Collaborative Languages: Learning English and CS

Tuesday, July 28th 2020, 8:22:26 am

Over Mark Leffler’s years of teaching computer science to English Language Learners, he’s come to see direct parallels between how his students acclimate to a new spoken language and how all students must acclimate to new programming languages. He uses these similarities to his advantage. Employing non-verbal cues, particularly hand signals, as a universal language in his classroom helps his students follow along when learning unfamiliar and challenging concepts in computer science. It also empowers them to speak up both when they don’t understand something and when they really do.


Non-verbal cues can help establish a classroom culture that is inclusive and welcoming to all computer science learners, no matter their comfort level with the material. Pick hand signals that will set a rhythm and feel for your class at the beginning of the academic year; repeat them to create a sense of familiarity as students wade into new territory.


  • Make sure the hand signals can be used by both you and your students for a variety of purposes. Mark encourages snapping, which he also calls a classroom management tool, as a quiet and non-disruptive way to recognize achievement and agree with fellow students. “Fist-to-five”—with one raised finger indicating a student doesn’t understand something to five indicating they understand it enough to teach it themselves—gives students a way to provide feedback to the teacher.



  • Choose a hand signal to bring silence or focus to a class that is playing independently or in small groups. If you have your students working in centers, try using hand claps (“Clap once if you can hear me!”) to bring students back together to reflect and clean up at the end of the period.


  • Pick a hand signal that students can use when they have a question about how to complete an assignment or are unsure about a new concept or idea. Mark uses the fist-to-five hand signal for students to communicate their confidence with a concept before beginning a new assignment.


  • Implement hand signals for students to share constructive feedback with each other. In Tim Feimer’s middle school class, students raise their hands in a scissors sign from the game Rock-Paper-Scissors when they want to cut in and offer a suggestion to another student.


  • When asking students to engage in more critical thinking, try using hand signals as a way to draw all students into forming and expressing an opinion about a topic in computing. (“Fist-to-five, how much do you agree with the following statement?”)


  • Emphasize the importance of communication. No matter the signals chosen, position them as a way to stay on the same page as you all come to master your new shared language: computer science.
  • Empower the students. To remind students that they have agency, Mark posts a sign above his board that reads “I am not the only teacher here.”


  • Codesters. This educational website that Mark recommends presents many coding lessons in both English and Spanish.
  • Your students! Mark emphasizes that other English Language Learners can often best explain a concept to fellow students in a shared native language.


  • English Language Learners: Students who are unable to communicate fluently or learn effectively in English, who often come from non-English-speaking homes and backgrounds, and who typically require specialized or modified instruction in both the English language and in their academic courses.

Resource content by Mark Leffler, with the assistance of the CS4All team. Video by Rook Productions. Consultation by Tythe Design and Tiny Panther. Published by CS4All.