Using VEX GO to Support Teaching Literacy and Mathematical Thinking

Often in the elementary school years, there is a strong focus on teaching literacy and mathematics. While spelling, 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 constrict curriculum – for instance, "No Child Left Behind (NCLB) shifted the allocation of instructional time toward math and reading, the subjects targets by the new accountability systems."While shifts like these are often well intentioned, they do not necessarily contemplate the bigger picture of student learning and development, or how literacy and mathematical thinking develop over time.

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Executive Function and Foundational Skills

Underlying literacy and mathematical thinking, and much of what is typically considered “school behavior” are things like executive function, working memory, motor skills, and spatial skills.4 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 writing, and executive function enables students to attend to a reading passage, decode an unfamiliar word, and make sense of sentence meaning.5

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).6 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.7 All of these are involved in student learning in a classroom setting, as well as in literacy and math development specifically.8

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 that are legible. 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, or daydream about what they will do after school.
  • Cognitive flexibility is involved to apply phonics and language knowledge correctly (like that the plural of ‘bus’ is ‘busses’ but the plural of ‘day’ is ‘days’) to read the sentence accurately and write an appropriate and readable response.9

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 language 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,10 and that practice can be done in a myriad of ways – including building, coding, and engaging in hands-on STEM learning with VEX GO.

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Foundational Skills, Executive Function, and VEX GO 

Building with VEX GO involves many of the foundational skills for school readiness, as well as literacy and math development. For instance, consider the task of building a Code Base robot from build instructions. There are many things integrated into accomplishing this goal, including:

  • Fine motor skills are needed to be able to pick up the pieces and connect them together effectively. If using the Pin Tool, motor skills are used to manipulate the tool to do things like remove pins successfully.
  • Spatial skills are needed to match the real pieces in hand to the diagram of the pieces in the build instructions. Perceptual skills are used to move and turn the pieces to match the angle and orientation of the diagram.
  • Visuo-spatial skills are needed to know how, when, and where to connect pieces of the robot together to build. Spatial working memory is involved in connecting pieces in the correct locations, which could involve transformational skills as well.
  • Language and listening skills are needed to follow the multi-step instructions given, with self-control to stay on task, follow build instructions, and work with a partner. Spatial language is used to describe how pieces go together while building.
  • Numeracy skills are used for selecting the correct number of pieces for each step, as well as spatial language to describe how they go together.
  • Cognitive flexibility and visuo-spatial skills are needed to determine how to fix the build if it does not go together as intended, or to continue to the next part of the building process.

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Once we add coding the robot to drive from one location to another on a Field, these skills are strengthened in additional ways, including:

  • Spatial skills are needed to set up the Field and Code Base in the correct position and orientation. Spatial language is used to describe the task, or the direction of the movement needed for the robot to drive to the correct location.
  • 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 turn on the robot, and use the device with VEXcode GO to connect and drag blocks into the project.
  • Working memory and motor skills are needed to build the project in VEXcode GO in order to code the robot to match the plan. Students must remember what each block does, and how to connect them to create a sequence that will accomplish the task at hand.
  • Numeracy skills are used to input the correct parameters in the blocks to achieve the desired behaviors (i.e. changing the parameter of the [Drive for] block to 300mm to make the robot drive a given distance).
  • Language and listening skills are needed to follow the multi-step instructions given, with self-control to focus on the given task and problem solve 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.

Not only do the activities of building and coding a robot to accomplish a task incorporate many foundational skills, VEX GO can be used to reinforce specific academic skills as well, and to leverage the motivation and engagement of hands-on experiences to support learning in other areas. All of the practices above are still addressed, and are additionally enhanced by literacy or math skills when VEX GO materials are used to do things like:

  • Create a build to explore equivalent fractions in a tangible way
  • Build a functioning clock to practice time telling skills
  • Construct an inclined plane to practice measurement and/or conversion
  • Practice plotting coordinates by constructing and playing a ‘BattleBoats’ game
  • Code the number of wheel turns needed to drive the robot a specific distance
  • Re-enact a story using VEX GO pieces to construct characters or settings to show reading comprehension
  • Write a log entry about each phase of the life cycle of a frog that you have built
  • Create and describe a habitat for a motorized creature to live in
  • Write build instructions for what you have built so that a partner could create the same thing

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Each of these examples show ways to not only set students up to learn STEM, but to use STEM in order to learn and develop other skills. When given additional hands-on opportunities in which to engage in integrated learning, students are able to “make more neural connections and more meaning is given to the learning and the concepts being taught”.11 The more touchpoints in an activity, the deeper the learning can be. And when students are able to engage in open-ended conversations about their work, and make an emotional connection to what they are doing, their learning grows deeper still.


VEX GO Aligns with Curricular Goals

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

Language and Literacy:12

  • Speaks effectively using increasingly precise vocabulary - Each time students discuss a build or a coding project within their group, or share their learning during the Mid-Play Break or Share section of a STEM Lab Unit (like talking about how the robot needs to move to collect samples in the Mars Rover – Surface Operations STEM Lab Unit), they are using spatial, descriptive, and precise language to explain their ideas, make predictions, and answer questions.
  • Comprehends and interprets or responds to fiction and non-fiction texts - The Intro to Building STEM Lab Unit engages students in a story to learn about the features and functions of the VEX GO Kit, and walks them through their first build using Kit pieces. The Planet HEXBUG Activity Series has students use creative writing to describe how their build connects to the features of an imaginary planet.
  • Writes for different purposes in different formats - The use of VEX GO printables to support path planning and project documentation, along with comments in a VEXcode GO project like the ones used in the Parade Float STEM Lab Unit, has students practice writing and drawing to represent their coding projects in detailed ways. Additionally, activities like writing a Field Journal entry in the Fun Frogs STEM Lab Unit enables students to write more creatively to describe their building projects.
  • Gathers and uses information for research purposes - Students gather data through activities and experiments like those in the Simple Machines STEM Lab Unit or the Look Alike STEM Lab Unit, and then use that information to inform their discussions and answer questions about their learning during the Mid-Play Break and Share sections of the Labs.

Mathematical Thinking:13

  • Applies concepts and strategies to solve mathematical problems - The Fractions STEM Lab Unit has students construct a build and use VEX GO Kit pieces to explore equivalent fractions by comparing fractions by size.
  • Communicates and represents mathematical thinking - As students build from build instructions, they use spatial language to communicate with their partner about the pieces, their orientation, quantity, shape, size, etc. In activities like those in the Ocean Emergency STEM Lab Unit, students plan and construct a path, using verbal and written descriptions, spatial, and numerical language to discuss how to effectively code their robot to drive on their path.
  • Explores and solves spatial problems using manipulatives, drawings, and spatial language - Discovery Activities like Flipping Flags, Rotate It, and Symmetry give students practice with symmetry, reflections, and rotation. Students can explore using coordinates to locate points on a grid through games like the one in the Battle Boats STEM Lab Unit.
  • Uses tools and techniques to estimate and measure - Each time students plan a project to drive the VEX GO robot to a specific location, they need to process the distance needed to travel to reach their destination, and input that estimate or measurement into their code effectively. In the Code Base STEM Lab Unit, students code the Code Base to navigate a slalom course by coding driving and turning distances in millimeters, inches, or degrees.

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The versatility of VEX GO as a teaching tool enables teachers to integrate STEM into many areas of their classroom, including literacy and math. Whether in a learning center, or as part of a whole class lesson, VEX GO offers teachers and students an opportunity to gain practice and 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 Dee, Thomas S., et al. "The impact of No Child Left Behind on students, teachers, and schools [with comments and discussion]." Brookings papers on economic activity (2010): 149-207.

4 2 Cameron, Claire E. Hands on, minds on: How executive function, motor, and spatial skills foster school readiness. Teachers College Press, 2018.

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 Cameron, Claire E. Interview by Jason McKenna. Interview with Claire Cameron Part 8: Key Takeaways, 2022, https://pd.vex.com/videos/interview-with-claire-cameron-pt-8-key-takeaways.

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

12 Ibid.

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