Text-Based Programming Languages

Using Bitsbox To Teach Javascript

Two weeks ago at the free coding camp Saturday Kids runs every quarter with Google and 21C Girls, we experimented with teaching kids Javascript using Bitsbox. Bitsbox is a sandbox programming environment created by a couple of ex-Googlers to teach kids Javascript. Many children learn¬†programming using a drag-and-drop interface like Scratch or Blockly because it’s much easier learning the logic of how to write programs without having to worry about the syntax of text-based programming languages. Bitsbox attempts to solve the syntax problem by providing¬†a short and sweet library of Javascript-based programming commands, all designed to be easy to type, easy to learn, and flexible.

Text-based programming languages like Javascript taught using Bitsbox
Bitsbox sandbox Javascript environment introduces kids to text-based programming languages

 

Why Text-Based Programming Languages?

So is it possible for an eight year old to learn text-based programming languages, you may ask? Or is it even necessary? Can we not let them stick to visual programming languages until they are older? After all even major universities like Harvard and Berkeley teach coding in their Intro to Computer Science classes using visual programming languages like Scratch. The answer is that it is possible to teach kids as young as eight the syntax (the set of rules of how to combine instructions so the computer can understand them) of text-based programming languages, but instructors need to be patient and adaptable. Patient because kids do not have fully developed psychomotor skills and are unfamiliar with the keyboard, which means they type very s-l-o-w-l-y. Adaptable because some instructors do not like to leave code on the screen for kids to copy, but with text-based programming languages it is almost inevitable that snippets of code have to be written on a board or left on the projector screen for kids to copy. Otherwise they may never figure out the syntax of the programming language (a missing semi-colon can mean your script doesn’t run.)

The benefit of exposing kids to text-based programming languages early is that the syntax of a programming language is like the grammar of a foreign language. The earlier kids are exposed to a language, the easier it is for them to pick up. Of course this holds true to a larger extent to spoken languages because kids learn to listen before they learn to read, but the point remains that kids can become fairly competent in text-based programming languages. Kids who are really passionate about programming will eventually want to move beyond making another game in Scratch and build websites and web apps people can use. At that point knowing how to command a machine using text-based programming languages is tremendously useful.

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