Cross-Curricular Connections: Exploring the "Tell Me a Story" Unit

computer programming cross-curricular connections ela event driven programming interdisciplinary instruction language arts programming scratch story telling transferable skills Jul 26, 2023
Notebook with several pencils

This month’s unit feature focuses on our “Tell Me a Story” Unit in Content Library Junior. This unit combines English Language Arts skills with programming to teach students how to write a story using block code in Scratch. The “Tell Me a Story” unit is the perfect starting unit for those who have never coded, as this unit breaks storytelling and coding down into easy-to-understand pieces, and builds skills along the way.

Part 1: Setting Up the Story Elements

Whereas some units tackle different sprite’s code step-by-step, this unit starts by working through the elements of a story step-by-step. We begin by discussing character traits - both internal and external. Students are challenged to create their own characters for their story prior to designing them in Scratch using what they learn about traits. 

From here, we explore how to add sprites and use the Scratch editor (pictured below). The Scratch editor contains tools such as paint cans, text boxes, shape creators, and more. When students learn little tricks, such as how to group parts of a sprite together or how to hold the Shift key in order to draw a perfect shape, they are developing skills that work across other programs, as well. Even something as simple as copying and pasting can be applied to many other areas of technology. This unit breaks down these most basic skills, as well as those unique to Scratch to help students customize their sprites to reflect the characters they created.

In Scratch, each sprite has a different costume as well. This means that you can use the same sprite, but add different characteristics to the sprite with each costume. For a person, that might mean different facial expressions. For an object, such as the yellow ball sprite in Scratch, this may mean each costume is a different color. Costumes can be selected using the Looks category, so students can create different versions of their character and use instructions to display those versions at different points of the story.

From here, we move into discussing settings. In Scratch, the settings can be created by designing or choosing different backdrops from the Scratch library. Students can also choose to select a backdrop and then use the editor to add to that backdrop. In this portion of the unit, students are still using ELA vocabulary while learning how to translate these concepts into a program in Scratch.

Because the Scratch library is limited, it is helpful to have students browse the available backdrops before planning their story. This module uses a sample story, but students can create any story of choice. Alternatively, programs like mBlock are similar to Scratch, but have more options for backdrops and may be more helpful when students are choosing backgrounds to accurately display their settings. 

In this unit, the story idea is that the main character - Abby - wants to convince her parents to buy her an iPhone. Her parents explain that if she shows responsibility, this may be an option for her. So, Abby gets a job working for a local taco truck in order to demonstrate her readiness to have her own phone. This sample idea was created knowing the backdrops and sprites available in Scratch, but again, once students learn how to use the editor and the upload tools in Scratch, they have a variety of options for how to create any character or setting.

 Part 2: Coding the Story

Before writing a story, just as all good writers do, we teach our students to pre-write. Creating characters and settings are part of the prewriting process, but writers should also create a story map to ensure all elements are included. This is called the plot, composed of the exposition or introduction, the rising action, the climax, the falling action or denouement, and the resolution or conclusion. It is helpful to remind writers that all fiction stories have some sort of problem and solution. While we do not create a detailed story map in this unit, we do discuss how to write a summary based on the students’ story ideas. Again, this unit incorporates and fuses a large amount of English Language Arts skills into programming. This includes teaching ELA concepts and using the vocabulary associated with fiction stories.

Once our story is mapped out and summarized, students learn how to create character conversations. This involves a combination of say instructions from the Looks category and wait instructions from the Control category. A little bit of math comes into play, as students need to calculate how many seconds for which one character speaks so that the other sprites wait the correct amount of seconds before speaking. The sprites’ conversation bubbles should not appear all at once, but in order of the conversation, as if reading a fiction story.


Because stories have multiple settings or scenes, students also learn how to switch between backdrops in Scratch. There are a variety of ways to do this. One way is to add a sprite - such as an arrow - and combine a when this sprite clicked instruction with a next backdrop instruction. This would require a back arrow that would bring the user to the previous backdrop.

In this unit, we create a single arrow for each scene. Why? This is a bit more of a complicated route, but not an incorrect one. As programs become more advanced, the amount of sprites used and instructions coded increase, making it difficult to stay organized. Learning how to assign an individual arrow to each scene requires students to organize their code, possibly name each arrow sprite (though we do not do so in this unit), and learn how to duplicate code. It is essential to keep track of the various backdrops and settings to make code for these arrow sprites work successfully. So, sometimes the more complicated route is the better learning route for students. Yet it also reinforces the concept that in programming, there are multiple ways to arrive at a solution.

How Do These Concepts Help Students Today?

This unit is a perfect way to answer students when they ask, “When will we use this?” Thinking like a programmer builds skills like problem-solving that will be used regardless of the field students enter. Math, science and programming, though, are often the subjects whose practical uses are easy to identify. It tends to be subjects such as Language Arts which may have a disconnect or prevent students from seeing their purpose.

To successfully complete this unit, students must have a solid understanding of story writing and the elements of a story. While they may not need to know the names of each section of the plot later in their lives, understanding the planning required in the prewriting process can be linked to the importance of mapping out plans for successful completion of a project. Challenging students to add their own touch to the stories they write activates creativity skills that will be needed to effectively solve problems, in whatever career they find themselves.

Many of our units also contain a “Practical Applications” document that highlights various careers students can enter using the skills learned in that particular unit. The skills practiced in this unit can help contribute to a successful career in graphic design, animation, technical writing, developer positions and writing positions.

Why Complete This Program?

The best part of this unit is that it is taught and approached from the perspective of a learner. While some programmers may find simpler routes to writing the same program, or feel as if some concepts are obvious, this unit breaks down the characteristics of Scratch, the characteristics of a story, and the program being written into very small, digestible pieces. Sometimes, what may seem obvious to some are not to others. This program really takes a step-by-step approach so that even our youngest learners and newest coders can be successful.

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