Lesson 3: ASCII and Binary Representation



In this lesson students learn to use their first binary system for encoding information, the ASCII system for representing letters and other characters. At the beginning of the lesson the teacher introduces the fact that computers must represent information using either "on" or "off". Then students are introduced to the ASCII system for representing text using binary symbols. Students practice using this system before encoding their own message using ASCII. At the end of the lesson a debrief conversation helps synthesize the key learning objectives of the activity.


This lesson is an opportunity to make some real world connections from the previous lesson and review some of the concepts students saw in that activity. Students are formally introduced to the concept of binary, learn what a bit of information is, and get practice using a binary system. Students review the fact that patterns of bits can be used to represent information and consider why having patterns that are all the same length (in this case 7 bits) makes it easier to use a system.


Warm Up (5 mins)

Activity (40 mins)

Wrap Up (10 mins)

View on Code Studio


Students will be able to:

  • Define a binary system as one that uses just two possible states to represent information
  • Define a bit as a single piece of binary information
  • Use the ASCII system to encode and decode text information in binary



Heads Up! Please make a copy of any documents you plan to share with students.

For the Teacher

For the Students


  • ASCII - American Standard Code for Information Interchange; the universally recognized raw text format that any computer can understand
  • Binary - A way of representing information using only two options.
  • Bit - A contraction of "Binary Digit"; the single unit of information in a computer, typically represented as a 0 or 1

Teaching Guide

Warm Up (5 mins)

Review Binary Cards Activity

Teaching Tip

Jump to the Activity: This introductory comment is important to justify the patterns students will see on the activity guide. Otherwise, however, most of the discussion in this lesson can happen after the activity.


Modern computers are electronic devices filled with lots of tiny wires. These wires carry electricity, and at any moment a wire can be on (high voltage), or off (low voltage). In fact all the information you've ever used on a computer like documents, videos, and pictures, eventually need to be translated down into these "on" and "off" signals. This is a really big challenge and it's one we're going to explore for the next few lessons.

Activity (40 mins)


Group: Place students in pairs

Distribute: ASCII - Activity Guide to each pair of students

ASCII Text Activity Guide

Content Corner

Why Not Split the Symbols: When sending information down a wire with electricity, there's no way to put a "space" between signals. At any moment you're either sending electricity or you're not. This is the primary reason why characters are an agreed-upon length, in this case 7 bits long.

Why Binary?: As a class read this section

Vocabulary: Review the definition of the terms.

  • Binary: a way of representing information using only two options
  • ASCII: a popular system for representing text in binary

ASCII: Review the ASCII table. Inform students that ASCII is the system that likely every computer they've ever used uses to represent letters. Today they're going to get some practice using this system.

Challenges: Have students decode the three messages.

Make Your Own: Have students design their own simple binary system by designing what the "On" symbol and the "Off" symbol will be. Then have them write their messages using ASCII, trade with a partner, and decode. If there's time have students exchange with multiple groups.

Wrap Up (10 mins)

Discussion Goal

Goal: 0 and 1 is just another binary pair that can be used to mean on-off. Students have seen many binary pairs in this lesson that can be used for the ASCII encoding system. Going forward, however they'll use 1 and 0. Since all information in a computer must become on-off signals in a wire, we say all information is 0s and 1s.

Share: What symbols did you use for your binary system? Have the class share their ideas.

Content Corner

Ignore Numbers for Now: The ASCII system as presented here is just a system for representing characters with patterns of bits. In reality there is an intermediate step in which the binary number system is used to represent each letter. If this comes up acknowledge there's lots of extra information to know about that system but stick to that definition.

On-Off Symbol: Students may have seen this on-off icon before. It's just a 0 and a 1 combined!

Research: If you have more time head online, e.g. to the Wikipedia page for ASCII and have students examine what other symbols are included in the ASCII system. Are they surprised by anything they see there? Are there symbols they hadn't thought they'd need to represent?

Prompt: Why do you think that we sometimes hear people say computer science is "0's and 1's"? Does it need to be 0's and 1's?

Discuss: Have students individually develop responses, then share in small groups, then with the whole group.

Vocabulary: Introduce the vocabulary of

  • Bit: a single piece of binary information


We saw bits of information represented in many ways today like dogs/cats or apples/bananas. These are all equally valid ways of representing Ons and Offs. Going forward we'll use 1's and 0's, but this just means On and Off.

Standards Alignment

View full course alignment

CSTA K-12 Computer Science Standards (2017)

DA - Data & Analysis
  • 2-DA-07 - Represent data using multiple encoding schemes.