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Workforce Readiness

The Key Role of Coding in Literacy Development

Coding skills have long been associated with workforce readiness and the digital fluency that students will need to thrive in the modern workplace. But the benefits of coding also extend to more fundamental challenges of literacy and language development.

In general, we associate coding with hi-tech contexts and users. And in more recent years, we have been hearing about how coding involves knowledge and skills that future generations will need in their jobs. The more we are integrating technology into our lives in general, the more the need for coding increases.

The learning and development of coding skills once took place primarily in computer or technology classes. But now, students from various learning contexts are learning these languages, as increasingly computers must be customized to complete very specific tasks, and these must be programmed intentionally. Indeed, computer coding is becoming as foundational to learning as math and language skills. Herzing University in an article titled "Why More Students Should Learn Computer Code" states:

"Rapid technological advancements the past two decades have forever changed the way the world communicates and conducts business. With the advent of mobile devices and adoption of cloud-computing systems, code-writing skills have become an increasingly important, but under-recognized, skill set for students and professionals across a variety of disciplines."

What Is Coding?

The word "coding" refers to the computer languages that we use to direct computers, interact with computers, and design and redesign computer use in various situations. So, the more we use computers, the more important coding is and will become.

There are various approaches that are referred to as coding but do not involve knowing the actual programming languages. In a 2018 article I wrote titled "Beyond Point and Click," I discuss how often "coding" refers to the front-end manipulation of screens, images, functions, and purposes, rather than the back-end languages that actually make these things happen.

As Sruthi Veeraraghavan explained in a 2022 article for Simplilearn:

"A programming language is a way for programmers (developers) to communicate with computers. Programming languages consist of a set of rules that allows string values to be converted into various ways of generating machine code, or, in the case of visual programming languages, graphical elements.

"Generally speaking, a program is a set of instructions written in a particular language (C, C++, Java, Python) to achieve a particular task."

The article provides a list of 14 coding languages and explains each one.

Connecting Coding to Literacy

Interestingly, professional skills are not the only benefits that are emerging from students learning to code. Coding is also having an impact on literacy — including both conventional and newer digital literacy skills.

The United States is facing a literacy crisis, with illiteracy (in terms of conventional literacy) increasing quite rapidly over recent years. The Resilient Educator provides the following as an overview of the current state of literacy in the U.S.:

  • More than 30 million adults in the United States cannot read, write, or do basic math above a third-grade level. — ProLiteracy
  • Children whose parents have low literacy levels have a 72% chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves. These children are more likely to get poor grades, display behavioral problems, have high absentee rates, repeat school years, or drop out. — National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)
  • 75% of state prison inmates did not complete high school or can be classified as low literate. — Rand Report: Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education
  • Low literacy is said to be connected to over $230 billion a year in healthcare costs because almost half of Americans cannot read well enough to comprehend health information, incurring higher costs. — American Journal of Public Health

To achieve full literacy, all literacy skills must be developed together and equally: reading, writing, listening, speaking, and comprehension. If students are not being taught all of these skill areas together and in full integration, then illiteracy develops.

Linguists have consistently emphasized these areas of literacy in terms of second-language learning or multilanguage learning. Often, students who are learning a second or third language have better literacy skills than other students because of this. Yet, they are often thought of as performing at a lower level than other students and are excluded in some school systems from higher-order thinking challenges.

In a 2017 article, I address the changing literacy that new and newer technology brings and how meaning is deciphered differently by users compared to non-users. Additionally, the article discusses the differences between younger and older people in terms of how they understand what is meant in various technology environments. What is interesting too is how coding can support a wider literacy development overall.

Coding's Impact on Language Development

All languages support literacy development due to the skills required to use language. For years, linguists have discussed the importance of developing all aspects of literacy when learning a second language. Teachers of ESL have studied the importance of integrating all literacy skills in order for students to learn the language more efficiently. Now, with the rise in coding teaching and learning, it is becoming apparent that, because coding involves "computer languages," literacy skills are benefiting as a result, and literacy itself is becoming a wider-scoped set of skills and with an increased benefit across all disciplines.

"Computer literacy" and now "digital literacy" may or may not include direct knowledge of coding, but do address forms of literacy that are developing as a result of the growing use of technology. The knowledge of how to use computers well, as well as the various benefits of digital tools and environments, are increasingly important for all learners, particularly in preparation for future employment.

In general, these literacies help to develop thinking skills, logical reasoning, critical thinking, problem solving, and innovation. All of these skills benefit many areas of work. The actual languages used in coding, however, also specifically develop language skills as they serve the same function as any language — to convey meaning to computers and users. They also require being able to manipulate the code to more directly and effectively communicate with computers in order to benefit the end result.

Therefore, literacy is expanding to include other thinking and reasoning skills. Social linguists have long emphasized the social importance of language, emphasizing that language should not be learned in a vacuum but with a useable social context. The same is true of the expanded new literacy: While including conventional literacy development and use, it also expands to include digital literacy or "new literacy," as it is often referred to. In a Nord Anglia (2020) article, the author explains as one of five benefits to learning coding that they list:

"Our ability to quickly pick up complex or technical tasks diminishes with age. For example, the older you become the harder it is to learn a new language.

"The same goes for technology use and, more precisely, coding. Today, the importance of learning to code rivals even that of reading and writing. It's a core skill that can help a child develop a deeper understanding of how technology works. Given the extent to which technology shapes our lives, learning to code helps develop a better understanding of the world around us."

The actual languages of coding, combined with the affective uses of what is being coded, enhance conventional language development in logical thinking as well as newer skills in critical thinking and innovative critical and creative thinking. Not only is literacy becoming increasingly at the heart of learning again, but it is also broadening its scope and the actual uses of the languages being learned.

Additional Thinking Benefits of Coding

Kelly Bielefeld (2019) in an article for BoxLight suggests:

"There's value in computer coding that goes beyond the ability to write code. I believe it is similar to an understanding of any other foreign language. It's possible to become fluent in French or Mandarin if those aren't your primary language, but it is also possible to understand a few basics. This basic understanding helps to communicate through simple methods with others, and also helps to create a deeper understanding of language in general. Students are typically better at using the English language when they learn about other languages."

The article continues to suggest that when learning to code, there are additional skills that are being developed as a result, such as understanding logic and algorithms, staying focused, and using problem-solving skills. As these are being developed, students are able to apply these skills in other areas of life and learning, not only in coding. Similarly, as literacy skills provide a basic framework for processing and engaging in life, these newer coding languages are helping develop the kinds of skills that have wider significance.

Increasingly, studies have shown that just as language learning and foreign language learning can alter how a brain works, so coding can increase brain function and ability in general. An article written by Merle Huerta for EduTopia (2015) states:

"Researchers in Sweden observed visible brain changes in those children and teens who learned a foreign language. Over a three-month period, the brain structure in those who acquired a second language grew, specifically in the hippocampal area (which is involved in learning new material and spatial navigation), and in three areas in the cerebral cortex. Students who "had better language skills than other students, who put in more effort in learning, experienced greater growth." In another study, Mechelli found that children who acquired a second or third language, even a computer language, showed functional changes in the inferior parietal cortex."

The Challenge of Literacy Moving Forward

While we are struggling to address the literacy challenges in general here in the U.S., we have a growing new literacy development that can help benefit basic literacy development as well as new literacies that are required for current and future employment. The challenge of all of this is student access to the type of learning and resources that are required. Not every school has the same resources, nor the same access to technology that is required for this kind of learning. If students are only focused on conventional literacy development, which is needed, they still will not be prepared for future employment. EdSurge (2022) explains:

"Computer science has a wider footprint in schools than ever before, but there are differences when it comes to who has access to computer courses and who's enrolling.

"While more than half of high schools nationwide — 53 percent, to be precise — offer computer science, disparities in access and participation reveal themselves among traditionally underrepresented groups. Girls, for instance, make up just one-third of high school computer science students nationally."

While these kinds of issues are a reality across the U.S., it is important to realize that basic literacy does not have to be addressed prior to coding and digital literacy, but these challenges can all be addressed in a more integrative context of learning. Additionally, rather than see these as "subject exclusive," literacy of any kind is interdependent with all learning and is relevant to success in any field of study or work. In fact, it is more effective to provide an integrative approach to all literacies and encourage instructors to include conventional literacy as well as coding in any class they teach. A major challenge, too, is how learning is evaluated. A standardized approach to outcomes and evaluation does not provide a flexible enough scope nor does it adapt to the changes required moving forward. Learning outcomes must include customized results to various challenges and problems as students use their digital literacy skills to address them.

Ultimately, literacy development now refers to many more skills than conventional literacy, but the newer literacies can help develop conventional literacy skills as an integrated part of a wider-scoped development. Therefore, as educators, rather than look backward in the face of illiteracy here in the U.S., our challenge is to move forward and develop newer literacies within any and all disciplines and learning contexts.

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