Getting Cryptic: Using Secret Codes to Build Skills

T-f-d-s-f-u-d-p-e-f-t!!  Many will remember the fun of using secret codes to send messages.  Children as young as second grade (or whenever reading and writing skills begin to develop) can enjoy and benefit from this activity.  Codes provide practice with spelling skills, reading skills, and phonics as well as logic and reasoning.  And perhaps even more important, they add elements of intrigue and fun that may motivate your student to learn and practice vital skills.

The simplest codes are created using substitution: “a” becomes “b”, “b” becomes “c” and so on, as in the phrase above.  Another simple code can be created by substituting numbers or symbols for letters.  If you have a personal computer, check your available fonts for symbol sets like Wingdings on most PC’s.  These will print various symbols instead of letters as you type.  These types of codes make it easy to uncover the translation.

Your young child who is learning to read and spell will practice these skills by matching coded symbols, letters or numbers with a key that you provide.  Pig-Latin, Op-Talk and other oral codes build understanding of spelling patterns.  Sign language finger spelling also encourages children to improve their spelling skills.  Your older student will be challenged by trying to decode the message without a key.  He or she will have to use knowledge of the English language

(what letters often go together?  What suffixes or prefixes might be on the words?) and will learn about letter frequency.  Did you know that “e” is the most common letter in English?  “S,” “r,” “m,” “t,” and “n” are other very common letters to try.  You can add a little zing to messages by writing them in code, and help your child practice many academic skills at the same time.

When your student is older and more experienced, you’ll want to provide a greater challenge.  Try a Tic-Tac-Toe code, for example.  Build the encryption key by making three tic-tac-toe boards.  Number them however you wish (one number for each puzzle board).  Now, put the numbers one through nine in the small squares in each board.  Put the letters of the alphabet into the squares as well.  Now you can assign each letter a puzzle board number and a square number, so if you’ve put everything in sequence, the letter A becomes “11” and D becomes 14.  That’s assuming you put the letters A-I in the first grid, working from left to right and top row to bottom.  The J would be coded as 21 because it is in the first box of the second grid.  You can get creative by mixing up the letters when you put them in boxes, or by labeling the grids differently.

There are some amazingly complex codes in existence, as well.  Keys can be made from favorite books, from mathematical sequences or equations and many other things.  Your older student may well enjoy a bit of research into how codes are used in espionage and how codes have been used throughout history.  Who knows, you just may help your student towards a career in cryptography!

7-9-22-5 9-20 1 20-18-25!  9-20’19 6-21-14!

(translation: Give it a try!  It’s fun!)


As always, I’d love to hear from you!  Drop me a note or leave me a comment with questions or suggestions!


Build That Vocabulary

Don’t underestimate the importance of helping children build their vocabularies!  The more words your student knows, the better reading and writing will be.  Vocabulary knowledge supports reading by improving comprehension.  It makes writing faster, more efficient, more specific and more vivid.  Poor vocabulary will lead to a limited understanding of text and to boring, laborious writing.  So how can you help?

  • Read, Read, Read!  The power of reading is amazing.  When students read, their minds almost automatically absorb new words like a sponge.  This is because the meaning of many unfamiliar words can be subconsciously figured out using context clues.  For example, if the text contained “Peter was likely to be late, and apt to forget his supplies as well,”  most readers will automatically equate apt with “likely.”  This is because of the way the sentence is constructed.  There are two parts, and readers know that they are equal in importance because of the conjunction “and.”  The “as well” phrase shows us that the two parts are closely connected.  Our minds almost automatically realize that apt means about the same thing as likely, even if we are unfamiliar with the word.  It’s a marvelous process, but it can only happen if a person reads and reads.
  • Play Word Games.  No matter what your student’s age is, there are word games you can play together.  From Hangman with the very young to commercial games like Scrabble with middle elementary students on up, word games should be a part of your weekly recreation routines in your family.  When you play word games together, you will be teaching your child new words almost every time you play.  You naturally know more words than most children, and you have them closer at hand, so to speak.  You can call them up more readily.  So, when you play, you will think of words that your child is less familiar with and that will open the door to talking about their meanings and usage.  Some people might worry about fairness when competing against a child.  After all, you don’t want to clobber the kid with your score every single time you play!  If you are playing against a young or inexperienced player, remember that you can modify the rules to favor the youngster if you wish.  You can also limit yourself and play words for fewer points than you might otherwise choose.  For example, in the commercial game of Boggle, three letter words are perfectly legal.  However, they are also often common and easy to read and spell, so your child might be trying to make a lot of them.  Try only writing down words with four or five letters and larger.  These have a higher point value anyway, so your scores may end up in the same range.
  • Converse with your child.  It’s amazing, but children today spend little if any time in true conversation with adults.  Part of the problem is the incredible amount of time spent with electronics.  Part of it is the shrinking amounts of time we actually spend interacting with our children due to jobs and other adult commitments, and part of it is that we parents spend a lot of our interaction time correcting, directing or reprimanding the kids.  Be intentional about actually having a give-and-take conversation with your child each and every day.  It takes practice, but talk about their opinions and experiences, tell stories and remember fun things together.  Talk to your child as you would to a friend or adult loved one, with respect and love, and you will naturally help the little one gain access to new words and ideas as well as hone a vital life skill.
  • Create experiences to talk about.  Sometimes life needs a little bit of help!  Take your child places, do new things together, and share experiences.  You can do chores together, visit the park, go to a concert or hit the museum.  Try the zoo, the library, and the store.  The more you see and do with your child (and the earlier the better), the more you will have to talk about in the days, weeks and months to come.

Building vocabulary is not just a school skill!  The kids with the widest vocabularies have support from all parts of their lives, but especially from home.  After all, your child’s teacher only has access to the kid’s mind for six hours a day, nine months of the year.  That leaves a huge amount of time at home or in other situations.  Take advantage of it!  Be intentional about working with words and watch your child’s reading, writing and grades improve!


Don’t forget to leave me a comment or question below!  I’ll get right back to you with a reply and maybe even a post!