Coding in the elementary classroom is a relatively new movement in K-12 education that intends to engage young people in computer science and technology-related study. Coding initiatives focus on introducing young learners to coding and developing their computational thinking abilities. Coding helps enhance problem solving, mathematics skills, and higher-order thinking. Nevertheless, educators face many challenges with teaching coding at the elementary school level, because of the newness of computer science concepts and programming languages, gaps in student mathematics knowledge, use of technology, a relatively short attention span of young students and not fully developed reasoning, logic, and inferential skills among many others. This report describes how math interventions helped elementary school students in rural Amish Country become more successful with their coding activities.

In recent years, coding programs such as

Learning to code presents many benefits. It helps students develop better problem-solving abilities and enhance their higher order thinking skills (

Nevertheless, learning to code is challenging for many students. Some of these challenges lie in the newness of the material, meaning the new syntax of the language (

Another issue with coding relates to the use of the technology. Technology is ubiquitous for students. Most students use devices often both in and out of school. However, this does not mean that students are using devices productively. Kafai and Burke (

Coding uses reasoning, logic, and inferential skills, which tend to be much more cognitively involved. According to Piaget, “deductive reasoning is a cognitively advanced skill that develops during adolescence; in particular, adolescents acquire a complete mental logic that corresponds to standard logic” (

Coding, also known as programming, aids students in learning both problem solving and the design process (e.g. iteration and modularization) which are skills that can also be used outside of the computer science context (

This report describes coding activities in an elementary public school in rural Ohio that was situated in the heart of Amish Country. Because of the district’s location in Amish Country, and the presence of local farms, the district serves a large student population with diverse language, cultural understandings, and religious beliefs. Cultures represented in this district included Amish, Mennonite, Latinx, and Anglo. Languages spoken included English, Pennsylvania Dutch, German, Spanish, and several Spanish dialects. The district was also surrounded by a lower socioeconomic area, with school-wide Title I services (math and reading) in most of the elementary buildings.

Before 2015, there had never been a technology education program in this district. When the technology education program began, computer science was the last thing on the district’s agenda. For the technology education program, a single technology teacher serviced all of the elementary buildings in the district, on a rotating schedule with approximately 40 minutes per week of instruction with each grade level. With such a huge learning curve for the students, who grew up in mostly conservative Amish/Mennonite households, the district technology curriculum goals were to start slow and teach students about applications of technology in the beginning. The district had to eliminate the cultural fear of technology while still preparing students for online standardized testing and 21st Century Careers. As time moved on, and students became less afraid and more proficient technology users, the technology curriculum was able to become more challenging. In order to make the curriculum more challenging, the district decided to integrate computer science, or coding, into the elementary technology curriculum.

Soon after integrating the

The National Research Council (

Because these mathematics and problem solving challenges directly affected student classroom performance, something had to be done to help the students succeed in coding. Thus, instead of suggesting tutoring to students’ parents, or placing more on the classroom or intervention teachers, math intervention groups were formed and utilized during the technology class time. Essentially, the goal was to improve coding performance through math intervention. The

In order to keep students working in the technology classroom while small group interventions were happening, the

As stated before, students who struggled fell into two distinct mathematics groups, i.e., content and maturity. The students who struggled with mathematics content knowledge typically had trouble with the following concepts in

Geometric shapes

Measuring sides of shapes

Measuring and understanding angles

The four major operations (+, –, *, /)

Using digital tools (such as a protractor)

Basic algebra (finding an unknown/variables)

Understanding and extending patterns

Using a coordinate grid

As an example, in one

This activity uses Disney’s Frozen character Elsa to help students draw a circular pattern. Students place code on the right that involves turning the right number of degrees and then continuing in order to draw the correct pattern.

Other coding activities involved students moving around one square at a time (Figure

The user can use an understanding of pattern building and extension as well as multiplication or addition to successfully place repeat blocks in levels such as this one.

Even some of the more difficult coding levels involve basic arithmetic. Figure

Basic arithmetic operations can be used in levels such as the one above.

All the mathematics skills presented in the above coding activities are part of the CCSS standards for mathematical practice at elementary grade levels. Students in Grades 3–6 had the most difficulty with these basic mathematics skills. Interventions with this group involved explicit instruction on the skills with which students struggled. Materials such as worksheets, interactive online learning games, and dry erase boards were typical for interventions with the students in this group.

The other group of students, those who struggled with mathematics maturity, were not concentrated to one specific grade band. Interestingly, students in this second group tended to be some of the higher achieving students in the regular classroom, yet they struggled with coding. The specific skills this group of learners struggled with included higher order thinking, multi-step problems, and tasks which required deeper thinking. Problem-solving interventions included explicit teaching of problem-solving strategies/computational thinking skills, reading children’s literature about problem solving, and practicing rigorous, multi-step problems. Since coding can be conceptually challenging, the goal with this group was to teach the students to think like coders and use the concepts of computational thinking. Boosting self-esteem was also important with this group because, in many cases, one of their setbacks was a fear of failure. These students needed to learn how to fail in order to succeed, and children’s literature was very helpful in this aspect. Learning about growth mindsets and encouraging them in students was also very helpful in building their confidence. Some of the literature examined during these small group sessions included:

After approximately two months of math intervention, there were marked improvements in students’ coding skills. The fact that math intervention helped the struggling students in computer science class suggests how integral mathematics is to the study of computer science in the elementary classroom. Not only were struggling students more proficient with the coding program after math intervention, they also displayed markedly improved confidence in the area of coding. After intervention, students appeared to have more fun and be less stressed when completing the online coding lessons.

Mathematics and coding can be viewed as two islands across from each other, close together yet not touching, and the concept of computational thinking is the bridge between these two lands. Teaching both mathematics and coding concomitantly helps to develop a strong mathematics AND coding skills. As teachers, we must work for our students to help eliminate deficiencies in learning. This is just as true for the computer science classroom as it is for the mathematics classroom. While math tutoring may not be seen as a typical intervention, in this case it was effective in improving computer science classroom performance. Coding programs are just a tool, and they are not a substitute for effective teaching methods or the interventions described here. By the end of the year in this elementary school, students of different cultures, students of different socioeconomic backgrounds, and students who speak different languages, with the help of some math and problem-solving intervention for some, were all able to speak the same language: coding.

Megan Brannon is a student in the Curriculum and Instruction- Educational Technology doctoral program at Kent State University. She has more than ten years of experience in K-12 education, working as both a teacher and technology integration specialist for her school district. Through her K-6 technology experience, she helped to develop the district’s technology curriculum and helped bring computer science to the district for the first time, which also included carrying out the math interventions in the case study above. Megan’s research interests include best practices in technology integration, computational thinking, and viewing computer science from various perspectives (college preparation, math, ELL students, and teacher professional development).

Elena Novak is an Associate Professor of Educational Technology at Kent State University. She earned her Ph.D. in Instructional Systems and Learning Technologies from Florida State University. Elena Novak’s research aims to advance STEM Education using learning technologies.