Classifying Animals

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The SWBAT state the identifying characteristics of the 5 groups of vertebrates.

Big Idea

Scientists group animals by their characteristics.

Teacher Notes

Activity Description

The teacher will pose the question of how scientists classify or group animals.  Then working with a partner, the students will make observations about animal photos to help them decide their identifying characteristics.  They will then watch a presentation about classifying animals.  With their new-found knowledge, the children will again work with a partner to identify animals and write their identifying characteristics.  They will create pages about the characteristics of each animal group for their interactive science journals.

NGSS/Common Core Connections

At the end of this unit, the children must compare the plants and animals that live in different habitats.  In order to make sense of this task and have a common ground for comparison, the children need to know how animals are classified.  It develops the cross-cutting concepts of using patterns and order when making observations about the natural world.


photos for animal classification 2 sizes-- each partner group will need their own set.  I have included two different sizes of photos for your convenience (see reflection for my reasoning).  So for my class of 20 students, I would run off 10 of each page.  Then cut them apart making sure you keep the sets (one of each page) together.  I mark the backs of each set with a pencil.  So I would mark a "1" on the backs of each photo of one set, and then a "2" on another get the idea.  This will help keep things from getting too crazy.  Then I place each set in its own envelope (see photo).

6-7 index cards per partner group--You can put these right in the envelopes from above

Animal Classification Pockets 1 informational card and one pocket (for each animal group) for each student; These pockets can be used in an interactive science notebook or just on construction paper.

My Clock Buddies-- 1 per child (click for explanation and instructions)


10 minutes

I have noticed in my teaching that the children have difficulty with animal classifications.  The second grade students took a field trip to my house this year, and when we discovered an animal, they were not able to tell if it was an insect or a bird, amphibian or reptile, etc.  I was a bit taken back by the fact they didn't know this, so I decided to teach a lesson on animal classifications.  As part of the NGSS standard, the children need to compare plant and animal life of different habitats.  To help them make sense of this task, and the world in general, it is helpful for them to know the classifications.  It will aide in our discussions later, where we compare the types of animals found in this habitat, since we will have a common knowledge base and vocabulary.  

To assess their prior knowledge, I use a circle map.  This also helps connect their prior knowledge to what we are about to learn about animal classifications, which creates a bridge for learning.  Click here for short video on circle maps and here for an explanation.  I have them draw two concentric circles in their science journals and follow the directions as stated above.  In the middle circle, I have them write "animal classification."  

To begin this lesson I ask the children some guiding questions. 

How scientists classify animals?  What do they look for? How can they group animals together?  I would like you to think about the answers to those questions and write what you know about how scientists classify animals in the outer circle.

I get them thinking about the process that a scientists might use. I want them to be thinking about the characteristics of animals.  Some children will know the names of the proper classifications, but some will not.  Most do not know what characteristics define each animal group.  At this point I am assessing what they know and what they need to learn.

After about 5 minutes I move on to the "frame of reference" rectangle.  

Now I would like you to draw a rectangle around the outer circle.  In the rectangle space I would like you to write down how you know about the information in the circle.  Did someone teach it to you?  Did you read it in a book?  Did you experience it in some way?

This really gets them thinking about their evidence in a simplistic, relative way.  Click to see student sample A and B.


25 minutes

Then I tell the students that they are going to work like scientists today.  They will be working in a group with their My Clock Buddies.  I have them take out their sheet and check who their 12:00 partner.  Then I have them move to an area to be by their partner.

You will be working with a partner today.  You need to treat your partner with respect.  If you need some reminders, look at our Being Respectful anchor chart and Good Listeners anchor chart--see link.  Remember how wonderful your conversations are when you use our Partner Power sheets?  Let's see if you can use them when you are talking with your partner today.

Our Partner Power sheets were a game changer! (See Sticky Situation lesson for information). I started using them in this lesson and have found them invaluable.  Their conversations have drastically changed for the better.

Next I pass out an envelope with photos for animal classification and 6-7 index cards to each group.  

I would like you and your partner to open your envelope.  Take out the photos and look carefully at each one.  Thinking like a biologist, I would like you and your partner to group animals together that are like each other in some way.  After you have grouped your animals, write the characteristics that show how they are alike on the index cards.  You should have one index card for each of your groups.  You should try to think of at least 2 ways they are alike and write them on the card.  For example, I might say that these two animals are alike since they both live in water and have scales (I hold up two fish photos).

I don't want to offer too much guidance at this point.  I want them to make the discoveries on their own.  I used the fish example since it is an obvious answer.  I use the photos since they offer a glimpse into the real world of animals, not just cute pictures.

When I am walking around the room, I am looking for the children to place groups of animals together by looking at their common characteristics.  The should be making these comparisons between the different animals species.  I ask questions such as what patterns do you see?  Why did you group these animals together?  What do they have in common.

This activity really made the children think deeply.  I loved how they were making discoveries!  Here is a partner group that was getting the idea of what this was all about. This partner group had each of their photos sorted and then wrote two common characteristics on each index card.  I love how they explain their thinking.


15 minutes

I get the students' attention and discuss their findings and how they categorized animals.

I noticed you were great observers.  What are some of the ways you grouped your animals together?

We listen to their interesting ideas.  I am trying to see if they are making the connection that scientists do group animals together by common attributes, even if it is not the "true" way they are categorized.  

Today you were working on classifying the animals into different categories.  Lots of things in our world are classified.  For example, take a look at our school library.  When you go to the libary to find a book, you can easily do so because the books that are similiar are classified and placed in a section together.  Can you imagine if the books were just placed randomly in the library?  It would take you forever to find the specific book you were looking for!  Organization or grouping by similarities is called classifying.  The books in the library are grouped by subject and type.  You can classify items in all kinds of ways--size, shape, purpose, color and so on.  Scientists use this skill to organize information and objects. Scientists group or classify animals by characteristics that they all have in common.  Let's take a look at the presentation How Do Scientists Classify Animals? This presentation will give us more information on how scientists group animals. 

The children watch the presentation as I narrate.  We take a look at the questions on the last slide an answer them together.

Then just since it is so fun, adorable and yet educational, we watch and sing this song on amphibians.  It is so addicting to listen to, my kids requested to listen to it again.  Plus it really does help since reptile and amphibians are the two categories that cause the most confusion.  Your kiddos are going to love this catchy tune!


20 minutes

To give the students an opportunity to practice their new knowledge, I have them practice by viewing photos in the power point presentation to see if they can list the identifying characteristics of each animal group.  As they view this presentation, they will need to work with the same partner they were working with earlier.  With this partner they will be filling in the information on a slide-out card that will go inside of a pocket (see Animal Classification Pockets).

For example, if in the slide presentation they are viewing a photo of a frog, they discuss with their partner what classification a frog would be in (amphibian).  Then they find the slide out information card that says "amphibian" at the top and write the identifying characteristics of amphibians on it next to each box--such as moist skin, lives on land and water, hatch from eggs, and cold-blooded (see slide-out card samples).


15 minutes

As a assessment of their knowledge,  they draw pictures of at least 3 animals in each of the animal groups on the outside of the pockets with the coordinating label.  

For example, if they are working on the "amphibian" pocket, they might choose to draw a picture of a frog, toad, salamander and maybe even a cute little water dog on the outside of the pocket.

Then they repeat the process with all five animal classifications.  Then they glue down the pocket by placing glue on the back of the pocket where indicated and place it right on their journal page.  If you are not making a journal, you could just paste these down on construction paper.  Let dry for about 5 minutes.  Then have them place the information card in the matching pocket.

To assess, I check to see that they have drawn 3 animals in the correct classification and that they have an information card with the correct identifying characteristics on it (see student sample).

To celebrate their great thinking you might want to replay the amphibian song.  I promise, you'll be singing it in the shower!