Writing in Secret Code Motivates Reluctant Writers

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Writing in secret codes or ciphers feels dangerous, even rebellious, to kids. As a result, it gets them writing. Even reluctant writers. (Especially if mom and dad don’t know how to break their code. Mahahaha.)

Learning About Secret Codes and Ciphers

1. Introduce ciphers. Have kids make their own reverse alphabet cipher (letters replacing letters) out of recycled cereal boxes and construction paper. A = Z, B = Y, C = X. I used these directions on the Crayola website to make the code breaker.

2. Give kids simple three letter words to decipher. Words like “fun.”

3. Ask kids to write the word “book” in the cipher.

4. Pair up and write each other notes in cipher. (I wrote everyone extra notes about books I thought they would like.)

5. Then, we wrote codes (numbers for letters) and changed partners.

6. Now, encourage kids to make up their own secret code using symbols to replace letters.

It’s nice to have a copier handy so you can make extra copies of their codes to give to their partners. One parent emailed me the next day and said her two boys spent the entire afternoon and evening writing in code. And still were going strong the next day!


code – for each letter of the alphabet, you substitute a number

decipher – breaking the code back into normal words

encrypt – writing a message in code

cipher / cryptogram– for each letter of the alphabet, you substitute another letter

writing in secret code 2

Motivate with Extensions

Learn more secret codes on Education.com, a Cub Scouts website or the Youth Online Club website.

Learn Morse Code.

Learn Pig Latin.

Learn about Hieroglyphic Codes.

Learn American Sign Language.

Go to the National Security Agency’s Crypto Kids website.

Buy a wooden decoder from Etsy.

Learn more or solve the brainteasers.

Learn about code breakers throughout history.

Write with invisible ink.

NonFiction Book Recommendations

Can You Crack the Code?
by Ella Schwartz

Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing
by Martin Gardner

spy science
Spy Science: 40 Secret-Sleuthing, Code-Cracking 
Spy-Catching Activities for Kids

mysterious messages
Mysterious Messages: A History of Codes and Ciphers

Fiction Book Recommendations

Jewel Fish of Karnak
The Jewel Fish of Karnak

39 clues
39 Clues

Chasing Vermeer
Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett

Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

Explorer Academy
by Trudi Trueit

teach kids to write in secret code

Also Read:

Sticker Stories 
Writing Gifts for Kids
Greek Mythology
Minecraft Books
Monster Books

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  1. Our daughter has been enthralled by codes and ciphers for a long while. Something mysterious, something to figure out, something she can make herself. A nice collection of links and ideas here.

  2. This post and Pragmatic Mom’s response have captured my heart! What a powerful connection to the concept of ‘code!’ It is critical that the real experiences of the Dine people of the Navajo Nation, and other American Indian nations and communities are addressed in history classes starting in elementary.
    And… Language is so deep, isn’t it? Both the ‘code’ aspect and the way languages reflect a people’s worldview are amazing aspects of literacy learning–and intriguing to kids– and they are not often addressed in classrooms. Indigenous languages are complex and deep and it would be beneficial to older students to have the opportunity to explore this as well.
    Recently, in American education in general, we have emphasized the code aspect of literacy and this post adds playfulness to that. Fluent readers and writers will have a blast and also strengthen their flexibility with use of symbols and with letter formation. Another cool experience would be to explore syllabic writing systems of this country such as the Cree language.

  3. An advanced picture book to tie in creating code for say, a kids’ book club, would be The Unbreakable Code by Sara Hoagland Hunter. It’s about the true story of the Navajo American Code Talkers of WWII, truly unsung heroes of the war. The Japanese were able to break every code the Americans created so they knew every battle plan. That is, until the Navajos were recruited to make up a code. Their language was so complex that the Japanese never learned it though they knew other Native American languages. Ironically, the Navajos were forced to boarding schools to purge them of their ethnic identity and punished for speaking their language prior to WWII.

    The Navajo Code Talkers were often on the front line, reporting on battle conditions and sending messages back and forth.

    For YA readers, Native American author Joseph Bruchac wrote Code Talkers, also an amazing book about this same story.

    It’s sad that we don’t cover this is U.S. history. This was classified information for so long. But the Navajos were true heroes!