For students to explore the use of codes and symbols in regards to communication.
Children find various means of communication intriguing (e.g., sign language, road signs, body movements) and at a young age they know that certain shapes, symbols, and colors have special meaning in society. Students at this level should already know that information can be sent and received in many different ways. What they are now starting to understand is that in order for communication to take place, both the sender and the receiver have to recognize and understand the same "code."
By trying to break secret codes with classmates and communicating with each other using Morse Code, students can develop skills in finding patterns and using logic. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy p. 197.) With this lesson, students will begin to recognize more clearly that codes and symbols are used in our everyday lives, and realize how these codes assist in communication and living.
In order for students to experience the difficulty of trying to understand a code that is unfamiliar, they will study a message in code and try to decipher it. Tell students you will give them a piece of paper with a message on it and they have to tell you what the message is. Give students only the "Secret Message" and allow them time to try and decipher it.
Here are a couple cryptogram examples of varying difficulty. If these cryptograms do not meet the specific developmental level of your group, you can use these as examples for creating your own cryptograms.
Secret Message: Hoouwtaordeayy?
Code type: Read every second letter.
How to decipher: Read every second letter starting at the first letter and, when you finish, start again on the letters you missed the first time.
Deciphered Message: How are you today?
Secret Message: Smd ziv bmf gmwzb?
Code type: Reverse the alphabet.
How to decipher: A stands for Z, B stands for Y, C stands for X, and so on. To help solve this code, first write out the alphabet and then write out the alphabet in reverse below it:
Deciphered Message: How are you today?
Secret Message: Woh era uoy yadot?
Code type: Reverse the words.
How to decipher: Read each word backwards.
Deciphered Message: How are you today?
For more examples of secret codes, visit Codes for Scouts and Cubs.
If, after some time, students are unable to decipher the message, provide them with the necessary information to crack the code.
Then ask these questions:
- What was the first thing you tried to do with this message? What kept you from reading it like a sentence?
- What was difficult about cracking the code?
- What were some of the strategies you used to figure out the code?
- Can someone give me an example of a code that is not in written form?
- What are some reasons that codes or symbols are used to communicate?
- What are some examples of codes/symbols we use everyday?
With the cryptograms, students had an opportunity to decode patterned letters. Now students will explore new patterns of communication with Morse Code. Morse Code is exciting for students to learn about and practice because it is a coded form of communication that is actually used by people all over the world. Students often enjoy learning this "real language."
Note: For background information about Morse Code and a table of Morse Code letters and numbers, go to Morse Code, on TerraX.org.
It is first important to find out what your students currently know about Morse Code. Have a good morning message written in Morse Code on the board to greet students at the beginning of the day. Tell students that you have written them a morning message with the symbols they see on the board. Spend some time talking about the symbols they see.
Ask questions such as:
- Has anyone seen these kinds of symbols before? Where?
- What do you think they are used for?
- How could we sound out these symbols using our hands and our desktops?
Help students focus on how these patterns are logically organized by asking questions like:
- Do you see any dots and dashes used together more than once?
- Do you see this pattern anywhere else?
By describing students’ observations with words like “symbol” and “pattern,” you will encourage students to recognize patterns of communication. From this idea, they can more easily understand that it is logically patterned symbols that create codes. If both the receiver and sender know the patterns, they can understand the code and communicate with each other. With the morning message example, the sender (you) knows the code, but the receivers (students) do not. Discuss how they will be able to read your message once they have learned the code.
After your group discussion, students will be primed for exploring the Morse Code page on TerraX.org. This site offers a wealth of information about Morse Code that may be helpful for you as a teaching resource. Although this lesson focuses only on a couple of ideas offered on the site, you may find additional ideas that are helpful. Be sure to implement all of the activity ideas according to the level and interests of your particular group of students.
Have students begin by going to How to Build a Morse Code Buzzer. If you are able to build this buzzer with your students, it would be a wonderful group science project. If this is not feasible for your situation, perhaps you can build a buzzer to bring into the classroom. If you are not able to build a buzzer at all, you can use a toy that squeaks or flashlights to communicate with Morse Code.
Now that students have built their buzzer (or you have collected a number of flashlights or squeaky toys), students are ready to play a Morse Code game. At this time, you can give students a copy of the Morse Code Translation Tables (adapted from the website used in this lesson). Students can refer to this handout for the translations.
Go to Messages for Morse Code Game. Here you will find an activity that challenges students to translate a message, sentence by sentence, until it creates a whole story. If you have chosen to use the Morse Code Buzzer as well as flashlights, as described on the website, students will practice with both visual and audio forms of Morse Code.
To help students think about what they have been practicing with Morse Code, you can ask:
- What was difficult about communicating with Morse Code?
- Did anything make it easier to use Morse Code?
- How is Morse Code like other codes you know about? How is it different?
- How would you describe the structure of the code to someone else?
- Can you think of times in your life when Morse Code would have been helpful?
- Has there ever been a time in your life when it was difficult to communicate with someone because you knew different codes?
Help students think about different kinds of codes of communication they encounter in their every day lives by asking questions such as:
- Can you think of any codes that are used in school? (If they need help getting started, you can ask them about the school bell ringing.)
- Can you think of different kinds of codes (written, audio, physical gestures, etc.)?
- How are these codes helpful at school?
- How do codes relate to people communicating?
- What would happen without codes?
Have students create a code of communication that can be used in school, at home, in the community, with friends, or on sports teams. Students can use various forms of code (e.g. written symbols, hand gestures or other physical codes, verbal tones, or claps.) Once developed, have students explain how the code is useful and necessary.
Also, before the day is through, ask students if they can now read your morning message!
Kids can go to the America's CryptoKids site, from the National Security Agency to try to make their own codes or break some of the agency's codes.