Secret Codes and Math Expressions

Making expressions fun is....well....difficult to say the least.  I mean, to *ME* it is fun (I know, I know...I also loved Logic in college) but the kids aren't so convinced of its redeeming qualities.  So to spice things up during a unit on Communication, I had the kids create "secret codes" using expressions.

The students wrote each letter of the alphabet vertically on a piece of paper.  They then created expressions containing at least one set of parentheses and two different operations (I did this while teaching 4th grade, so that was the 5th I would probably add negative numbers or decimals into the mix).  It looked a bit like this:

A   (5 x 2) - 4
B   2(4 + 3)
C   15 - (2 x 3)

The students then solved each expression to make sure the answer was unique (no two letters could have the same end product).  This part is VERY challenging for the students.  It actually took them two days.  The process of thinking of problems, and then making sure they had unique values, really got their 4th grade brains moving!  Once all of the expressions were created, they did not reveal the expression answers on the final draft.  Those were turned in to me.  Their cipher key just had the letters and expressions.

The next step was to write a sentence that had to do with communication (since that was our Language Arts theme...I like to connect things).  The sentences needed to be at least 7 words long, but could convey any message within the theme.  They then drew the blank lines for each letter in the word, and put the number of the final expression answer underneath.  So it looked like this:

_____   _____    ______   ______   ______
  14          6             12            75           32

Finally, they created a finalized draft of the secret code, with the cipher key above it, and viola, there were 30 codes to be solved!

Once they were all created (and checked for validity by me) I made the board interactive by placing index cards right next to the codes.  During Math Workshop, students could go to the board, grab an index card, and begin to solve the expressions to decipher the code.  (they put their answers into the box that is stapled onto the board under the detective)  A LOT of math that the kids really never got bored of!


  1. Yet another amazing idea that I plan to use in my classroom! Thank you!! :)

  2. I love this idea! My kids would totally love it as an enrichment option! Thanks so much for sharing!
    To The Square Inch

  3. You are so full of amazing ideas! Thanks for sharing another great one.


    Fun in Room 4B

  4. Wow! I love this idea. I also appreciate the fact that their sentences could connect to other curriculum areas.

  5. Do you have a closer picture of some of the student samples? I want to get a better idea of what the final draft looked like. I'm looking forward to trying out this project. =)


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