Integrating Reading Responses and Coding

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.


Cross-posted on


I Like To Read Because…

Last week, I showed my 3rd-grade students Scholastic’s video, Why I Read,  a recording of kids sharing their answers. Since my students were eager to share their own responses, we decided to create a version of the video. We titled it I Read Because…. Please let us know why you like to read!

Predicting “Enemy Pie”

With my 1st grade students, I recently worked on the concept of prediction based on visual and text evidence as a comprehension strategy. We discussed the importance of making predictions while reading and supporting those predictions with evidence, including the book’s cover, illustrations, or specific text passages. Enemy Pie by Derek Munson served as our mentor text. We studied the book cover, then took a picture walk, and read aloud the story, stopping after certain passages to make predictions based on visual or text evidence.


If you are familiar with this story about friendship, I stopped reading just after the narrator tells his new friend, Jeremy, to not eat the enemy pie. “Jeremy, don’t eat it! It’s bad pie! I think it’s poisonous or something!” My question for the kids, “What do you predict is going to happen next? Will Jeremy eat the pie, or will he listen to his friend? What is your evidence?”

The students completed an organizer:


They then used the BookCreator app for iPad to write, illustrate, and audio record their prediction and evidence.


We then exported the student creations as movie files to our school Vimeo account and uploaded to each student’s blogfolio.



Books by their Covers: Book Sharing with Personal Collages

Edith's PosterWhile there are certainly advantages to sharing one’s reading experiences globally using Goodreads or a similar social platform, to show my students that teachers are readers too, I purposefully chose the old-fashioned route: poster collages. My initial goal was to create a visual record of my and my colleagues’ reading in order to model for our students that their teachers embrace their roles as readers. Moreover, based on the premise that reading is social, I also wanted to foster a community of readers within our small school. The poster collages are a quick analog way to identify, inform, and share information about the books in our lives.

So at the beginning of the school year, I invited my colleagues to participate simply by emailing me the title and author of books (professional and pleasure) read during the course of the school year. I printed the images of those book covers and glued them to posters I had created for each participating reader. Since many of my library walls are floor-to-ceiling glass, they lend themselves perfectly for display. On their way to lunch or PE, our students would regularly walk past those book posters. I noticed them looking, pointing to different book covers, and commenting that their teachers were reading a lot. In fact, one boy seemed to think that our Vice Principal and I were in a competition–one I was quickly losing as Morah Eta read at least two books weekend after weekend.

Andrea's Poster

Arlene's Poster

While the posters provided a fun way to see how quickly a list of books read can grow, it also became clear that many of our students liked to stop and look at the book covers to find recommendations for reading. In fact, not only were students connected with books, but parents asked about titles and faculty discussed books they had read. I found myself discussing adult books among colleagues with whom I had not discussed books before. The posters helped create a connection between faculty and students who share an interest in reading. They also helped our students see that reading is not just something they have to do for school, but rather is embraced by their teachers for pleasure.

My Poster

Liquid Learning: Using Subtext as a Digital Learning Enhancement

I was very fortunate to spend some valuable reading time every week during our third quarter with seven 5th grade students. Their language arts teacher, Andrea Hernandez, wanted to provide these students with a more personalized approach to close reading instruction. All seven students are excellent readers and we decided to challenge them with an unabridged classic, Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. Since these students are in our pilot 1:1 iPad classroom and because I’ve been looking for a reason to give it a try, I decided to immerse our little group in a digital reading experience of this classic novel via Subtext for iPad app.


Subtext is a product of Renaissance Learning company (yes, of Accelerated Reader software fame), designed as a “collaborative ereading experience for K12 classrooms.” I chose to use the free, basic version of the app, which provided us with enough functionality. Alternatively, for a fee, users can upgrade to the premium features, offering access to CCSS-aligned assignments, text-to-speech option, and access to leveled nonfiction and informational texts. The only premium feature I would have liked to try out is the ability to track student progress. But since my group consisted of only seven students, it probably would not have made a difference. The basic version provided us with enough adequate functionality to upgrade our novel study to a new form of a social reading experience.

The app offers access to a large collection of ebooks, some for a fee and some are free. Since our classic is available in the public domain, we all downloaded a free version of Around the World in 80 Days directly into the app. I then created a “5th Grade Reading” group, inviting all seven members to join. Instructors have the ability to “enable student restrictions”, effectively preventing students from navigating the Web and sharing notes. I am not sure what the point of such restrictions is in an ereading environment, so opted to not turn them on.


Mostly students read outside of our limited class time. To ensure students were reading more deeply and to assess understanding, I built discussion questions, multiple choice assessments, and polls directly into the text. These features allowed me to view and assess student responses prior to our next meeting in order to then focus on those parts of the text that needed clarification. As the teacher, I had the option to hide all responses until students submitted their answers.




Another value-added feature of Subtext is the ability to embed links to websites, images, or videos. To help build background knowledge, I linked to information about the author, the Suez canal, a map of the British colonies and another of colonial India, an image of a cow catcher mounted to the front of the old American locomotives, and more. Students also were able to embed links into their comments.


While reading, students highlighted words or entire passages and added notes. They then had the option to share the notes with the group. Simply tabbing a word pulled up a built-in dictionary, complete with audio pronunciation of the word and links to search both the Google search engine as well as Wikipedia.


The last feature we used is Subtext’s build-in link to Google Drive. Since our school uses Google Apps for Education, all our students have Gmail accounts and access to Google Drive. We shared a Google Doc of our schedule and this build-in link allowed us seamless access.

Would I use Subtext again? Yes! Using the app as a tool allowed students a different way of connecting with our text. Reading in groups is a social activity where students are learning with their peers. But using this digital tool elevated our small-group reading to a more inclusionary/participatory level by giving even those students who are usually not very vocal an equal voice. The lesson also demonstrates the power of liquid learning–most of the work was done outside of class. Also, the ability to build-in questions and to embed links facilitated active reading–although some students complained that the “the discussion questions…got in the way when there was a good part.” Most importantly, liquid resources like Subtext enable teachers to transcend the classroom and even school boundaries. Spending time together with a good book can include students across the room or literally across the world!

English-to-English Translation Challenges


On Tuesdays, our middle school rotation students are in the library for study hall. Most of them typically work on their current event assignments, which are due on Wednesdays. The students have to find a news story of national or international impact and summarize it in their own words. This week, I worked with one of our 6th grade students, who had chosen a story about the current Russia-EU/US standoff over the Ukraine. Aside from the fact that she was clearly lacking any background knowledge on the shared history of the Ukraine and Russia, the student also had an extremely difficult time comprehending the text due to a lack of vocabulary knowledge. For example, what are “political, diplomatic, and economic sanctions”? What does it mean when “Putin says he thinks the West is provoking Russia”?

I am currently meeting twice weekly with a small group of 5th grade students who are reading Verne’s classic (original, unabridged version) Around the World in 80 Days. Written in the 1880s, the novel’s old British English presents my seven students with a completely new language and style. We are using Subtext for iPad (there’ll be a post on this app some time in the near future), which allows me to pose queries for the students directly within the text. One challenge I like to pose is: “Please rewrite this sentence in contemporary English”–oftentimes resulting in a number of varied interpretations. Examples include: “A room was engaged for the young woman, and Mr. Fogg, after seeing that she wanted for nothing, set out in search of her cousin Jeejeeh.” Or, “He acquitted his task with characteristic serenity, and invariably replied to the remonstrances of his fair companion, who was confused by his patience and generosity.”

Whether reading for information as in the current event assignment or reading for entertainment as in our classics reading group, students must show comprehension. Both types of assignments are requiring students to read deeply, i.e. forcing students to stop and think about meaning. Deep reading is challenging. It is easy to read one Rick Riordan or Margaret Haddix or JK Rowling book after another, following a highly engaging story. But it is an entirely different proposition to read deeply, interpreting style nuances and translating vocabulary. But it is in facing these challenges that readers gain maturity and depth. Both our social studies teacher’s current event assignments and the reading of a true classic promote just that: enhanced literacy.