Gavin Davenport

Color image depicting an overhead view of a large selection of wooden alphabet letter tiles scattered, apparently haphazardly, across a blue metallic surface.

Imagine what a 6-year-old thinks when they are first told that a computer program contains ‘bugs’. Their eyes widen, connections are made, and their imagination paints a picture of what is happening inside that black box.

“My computer stopped working ‘cause it’s full of bugs!!”

A lot of work has taken place in UK primary schools in developing the explicit teaching of technical vocabulary in a range of subjects. As a computing educator, I’d assumed that computing, because of its natural affinities with the sciences and mathematics, would fit readily into the 3 Tier model (Beck, McKeown and Kucan, 2002) used for delivering vocabulary in other technical subjects.

However, when I began to unpick the specific terms that needed to be taught, and looked at the reported challenges from professionals in grasping the vocabulary, it became apparent that there were important differences.

A very high proportion of the vocabulary we use to talk about computers and computing is polysemous, that is, words with multiple meanings. These meanings vary significantly depending on the context in which they are used. We encounter these kinds of words every day: for instance, ‘light’ (not dark, not heavy) and ‘play’ (a dramatic performance, or to take part in sport). These have surface meanings in their intended contexts and peripheral, sometimes subconscious meanings.

In computing, we introduce words like bugs, code, programs, decomposition, execution – all these terms come with their own linguistic baggage that has implications for primary age pupils and teachers alike. The process of purposeful knowledge building means unpicking all that lovely experience of handfuls of mini beasts hiding under logs and explaining we don’t mean that kind of bug.

And this doesn’t stop with young children. A word like code carries with it a host of cultural and linguistic associations. These contribute to the perception among adults that computing is a difficult subject and that meanings are deliberately obscure, and that those who engage in the occult art of coding are somehow part of a secretive, shadowy profession. We repeatedly ask learners not to just learn new vocabulary, but to learn new meanings for old vocabulary.

For learners of English as an additional language there are clear challenges in unpicking polysemous vocabulary not only in vernacular language, but even in standard English.

Having an awareness of the constellation of meanings that individual terms might have, unlocks opportunities for teaching but also for addressing misconceptions and prejudices that can occur without our awareness. Consider as an example the implications of the dual meanings of a word like ‘poor,’ which has simultaneous meaning of lacking money and low quality.

What does this mean for educators? Taking the time to consider that a word or term which appears to resonate with our existing knowledge, and understanding that we might be making presumptions or judgements without exploring meaning in context.

An awareness of the semantic complexity of everyday terms can provide not only more effective communication, but keys to new connections for learners.