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A student uses Sphero indi's color tiles to learn how to read.

By Claire Stewart

When I attended the Future of Education Technology Conference, I knew I would explore and attend sessions aligned with cutting-edge, interactive technology and learning strategies. With STEM and explorative learning on the rise, I found so many new ideas for integrating technology into the classroom. As a Reading Specialist, I instantly started brainstorming how to incorporate this technology into the reading classroom. When visiting with Sphero, I realized how easily their robots and style of coding could integrate into any classroom and any subject area. 

Our Library-Media Specialist purchased a Sphero indi Class Pack for our school, and we expected a steep learning curve for using these little robots. The simplicity of indi allows access to this type of coding at an early age. Students as young as Pre-K and Kindergarten can pick up these robots and begin using them with ease. At FETC, we visited the Sphero booth to get a full tutorial on usage, tips, and instructional approaches. However, as they started demonstrating with these robots, we realized it really was as simple as laying out color tiles and turning indi on. As we started placing the color tiles, my mind instantly linked these tiles with the word decoding strategy of Phoneme-Grapheme Mapping. I knew that I had to try out my idea right on the spot at their booth. As I laid out tiles and sounded out words, I could tell they had no idea what I was doing but they recognized the wheels turning in my brain. 

Kids learning about Phoneme-Grapheme Mapping with Sphero indi.

Phoneme-Grapheme Mapping is the act of spelling a word with scaffolded support through sound boxes to match individual phonemes with the corresponding grapheme in order to spell a word accurately. In each indi kit, there are a variety of color tiles which direct indi to move forward, speed up, slow down, or turn. I realized how easily indi’s tile could apply to the boxes used in Phoneme-Grapheme Mapping, but also how fun it would be for students to have indi serve as a blending tool as it passes over each of these boxes. Instead of a boring worksheet, students now have access to robots who will assist them with sounding out and blending words right before their eyes. 

My first exploration of indi only involved the basic colors: green to start, yellow to slow down, and red to stop. Instantly, I realized that green and red could easily serve for our consonants. A consonant traditionally says only one sound. While there are a few exceptions, an “m” will always say /m/. But, a vowel is our “rule-breaker.” The letter “e” can make up to nine different sounds! The yellow tile causes indi to slow down, and we naturally need to slow down when we are decoding vowels. I realized I could teach open and closed syllables through indi. When a word ends in a vowel, or a yellow tile, the vowel is long and that is an open syllable. When the word ends in a consonant, or a red tile, the vowel is short and that is a closed syllable. 

A Sphero indi Class Pack activity.

After this, the ideas just kept spinning with all the skills that indi could help teach in reading. The possibilities are truly endless, which is the beautiful part about STEAM. Every phonics skill instantly becomes more fun because the kids get to use indi as a tool to help blend. Retelling a story becomes a fun part of the day because they can use a wide variety of color options and reactions from indi to retell the important parts. In my fluency group, I also noticed my students became so much more excited practicing their rereading skills of passages. It wasn’t a boring page in front of them, but a story to be separated into chunks and using color tiles to help them pace out their own reading. This connection and learning experience has illuminated that the link between phonics and cutting-edge STEM is a pathway forward that has yet to be explored! 

A Phoneme-Grapheme Mapping activity.

I truly love how easy it is to get started with indi. There is no programming required to begin, but instead just a button to press and work instantly begins. So often, I think we can get bogged down in the endless possibilities of STEAM but I found the best way is just to start. I was no expert when I started using indi, but I learned alongside my students. They saw me making mistakes, reframing my thinking, and changing my approach, which in turn makes it okay for them to make these same mistakes and the growth that comes alongside mistakes. 

A Phoneme-Grapheme Mapping activity using Sphero indi.

The act of coding with indi instantly makes any skill more concrete because it gives them a grounding point, an activity, and a fun reaction to hold in their memory. During these lessons, student engagement is at an all time high because they want to code with indi. They are engaged and actively participating during all parts of the lesson, but they are also building these connections with their long-term memory to permanently store this new information. 

About the Author:

Claire Stewart, a reading specialist at Midtown Elementary School.

Claire Stewart is a Reading Specialist at Midtown Elementary in Madison City Schools in Alabama. She has worked in education for over 10 years, teaching and supporting grades Kindergarten through 3rd grade. She has her Masters in Differentiated Instruction, and she is also a certified Reading Specialist. Through her training with Lexia LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading Spelling) and the Orton Gillingham Academy, she has developed a love and passion for helping every child learn how to read and write. She believes that learning to read doesn't have to be boring or mundane! 

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