Before we jump into the coding terminology, think back to when you were learning how to drive. Unrelated, seemingly, but stick with me.
The basic instruction on how to operate a vehicle included things like putting the key in the ignition, turning the key to start the car, shifting gears to drive or reverse, accelerating, putting on your blinker, etc.
As a young 15 or 16-year-old, you might have not even known the meaning of words like ignition, gear shifter, or e-break. They were familiar terms that you had heard or read about, but when it came time to use them, you felt rather helpless.
Luckily, the person teaching you to drive could easily help you through. “Stick the key in that hole,” “Grab this knob and pull it towards you or away,” and so on. Meaning, there was a lot of pointing and physical gesturing to help you understand.
Now, think about computer coding for kids, and teaching them how to go about it: Pick a programming language like Java, C++, or Python; open your Integrated Development Environment; write a statement; debug.
Coding not only doesn’t lend itself to someone just physically showing you to “do this” or “do that” but most of the terms that come with it is new terminology, and are words never seen before—or words that have been seen, but now have different meanings.
So, we wanted to define some coding terminology! This is a living, growing list, but already full of useful terms your child will come across at some point in their coding journey.
And an important note—context is everything. Meaning, reading through this list as a single blog post in a vacuum won’t do much good. But, consulting the list once your child has begun their coding journey can be helpful.
Here are some popular coding terms to become familiar with.
An algorithm is a set of instructions that are followed to solve a problem. It's a computer's thought process.
An argument is a way to provide more information to a function. The function can then use that information as it runs, like a variable (For more info on variables, see below.)
Arrays are containers that hold variables; they're used to group together similar variables. You can think of arrays like shelves at a pet store. The array would be the shelf, and the animals in cages are the variables inside.
Arithmetic operators are essential in almost every application, especially in games. If a game character earns experience, it needs to be added to the total earned. If an arrow hits an enemy, the damage the enemy takes needs to be calculated.
Assignment operators (+=, -=, *=, /=) are operators that combine variable assignments (=) with arithmetic operators. They serve as a shortcut when coders have to perform an operation that changes the value of a variable. If a rock falls on a game player's head, health needs to be subtracted from their total, and so on.
Augmented reality (AR) is an interactive experience where digital objects are placed in a real-world environment in real time. While virtual reality creates a completely artificial environment, augmented reality uses the existing real-world environment and overlays new information on top of it. Pokémon Go is a popular example, blending the real world captured through your phone’s camera with virtual characters overlaid on top.
Autonomous robot, self-driving car, and delivery bot are all terms used to describe robots that navigate their environments using sensors with little to no human interaction.
A binary number is a computer's way to represent information. Computers process millions of 1's and 0's a minute using different rules to interpret them as numbers, letters, operators, and everything else put into a computer.
The individual 1's and 0's you see in binary are called bits.
C++ is a low-level yet versatile programming language. Kids who master this language will be able to solve complex problems and understand how programs work.
Related: C++ tutoring for kids and teens
Variables should be named using camel case, meaning the first word of the name is lowercase and each new word after that is capitalized. It's called camel case because when it was originally written as CamelCase, the capital Cs look like the humps on a camel. iPhone, eBay, YouTube, and of course, iD in “iD Tech” are real-world examples of camel casing!
Coding is how people create instructions for computers to follow. Just like people speak different languages, so do programs. For instance, Roblox uses the coding language Lua while Minecraft was built with Java.
A computer program is a group of instructions given to a computer to be processed. These instructions are typically used to solve a problem, or make long problems for humans shorter and easier.
Learn more: What is computer programming?
Conditional statements evaluate to true or false. Use them to print information or move programs forward in different situations.
Else statements are used to do something else when the condition in the if statement isn't true.
For loops allow you to run a block of code repeatedly, just like while loops. However, for loops run a block of code a set number of times. (Remember, while loops run an unknown or unspecified amount of times; more on that below.)
A function is a block of code that can be referenced by name to run the code it contains.
An if statement runs a block of code based on whether or not a condition is true.
Integrated Development Environment
Software such as Visual Studio is known as an Integrated Development Environment (IDE), which is where you type your code and run your programs. Basically, an IDE is software that makes coding simpler.
To start writing code in Java, you can use IntelliJ, an IDE created for writing and running code.
Java is a powerful multi-platform programming language. It's used for many professional and commercial applications, including every Android application and even the Android operating system itself!
Minecraft was completely developed in Java by Markus Persson. Gmail was created in Java because Java has a great performance rate and a good framework for web.
When it comes to Java for kids, they can use Java to make a wide range of games and programs.
Jupyter Notebook is a type of Integrated Development Environment. Jupyter handles Python specifically.
Linux is an open-source operating system designed to run on multiple types of devices, like laptops, phones, tablets, robots, and many others. In fact, the Android operating system is based on Linux!
Loops check a condition and then run a code block. The loop will continue to check and run until a specified condition is reached.
The main function is part of C++ and is called when the program starts.
Machine learning is getting a computer to act without explicitly being programmed to do so. It's an application of artificial intelligence where we give machines access to data and let them use that data to learn for themselves. Learn more about machine learning for kids.
The micro:bit is a small programmable computer more formally known as a microcontroller development board.
Machine learning is all about training an algorithm. In order to train an algorithm, neural networks are needed, which are sets of algorithms that are inspired by biological neural networks. A neural network is the "brain" of the program.
Python is a programming language that’s currently becoming more and more powerful with every new library added to its collection. It handles everything from web development and game design, to machine learning and AI. Python is known for having syntax that's simpler and easier to write than many other languages like Java and C++.
Learn more: Python for kids
Scratch coding is an MIT-developed graphical programming language, where kids can learn drag-and-drop programming basics to create interactive stories and comics.
Learn more: What is block-based coding?
In programming, a series of scripts, or sets of steps, are written for a computer to follow. Computers process the steps line-by-line from top to bottom. Each step is created by writing a statement.
Get started: Roblox scripting & Lua coding
Sprites are computer graphics that you can move via code; a 2D player that walks is an animated sprite. For kids, Scratch sprites provide a fun intro to coding.
The way you tell a computer to perform an action is by giving it instructions or writing statements to explain a desired action. Again, it’s similar to writing sentences in English, but with words, numbers, and punctuation added depending on the programming language.
TensorFlow is a library developed by Google to facilitate the creation and training of machine learning models and neural networks.
Training is the process of feeding huge amounts of data into an algorithm so the algorithm can adjust and improve, as if it's learning.
A variable is a container that holds a single number, word, or other information that you can use throughout a program. A variable is like a chest you can fill with different values. You name the chests so you can find them later. Variables have three parts: type, name, and value.
Once a variable is declared, a variable type is specified. Basic variable types include: string (words and phrases), char (short for “character;” a single letter or symbol you can type), int (short for “integer;” for whole numbers), double or float (for decimal numbers), and bool (short for “boolean;” for true or false values).
While loops are set up just like if statements. They check for a condition and run the code in them until the condition is no longer true. A while loop will run forever (until the condition is false).