource that focuses only on puzzles or the repetition of concepts is likely to turn your children away from computer science, maybe for good. Our weekly testing with young kids reveals that making their own games and experiences is what gets them deeply engaged and excited.

Whether studying coding launches a career in technology or boosts confidence in reading, there are lifelong benefits to getting kids into coding early. Ideally, since coding and reading reinforce one another, our kids would do both as much as is reasonable to acquire future-proof skills for a lifetime of learning and success.

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