Learning How to Send Messages in Code

Learning about the use of secret codes can help students practice important skills.

By Jacqueline Dwyer


Learning How to Send Messsages in Code



Children love to communicate with one another in a secret language that others cannot understand. Allowing students to pass secret messages back and forth is a great way to have them practice language arts skills, team work, and higher-order thinking skills. It can also boost the confidence level of tactile learners and children who have difficulty communicating face-to-face. Teachers do not have to spend a lot of money, or be interested in international espionage, to have students send coded messages to one another. Here are a few simple methods to get students working with codes.

Picture-Letter Code

One of the simplest ways to create coded messages is to set up a system in which you use a picture to represent each letter of the alphabet. This is a great way for students to practice fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.  

  • Have students write the alphabet at the top of a page.
  • Under each letter have students draw a simple shape.
  • Then have students decide what they would like to say. 
  • Further down the page, have students carefully copy the shapes to represent the letters in each word. Remind them to leave a space between each set of shapes, just as they would for words in a sentence.
  • When they are done, ask them to exchange papers with a friend. It is fun for students to figure out each other's messages.

If a student cannot draw the shapes for whatever reason, have the student use stamps, pictures, or stickers instead. Dollar stores are great places to find cheap stickers. Just make sure you have multiple copies of each sticker.


Conducting a Letter Swap

Another coding activity that is fun for older children is a letter swap. This activity may seem complicated at first, but it is actually very simple. First, ask students to write a sentence. Then tell them to replace the first letter of each word with a different letter. For example, the sentence THE CAT SAT ON THE MAT would read XHE JAT QAT KN YHE LAT. Once students are familiar with how this coding system works, ask them to write instructions describing how to do something, like bake a cake or ride a bike. Finally, have students exchange papers with a friend. Now see if they can decode the message and follow the instructions!



Using Braille to Send Messages

An activity that works well with tactile learners involves using the Braille system. Each letter in Braille consists of a group of up to five dots arranged in a different pattern. While most people don't have Braille dots to use for this coding activity, you can easily make your own. First, make a copy of the Braille alphabet, which is available online. Then you can either distribute handouts of the Braille alphabet to your students, or you can write it on the board. Next, have students use peel-and-stick raised fabric dots or googly eyes to make and send their own Braille messages to one another.



Back-to-Front Codes

Children naturally read from left to right, so a back-to-front coding activity really tests their ability to perform mental gymnastics. Tell your students to write the words in a sentence backwards and change the word order, so that the last word in the sentence goes first. For example, JOHN WENT TO THE STORE would appear as EROTS EHT OT TNEW NHOJ. It’s not as easy as it looks. Sometimes it helps to have the words written the correct way at the beginning of the activity (they can always be erased later). If you want to further increase the level of difficulty, ask your students to erase the vowels! What follows are more ways to have your students send secret messages to each other using codes.


Secret Codes Lesson Plans:


Patterns of Communication

Students examine the use of Morse Code. They build their own Morse Code buzzer to send messages.

Create Your Own Coded Language

Students learn how cryptology is used in their everyday lives. They also create their own coded messages and make a dictionary of eponyms.

Cartouche Codes

Students learn about Egyptian hieroglyphics. They sculpt their name in code on a cartouche.

Shh...It's a Secret!

Students learn how to decipher codes. They then create their own codes using letters, symbols, and numbers.