Monday, December 9, 2013

Want to Code? Learn to Read First.

Dear President Obama,

I like the idea of encouraging people to learn how to code – whatever that means. I’ve tried at least one variation of coding – using simple HTML not only on this blog but in an online class I teach. I built my own websites in the early 1990s, mimicking the code I saw back then. I haven’t kept up with it much, I admit.
You know what I like better? Encouraging people to learn how to read.
I listen to a lot of young boys read. I mean a lot of young boys. And most of them can’t. They stumble over pronouncing words. Simple words. And if you ask them to explain what it is they just read, the pat answer is “I don’t know.” And they’re telling the truth, because when they read aloud, they’re saying the words, but that’s all they’re doing. They’re concentrating on getting to the end of the passage, everything else is secondary.
I can tell the readers from the non-readers at the first meeting. They sail through simple and complicated texts – and I hear them read everything from news stories to their Boy Scout manual to more complicated texts, like the King James version of the Bible. If they encounter a word they’re unfamiliar with, they sound it out, and usually get it right. They can guess at meaning, and usually get it right. And if they’re stuck, they know where to go to find the answers. They can summarize. They can explain.
The non-readers can’t do any of that. Or at least they don’t try.
And it’s not just young boys. I also can tell pretty quickly which of my college students are readers and which are not. I don’t get to hear them read aloud, but I do get to see them think as they write essays and post responses in our online classes. Those less interested in reading stand out, even more so than those for whom English is not their first language – and I have a lot of students that fit that category too.
These aren’t dumb kids. They have other talents ranging from excellent math skills, a deeper understanding of emotion and empathy, and athleticism, among others. Reading isn’t “their thing.”
But it’s fundamental to everything. Including coding.
We haven’t left it up to schools to teach our kids to read. We read to them. We started early, with picture books, then Dr. Seuss, now others – right now, I’m reading CS Lewis’ “Prince Caspian” to my two youngest kids. And we read aloud, nearly every night, from our scriptures. We take turns reading and explaining what we read – requiring our kids to go over what they just read and using their own words to explain what’s happening.
And they’re readers. They’re up late at night reading, getting yelled at to turn off the lights and go to bed. They’re always sneaking books into the car for trips, sneaking books off the shelves to read at mealtimes. They’ll read newspapers. And magazines. And comic strips. I’m sure if I put a book on coding in front of them, they’d read it. And maybe get interested.
But the reading comes first. If it doesn’t, well, we’re slipping into Snow Crash a lot faster than previously thought. Technological achievement is highly valued in the Metaverse, but that achievement can be as shallow as it is stunning.
There is, of course, this argument:
Coding does require a lot of mental discipline, dealing with the concrete hidden in the abstract. Yes, a lot of what is written is drivel. But so is a lot of what is on the television. As is much of what is coded. Coding for the sake of coding, I’m not necessarily in favor of. Coding with a foundation on the ability to think and reason, well, that sounds a whole lot better.
Could coding prod a non-reading kid into reading more? I’m certain it could. But you’re going to get more coding kids if they’re reading kids first.

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