Creating Schools Where Every Student Can Speak a Digital Language

Fall 2018

By Chris Panell

Judy’s Digital Story (all students' names have been changed)

Judy is a quiet 12-year-old girl who has been in my English classes here in Hong Kong for the past two school years. Because of her in-class demeanor, it took me by surprise earlier this year when Judy off-handedly mentioned during a classroom discussion that she has over 4,000 followers on her YouTube channel. It turns out Judy has been teaching many more kids than I have this past year through her online videos. She specializes in diverse “do-it-yourself” topics that range from making decorative Chinese lanterns to knowing how to tell the difference between a blog and a vlog—the topics that strike her as interesting and that also appeal to a fairly substantial audience around the world, beyond her immediate classmates. 

Judy has a privileged position in our society. Unlike many of her peers, who can only follow the YouTube channels of others, Judy has taught herself how to edit so that she can mix words, images, and sounds in order to communicate professionally in her DIY productions. 

A New Literacy Is Emerging: Digital Literacy

We have arranged our society so that only a privileged few can successfully communicate in the languages that are integral to the operation of our cell-phones, iPads, Smart TVs, and video game consoles. We ensure that this continues to be the case by focusing on memorizing facts and syntax when we teach technology and programming classes in isolation from the rest of the curriculum. This is an approach that appeals to only a fraction of our student population. 

Most of us can only respond to the prompts of our devices; few of us can control what the devices say or how they say it. When it comes to our technology we are consumers, not producers. As a result, many of us are only partially digitally literate.

Judy is helping to create a new kind of literacy. She can control the technology. She is fluent in speaking digitally.

What It Means to Be Fully Digitally Literate

Those who are fully digitally literate are able to read beyond the surface of an electronic text in order to understand how it functions. To be digitally literate means that you are able to craft the words that express your ideas and then connect those words to other texts through a variety of media. To be digitally literate means that you are able to set out the words and symbols that reflect your thoughts and then make them act in ways that you wish. The presentation of the words is imbued with meaning, as are the ways that the user interacts with the text. 

Digital words are increasingly experienced. Those who are fully digitally literate can comprehend the programming that makes the words appear and behave as they do. As a result, they are able to craft novel interactive experiences for the users of their creations.   

Scribes, Computers, and School

Once upon a time, only a few individuals could read and write. For example, some kings needed advisers who were able to read the messages they received and who also recorded their responses. For much of that period in history, scribes were paid to copy the words of others onto scrolls and, later, paper. These jobs almost entirely disappeared with the invention and wide-spread use of the printing press. As a direct consequence of this technology, many more people within our world are now able to read and write. More people are fully “literate” in the traditional sense.

In the early part of the 20th century, individuals were paid to do the job known as “computer.” They memorized facts and figures and knew how to quickly locate information in charts and books. Now this work—along with the name—has been taken over by electronic devices that are easy enough for almost any person to use. Equipped with a cell-phone with Google on it, each of us has a world of facts available to us at a moment’s notice.

The point is that new forms of technology are initially understood and used by only a few people but ultimately tend to become modified and understood by greater numbers within the society. If this tendency holds, in the future most people will likely need to know not only how to receive information through digital technology but also how to communicate information in a way that can be interacted with and experienced by the receiver.

Schools have a central role to play in helping more people understand and control digital technology. The need to provide opportunities across the curriculum for students to read and write digitally and to speak the language of technology—this is the defining issue of our time. Every student deserves the chance to be fully digitally literate.

How Digital Literacy Can Spread Within a Class

Inspired by Judy’s example, this year my Year 8 English teaching team asked all of our students to create YouTube videos on any topic of their choosing. Essentially, we asked our students to create a visual essay. After about two weeks of continuous work time with the students absorbed in their tasks, I was amazed by the results. Many of the students in my school are English as an Additional Language learners, and they often struggle with completing traditional essays. Yet out of my nearly 50 students in two classes, nobody “forgot” to finish this assignment. 

Students who had been reluctant to participate in conversations were drawn into working with others by the discovery of shared interests and a desire to make the technology do the things they saw it doing for others. They couldn’t wait to see what their peers had created. There was a big line at the Smart TV in the front of my classroom with students eager to show off their work.

The class giggled at the “in-jokes” (most of which I didn’t understand), while they “oohed” and “aahed” over the little technological flourishes. Most students didn’t just turn on a camera and make a video recording. They added music and special effects, such as floating hearts hovering over things they loved or question marks to emphasize possible points of confusion. There were sound effects, rolling credits, and—as seems to be obligatory with kids of this age—“blooper” reels. 

The Three Cs: Choice, Collaboration, and Conversation

Our kids gained more because they had the power to create what they wanted in a situation where collaboration and conversation naturally led to a better product. For schools today, these three Cs—choice, collaboration, and conversation—seem to be a particularly strong basis for allowing our students to begin to speak digitally. 

Understanding Language in a Digital Age

Another cornerstone in creating schools that encourage students to cross the digital divide is to acknowledge that digital forms of communication are languages and should be taught as such. Communication can be done in a variety of ways—such as JavaScript or YouTube editing—but these are simply the means for conveying ideas. All digital modes of communication are used to express ideas or thoughts and are best understood as languages. All languages are the means to accomplish ends, not the ends in and of themselves. Language should never be taught in isolation from what it is meant to accomplish; it should never be taught as a set of rules or facts to be memorized.

I first contended this in an essay published in 2003, based on my experiences in teaching both entry-level programming and English courses. I wrote that “in the end, it is language that we are teaching, and that should guide the activities used in our programming courses.”1

Since then, much evidence in favor of this argument has accumulated. One study imaged the brains of students learning to program and found that, as they wrote in code, the portions of the brain “related to different facets of language processing” were activated.2 Another team of researchers tested the use of SLA (or second language acquisition techniques) in the teaching of entry-level computer programming classes and concluded that “the results from this project show great promise for the utilization of SLA in introductory programming course content delivery.”3 The Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University professors who carried out this latter study cited my original 2003 essay when they presented their final results last year.4 It is gratifying to see that the results of these peer-reviewed studies agree with what I have observed in technology classes over the years: Students learn more when they understand that the commands they are putting into the computer are a form of communication, a way of digitally speaking.

How Students Can Learn to Speak Digitally: Robert’s Story

The understanding that even complex forms of digital communication, such as programming, are still language has great significance for how we teach this topic in our schools—and for who is included in learning to speak this language. For starters, it means that coding should be taught to a wider group of our students using the best techniques for teaching language more generally. This means a lot more conversation, collaboration, and building on interests that students already have when they come into class. 

A case in point is a student named Robert, who enrolled in my elective entry-level web and app design course. He became fascinated when I showed the class how to use PhoneGap to put the apps they were creating onto the cell-phones of their friends and families to test. Robert likes “memes,” so he started making silly pictures with captions to send out as apps. Although his programs didn’t really do anything, he was enjoying himself, so I decided to see what would come of it. Next, he figured out how to make little apps that were practical jokes—they made a message pop up on the screen that said “ALERT: All of your cell-phone files are now being deleted!” The program wasn’t actually doing anything harmful, and Robert enjoyed being able to explain to the other students how he had fooled them. By the end of that course, Robert had found the code for a Tetris game online and was modifying it to reflect his own unique style for solving puzzles. Robert had discovered his digital voice because he was building on his own interests at his own pace.

When Students Are Free to Choose They Communicate More: Philip’s Story

The goal of the inclusive approaches described here is always to allow more children to be motivated to be part of the digital discussion, however they come to it and whatever they hope to take away from it. For example, most young people today like games, and this can be expanded on by “gamifying” the classroom generally (as James Paul Gee has famously advocated5) and then working up to where students can build games of their own choosing.

This approach worked for Philip, a 13-year-old who transferred into our school at the beginning of the year and was assigned to my English class. Philip liked to create videos, but he hadn’t had enough practice with the technology to proficiently create them, and he was unwilling to ask for help. 

I had been building a demonstration “Pacman” clone chase game with students in my web and app design class, so I integrated it into a series of “lit analysis” conversations in English as well. We used it to identify protagonists (“Pacman”), antagonists (the ghosts), plot, and climax. The students seemed to be able to grasp these concepts easily when they recognized them in the game. They also inserted images of their own into the game and shared it with their friends. Students played the game after school and then showed off their high scores.

Because the class seemed to enjoy playing the game, the demo program, including the JavaScript code, was made available to all of the students over my Google classroom platform. Philip became obsessed with this code. He started by asking me for help to change out the images. Then, he wanted to speed up the Pacman character so that he could become “invincible.” He and I worked together to find that section. Before long, Philip was working on adding an HTML button that called his new JavaScript “invincibility” function. Although he was able to get most of it on his own, he needed my help for the last few touches. Philip went from being isolated to being a full participant in a pretty sophisticated digital conversation with his teacher.

Teaching in a Digital School: Some Practical Ideas

Teachers should be at the forefront in creating schools that more inclusively allow our students to participate in this digital conversation. We do this by actively integrating these new technological variations on language across the curriculum. 

An easy entry point to this digital conversation is an activity like the one I described earlier, where students create YouTube videos. This allows students to incorporate a wide variety of technologies and digital languages at a pace of their own choosing and in a way that allows most teachers to be comfortable with the technological vocabulary. Students could also create animated storyboards to gain more knowledge of how to integrate words and images. 

As students advance in knowledge, game creation and analysis can be used across the curriculum. For example, in my school, we have had students code JavaScript games in their science classes to simulate hunter and prey behavior.

This past year, in some of the history classes, we had students analyze both the story and the programming of an existing digital game to support what they were learning about ancient history. Students spent time discussing Minecraft, which was of interest to many of the middle school boys here in Hong Kong. On their own initiative, some of the students even began to “mod” (my students term for modify) Minecraft to incorporate ideas they had learned about in class; they added defense structures and weapons that had been discussed. One student applied his new knowledge in my English class by completing an expository final project where he showed others how to modify Minecraft as he had done.

School as a Digital Playground

In such ways, technological literacy has become incorporated across our curriculum, turning our school into a digital playground where kids are free to explore. There are many more ways to expand on these ideas. Students could build their own calculating and random number generator apps, write programs that simulate the growth of a population of microorganisms, and explore alternate twists to famous events by programming them into a game.

Digital Literacy and the Future of Our Schools

Many schools say that they focus on “digital literacy,” but there is much confusion about what this means. Often, such schools are only focusing on helping students to efficiently and safely use the technology as it is. To be forward thinking is to understand that students should be able to receive information by way of technology and then have the chance to use technology to communicate as well. To be able to command our digital devices is as great a leap forward as moving from reading the messages of others to writing our own.

To help our students make this leap, we need to provide them with a collaborative environment where the language of technology is integrated into everything they do—as it will be for the remainder of their lives outside of school. Young people in schools should be able to speak digitally within the core topics of the curriculum. 

Students like Judy, Robert, and Philip are full participants in the global conversation because they are now able to speak digitally. We can create that same opportunity for every child in our schools today.


  1. Chris Panell, “Teaching Computer Programming as a Language,” Tech Directions, March 2003, pp. 26-27.
  2. Janet Siegmund et al., “Understanding Understanding Source Code With Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging,” Proceedings of the 36th International Conference on Software Engineering – ICSE 2014, Hyderabad, India, May/June 2014.
  3. Matthew Pierce et al., “Evaluating Student Perceptions and Learning Outcomes: Differences Between SLA-ABLE and Non-SLA-ABLE Introductory Programming Courses,” International Journal of Management and Applied Science, September 2017, pp. 92-95.
  4. Christina Frederick et al., “Get Rid of Your Students’ Fear and Intimidation of Learning a Programming Language,” Presentation at the 9th First Year Engineering Experience (FYEE) Conference, Daytona Beach, Florida, August 2017; online at
  5. See What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy by James Paul Gee (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014).
Chris Panell

Chris Panell ( has taught both web app design and English courses at Yew Chung International School in Hong Kong for the past two years. Over the past 20 years, he has taught technology and English courses at the middle school and college levels.