Lesson Plans

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The Mighty Elements

Lesson Question:

How can students use the Visual Thesaurus to investigate chemical elements and their properties?

Applicable Grades:


Lesson Overview:

This lesson introduces students to the Periodic Table and to the Visual Thesaurus as reference tools they can use to learn more about the elements and their properties. Groups of students will investigate a small group of elements, determine their common traits, and create original trading cards to represent these elements and their unique properties.

Length of Lesson:

One hour to one hour and a half

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:
  • learn the relationship between matter and the elements
  • share their associations with different elements
  • understand the purpose of the Periodic Table of Elements and its patterns of organization
  • investigate the properties of particular elements
  • synthesize their knowledge of the elements by creating and sharing element trading cards


  • white board
  • computers with Internet access
  • "Elements to Investigate" sheet [click here to download]
  • small index cards
  • colored pencils or markers (enough for each group to use a set)


Recognizing and defining different chemical elements:

  • Distribute the "Elements to Investigate" sheet [click here to download] and give students a few minutes to read through the element names on the sheet, placing small checks next to those elements whose names they recognize. Ask students to write a brief list in their notebooks where they may have encountered those familiar elements in their lives.
  • In a large group discussion, elicit students' notebook entries and list the elements that they recognize on the board, along with examples of where they may have encountered them.
  • Establish that although they may only recognize some of these elements (e.g., the oxygen we breathe, the gold and silver jewelry that we wear, the chlorine we use to cleanse pool water, etc.), they encounter many more of the elements than they are aware of.
  • Explain to students that all matter is composed of elements—either single elements or combinations of elements called compounds.
  • Display the VT word map for element on the white board and point out the definition that extends to "chemical element"—"substances that cannot be separated into simpler substances." And by clicking on this meaning, you can display all the different chemical elements contained in the VT.
  • Click on a particular element in the array of elements to demonstrate how each element is defined. For example, the element silicon is "used as a semiconductor in transistors" and is associated with the atomic number 14 and the symbol "Si." Inform students that every time they use a computer, they are taking advantage of the properties of silicon since computer chips are made of this element.


Introducing the Periodic Table of Elements:

  • Display a Periodic Table on the white board and have students try to find "silicon" on the table by looking for its atomic number 14 or for its symbol "Si." (A great online periodic table can be found at www.chemicool.com or at www.periodictable.com.) Students should recognize that the elements on the Periodic Table are arranged by atomic number.
  • Explain that the Periodic Table of Elements arranges all the elements that have been identified in a pattern that groups elements with similar properties in the same area of the chart.
  • Inform students that they will be using the VT and the Periodic Table to help them investigate some of the more well-known elements, to research their extraordinary properties, and to then personify them as "element super heroes" on trading cards.

Investigating elements:

  • Organize the class into eight small groups (Groups A through H) and assign each group its own set of five elements to investigate --see "Elements to Investigate" sheet [click here to download]
  • Inform groups that their first task is to figure out what their set of five elements has in common. Groups should look each element up on the VT (or on www.chemicool.com) in order to come up with a common trait among their assigned elements.
  • Next, have groups come up with an original title for their set of elements, based on the commonality they find in their investigation. Groups should remember that their ultimate goal will be to represent their elements as "element super heroes" that have extraordinary properties. For example, Group B could be called "The Harrowing Halogens" or Group C could be called "The All Mighty Alkali" (due to their status as Alkali and Alkali Earth Metals). Groups should write their original titles on the "Elements to Investigate" Sheet.

Creating trading cards:

  • Distribute five small index cards to each group and instruct students to create an individual trading card for each of their elements.
  • Each trading card should contain the following information about its element on the lined side of the card: name, two-letter symbol for element, team name, group classification on the periodic table, and description of properties according to the VT or according to another online source.
  • On the unlined side of the index card, students should include the element's name and an image that portrays the element as a "superhero element" with some type of extraordinary property. The image could be directly associated with the element's physical description or it could be based on one of the more common uses of that element.


Presenting the elements:

  • Have each group briefly present its group of elements by summarizing the information they discovered about their elements through the VT and other online sources.
  • Since the trading cards are small, students may wish to pass them around the class during the presentations.
  • While each group is presenting its set of elements, other groups should be taking brief notes on the elements as they are presented.

Extending the Lesson:

  • If time permits, groups could trade their cards with other groups with the goal of creating as many "reactions" as they can, being careful not to jeopardize their current potential for reactions. For example, Group B may wish to acquire hydrogen from Group D to form hydrogen chloride, but Group D may want to keep hydrogen since it forms so many reactions with its other Group D elements (e.g., hydrogen and oxygen react in forming water, hydrogen and nitrogen react in forming ammonia).


  • Each group's title should be assessed to determine if it accurately reflects a commonality among its set of elements.
  • Each group's set of element trading cards should be assessed to determine if they were completed accurately and creatively.

Educational Standards:


Standard 8. Understands the structure and properties of matter  

Level II (Grades 3-5)     

1.  Knows that matter has different states (i.e., solid, liquid, gas) and that each state has distinct physical properties; some common materials such as water can be changed from one state to another by heating or cooling     

2.  Knows that the mass of a material remains constant whether it is together, in parts, or in a different state     

3.  Knows that substances can be classified by their physical and chemical properties (e.g., magnetism, conductivity, density, solubility, boiling and melting points)     

4.  Knows that materials may be composed of parts that are too small to be seen without magnification  

Level III (Grades 6-8)     

1.  Knows that matter is made up of tiny particles called atoms, and different arrangements of atoms into groups compose all substances     

2.  Knows that elements often combine to form compounds (e.g., molecules, crystals)     

3.  Knows that states of matter depend on molecular arrangement and motion (e.g., molecules in solids are packed tightly together and their movement is restricted to vibrations; molecules in liquids are loosely packed and move easily past each other; molecules in gases are quite far apart and move about freely)   

4.  Knows that substances containing only one kind of atom are elements and do not break down by normal laboratory reactions (e.g., heating, exposure to electric current, reaction with acids); over 100 different elements exist     

5.  Knows that many elements can be grouped according to similar properties (e.g., highly reactive metals, less-reactive metals, highly reactive nonmetals, almost completely nonreactive gases)     

8.  Knows that substances react chemically in characteristic ways with other substances to form new substances (compounds) with different characteristic properties  

Level IV (Grades 9-12)     

2.  Understands how elements are arranged in the periodic table, and how this arrangement shows repeating patterns among elements with similar properties (e.g., numbers of protons, neutrons, and electrons; relation between atomic number and atomic mass)

Language Arts

Standard 8. Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes  

Level II (Grades 3-5)     

7.  Makes basic oral presentations to class (e.g., uses subject-related information and vocabulary; includes content appropriate to the audience; relates ideas and observations; incorporates visual aids or props; incorporates several sources of information)  

Level III (Grades 6-8)     

1.  Plays a variety of roles in group discussions (e.g., active listener, discussion leader, facilitator)     

6.  Makes oral presentations to the class (e.g., uses notes and outlines; uses organizational pattern that includes preview, introduction, body, transitions, conclusion; uses a clear point of view; uses evidence and arguments to support opinions; uses visual media)  

Level IV (Grades 9-12)     

5.  Makes formal presentations to the class (e.g., includes definitions for clarity; supports main ideas using anecdotes, examples, statistics, analogies, and other evidence; uses visual aids or technology, such as transparencies, slides, electronic media; cites information sources)

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Comments from our users:

Thursday January 15th 2009, 6:00 PM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
What a great lesson to familiarize the periodic table of elements! When kids are first introduced to TPE, they can either be overwhelmed by the information or fascinated that everything in the world is made up of what they see on the table. I only recently learned that the VT has so much information about the elements and I can see how it can be a helpful tool for teachers and students alike.

I once purchased a massive periodic table of elements that had information on each element and what role it plays in the human body. My students loved it. I also labeled my lab tables by periodic table of elements, so table #1 was Hydrogen, #2 was Helium and so forth. I kind of felt bad for table #5, because Boron rhymes with "moron."

If the students make nice cards, I think it would be a great idea to laminate the cards and use them again for future activities and lessons. For older grades that study whether or not elements can react based on the number of electrons, cis/trans formations, polarity, etc. you can put the cards in a grab bag and have students pull out random elements and figure out if they can react.

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