Using VEX 123 to Support Teaching Literacy and Mathematical Thinking

Often in the elementary school years, there is a strong focus on teaching literacy and mathematics. While phonics, sight words, and fluency are important to developing literacy in young students, there is more to literacy than just these elements. Literacy also includes language skills like speaking and listening, as well as visual and written skills that go into writing.1 Similarly, math facts, numeracy, and operations are indeed foundational to learning mathematics, but they are just one piece of the puzzle. Mathematical thinking encompasses spatial reasoning and abstraction, as well as things like visuo-motor skills or the ability to connect number and quantity.2 However, when there are concerns about literacy or math achievement (or a lack thereof), the first instinct is often to add more rote practice, without necessarily thinking about the bigger picture, or how literacy and mathematical thinking develop throughout childhood.

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Executive Function and Foundational Skills

Underlying literacy and mathematical thinking, and much of what is typically considered “school readiness” are things like executive function, working memory, motor skills, and spatial skills.3 Often thought of as predictors of school success, when it comes to shaping curricula, these foundational components of learning are rarely given time or space in the school day, let alone embedded within literacy or math instruction. Yet, spatial skills are known to be a predictor of math achievement, motor skills to be a prerequisite for learning to write, and executive function enables students to attend to a reading passage, decode an unfamiliar word, and make sense of sentence meaning.4

The term executive function encompasses a number of skills and processes, including self-control (like stopping an impulse and doing something else), cognitive flexibility (like shifting or switching from one activity to another), and working memory (the processes needed to keep track of information as we work with it).5 Related to executive function are motor and spatial skills, and the underlying cognitive processes that go into movement and our perception of objects and their movements.6 All of these are involved in student learning in a classroom setting, as well as in literacy and math development specifically.7

Executive Function in Context

For instance, consider the task of a student sitting at a desk to read a sentence and write a response.

  • Motor skills are needed for the student to have the core stability to sit upright at a desk, the fine motor skills to hold, grip, and control a pencil in order to write.
  • Spatial skills are needed to position the written answer on the line on the paper, and to write within a given space, with letters connected into words.
  • Visuo-spatial skills are necessary for students to contain their writing to the paper, and not write off of it, or to move from one line to the next with their writing.
  • Working memory is needed to read and comprehend the sentence, in order to accurately formulate a response.
  • Self control is necessary for the student to attend to the task at hand, and not get up and go do something more exciting to them, like build in the block space, or draw.
  • Cognitive flexibility is involved to interpret the letters and apply phonics knowledge correctly (like that the “e” in ‘set’ makes a different sound than either “e” in ‘erase’) to read the sentence accurately and write an appropriate and readable response.8

A similar pattern emerges for math, where students need to interpret numbers, hold them in their minds, perform calculations, and write accurate responses. And once a word problem is involved, the cognitive load of reading, interpreting the problem, and applying both phonics and number sense to it, in order to calculate and write the correct answer adds to the importance of these foundational skills. The good news is that things like spatial skills can be improved with practice and feedback,9 and that practice can be done in a myriad of ways – including coding a robot, like VEX 123.

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Foundational Skills, Executive Function, and VEX 123

Coding the 123 Robot involves many of the foundational skills for school readiness, as well as literacy and math development. For instance, consider the task of coding the 123 Robot to drive from one location to another on a Field.

There are many things integrated into accomplishing this goal, including:

  • Spatial skills are needed to set up the Field and robot in the correct position and orientation.
  • Visuo-spatial skills are needed to plan the path of the robot. This is combined with the motor and spatial skills needed to write, to document the plan on a printable.
  • Motor skills are needed to wake the 123 Robot and place it in its starting position.
  • Working memory and motor skills are needed to press the Touch buttons in order to code the robot to match the plan.
  • Numeracy skills are used for the one-to-one correspondence of button presses to behaviors (i.e. pressing the button two times to move two squares).
  • Language and listening skills are needed to follow the multi-step instructions given, with self-control to stay on task and work with a partner.
  • Cognitive flexibility and visuo-spatial skills are needed to determine how to debug the project if the robot does not move as intended, or to continue to the next part of the coding challenge.

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Not only does the act of coding the robot to accomplish a goal incorporate many foundational skills, the 123 Robot can be used to reinforce specific academic skills as well. All of the practices above are still addressed, and are additionally enhanced by literacy or math skills when the robot is used to do things like:

  • Drive across letters so that students can sound out words using their robot
  • Drive to sight words words written on a Field and read them
  • Move to the plot points of a story in the correct order
  • Re-enact a story using the robot to show reading comprehension
  • Drive the robot along a number line to solve an addition problem
  • Use the robot as a < or > symbol, to turn to face a larger or smaller value
  • Drive to numbers from 11-20 on a Field in order
  • Use the robot with a number line to solve a subtraction problem

Each of these examples show simple implementations where coding the 123 Robot is used to support foundational skill building in an integrated and engaging way. Rather than practicing sight words with flash cards, or using a worksheet and pencil to do math problems, the 123 Robot is used to embed executive function, spatial, and motor skills into these practices, while motivating students with the use of a robot!


VEX 123 Aligns with Curricular Goals

To put it another way, here are some key assessment criteria that are often used in classrooms, along with activities that can be done with VEX 123 to align with them.

Language and Literacy10

  • Demonstrates phonemic awareness - The Code and Read Lab within the Touch to Code STEM Lab Unit, has students code the 123 Robot to drive over letters (or phonemes) written on a Tile to sound out words with their robot. The Robot Word Search activity has students drive their 123 Robot to letters on a Tile to spell as many words as they can and write them down.
  • Comprehends and interprets or responds to fiction and non-fiction texts - The Meet Your Robot STEM Lab Unit engages students in a story to learn about the features and functions of the robot, and how to work with a partner to successfully use it. The Dragon in the Village Activity Series has students listen to a story that is told, then reenact plot points of the story using the 123 Robot.
  • Uses writing strategies to convey ideas - The use of VEX 123 printables to support path planning and documenting projects, like the ones used in the Moving from Touch to Coder STEM Lab Unit, has students practice writing and drawing to represent their projects.
  • Uses expanded vocabulary and language for a variety of purposes - Each time students discuss a project within their group, or share their strategies for coding during the Mid-Play Break or Share section of a STEM Lab Unit, like talking about how the Eye Sensor functions to help the 123 Robot see Grandma’s house or a Wolf in the Little Red Robot STEM Lab Unit, they are using story and coding vocabulary to explain their ideas, make predictions, and answer questions.

Mathematical Thinking11:

  • Applies concepts and strategies to solve mathematical problems - The Number Line STEM Lab Unit has students use the 123 Robot on a number line to solve addition and/or subtraction problems.
  • Uses simple tools and techniques to measure with non-standard and standard units - Activities like Space Race or Clean Your Room have students use units like ‘robot steps’ to code their 123 Robot to drive certain distances to accomplish a task.
  • Shows understanding of number and quantity - Each time students plan a project to drive the 123 Robot to a specific location, they need to process the number of steps needed and align that to Touch button presses or Coder cards, like driving to the treasure in the Robot Treasure Hunt STEM Lab in the Intro to Coding STEM Lab Unit.
  • Explores and solves spatial problems using manipulatives, drawings, and spatial language - Each time students use a VEX 123 printable, like the project and motion planning sheet in the Visit the Tigers and Bears Lab of the Moving from Touch to Coder STEM Lab Unit, they are using spatial language, drawings, and manipulatives to plan and execute a project to drive the 123 Robot to multiple locations.

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The versatility of VEX 123 as a teaching tool enables teachers to infuse computer science into many areas of their classroom, including literacy and math. Whether in a learning center, or as part of a whole class lesson, VEX 123 offers teachers and students an opportunity to gain practice feedback on a wealth of foundational skills to support learning and development. To learn more about executive function, spatial, and motor skills and their connection to learning, view the Interviews with Claire Cameron, author of Hands On, Minds On, in the PD+ video library.


1 Dichtelmiller, Margo L., et. al. The Work Sampling System Preschool through Third Grade: Omnibus Guidelines. 4th ed., Pearson, 2001.

2 Cameron, Claire E. Hands on, minds on: How executive function, motor, and spatial skills foster school readiness. Teachers College Press, 2018.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Cameron, Claire E. Interview by Jason McKenna. Interview with Claire Cameron Part 2: Executive Function, 2022, https://pd.vex.com/videos/interview-with-claire-cameron-pt-2-executive-function.

6 Ibid.

7  Ibid.

8  Cameron, Claire E. Hands on, minds on: How executive function, motor, and spatial skills foster school readiness. Teachers College Press, 2018.

9 Cameron, Claire E. Interview by Jason McKenna. Interview with Claire Cameron Part 4: Spatial Skills, 2022, https://pd.vex.com/videos/interview-with-claire-cameron-pt-4-spatial-skills.

10 Dichtelmiller, Margo L., et. al. The Work Sampling System Preschool through Third Grade: Omnibus Guidelines. 4th ed., Pearson, 2001.

11 Ibid.

For more information, help, and tips, check out the many resources at VEX Professional Development Plus