Syntax Blindness


An interesting post from Khan Academy about Newbie Syntax Blindness got me thinking about teaching syntax.

First let me point out that Khan Academy is dealing with a different situation than face-to-face teaching. Their problem is about finding ways to alert students who are working online with useful messages about what their syntax errors might be.

In a classroom, face to face with students, I do it very differently. I introduce either HTML or CSS syntax in minute detail. I discuss every bracket, space, comma, semi colon, forward slash, and quotation mark they will be using. I show lots of examples. Then when they begin the actual typing, I walk around and help them spot their errors.

I also teach them that when a page falls apart, look in the HTML for a syntax error right before where the problem appears. It will most likely be a missing quotation mark or bracket someone just ahead of where the problem shows us. I find that students invariably pull their hair out over the part of the page they think is broken, but never think about simple syntax errors or typos that may have occurred just prior to that. That usually where the problem is.

Another problem students have with syntax when they first begin hand coding is taking what they see on a whiteboard or a projection screen or a demonstration monitor and translating into finger strokes on their own computer. The details are minute and exacting. The more time they can spend developing some muscle memory around these strange new keys they are using on their keyboards, the better they will do. People who have been keyboarding for years can be thrown into beginner’s mode hunting for curly braces and brackets and slashes and equals signs.

If you are teaching, either face to face or in online classes, how do you teach syntax?

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