Classify That!

What You Need


  • A plant and living animal (even a human!) available for group classification exercises
Classify That! Photo credit: Clipart.com


To expand students’ knowledge of living organisms and further develop their ability to group, or classify, living organisms according to a variety of common features. To introduce students to scientific groupings of organisms.


In earlier grades, students learned that plants and animals are alike in some ways and different in others, and that they have features that help them survive in their environments. Students learned to group organisms in different ways—by anatomy, behavior, habitat, and the like. In grades 6–8, it is important for students to move toward understanding the established classification systems, and in particular, the rationale biologists have used to establish them. It is important for students to describe the vast diversity and relationships between organisms and to pursue useful research questions.

In this lesson, students will get acquainted with diverse forms of life by using modern biological classification systems to group animals that are related. Students will learn about basic scientific groupings like genus, species, mammals, fish, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. The website used in this lesson will allow them to pair different vertebrate animals and learn more about their common traits. By doing this, students will begin to classify organisms in a more sophisticated way.

Planning Ahead

Note: If your classroom doesn’t allow all students to be online at once, print out and duplicate pertinent pages of the Classifying Critters website.


Begin the lesson by warming students up with a review that will illustrate useful groupings of plants, animals, and non-living objects. Ask students to volunteer objects (such as a pen, a book, a coat) for scientific observation. Then add living objects such as plants or animals to the collection. Line up the objects on a table or in one area of the room. Now ask the students to observe the group.

Ask students questions such as:

  • How many different ways can you find to group or pair these elements?
  • Which elements are non-living objects?
  • Which are living organisms?
  • What features determine whether something is alive or not?

After the discussion, expand the activity by asking students to choose a living organism from the original group and then group it with two other living organisms in the classroom.

Ask students:

  • What features did you use to group the organisms?
  • What might be the purposes of these features?


Direct students to the first page of the Classifying Critters website.

Read the first two paragraphs aloud and ask students why scientists group plants and animals (to help them understand and study the world's vast array of living things).

To help students get a general understanding of this classification system, explain that scientists have grouped millions of plants and animals into just six large "kingdoms." These are Animal, Plant, Fungus (like mushrooms), Protist (like algae), Archaea (microorganisms), and Bacteria. The members of these kingdoms share similar traits, like cell structure, food procurement, movement, and reproduction. Each kingdom has smaller and smaller groups that are determined by more specific shared traits. For example, point out that their classroom could be said to be on earth, in the United States, in your state, your town, on your street, on your floor, on your side of the hall, etc.

Now ask students to reread the information about animal groupings in the second paragraph. Prompt them to explain the relationships between species, genus, and family. Explain that the Classifying Critters website will help them study a particular group of animals—vertebrates, or animals with backbones (which includes them!).

Guide students through the site’s five “challenges.” Ask students to write down the information about genus and species found on the site’s opening page and to note common traits found in each vertebrate animal.

After completing the challenges, ask students questions such as:

  • Can a bird be an animal and a vertebrate?
  • How can a dog be related to a cat?
  • Why would scientists find this way of grouping vertebrates useful?
  • Can scientists use what they've learned to establish relationships between other vertebrates?
  • Why do you think scientists would be more interested in the details of internal and external structures than the behavior or general appearance of a vertebrate?


Remind students that living things can be grouped in many ways according to various characteristics. Scientists have created groups within groups to show relationships among the multitude of living organisms.

To illustrate how these scientific classifications relate, have students complete the Classify That! student sheet. This sheet includes a simple concept map to help students understand the hierarchical relationships between each of the scientific groupings they have learned about.

Have students fill out the map, using their notes from the website and class discussion. You may have to review and expand on the terms, but keep it simple—the focus should not be on the definitions, but rather on the order of terms and their general relationships. In addition to writing the terms in the circles, you could have students describe the relationship between the terms on the arrows connecting the circles.

To learn more about concept maps in general, see The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How To Construct Them, an article written by Joseph D. Novak of Cornell University. The use of concept maps as a teaching strategy was first developed by Dr. Novak in the early 1980’s.

There are several resources on the Internet that describe the use of concept maps (and other graphic organizers) in the K-12 classroom. Graphic Organizers is one of those resources, and includes links to a few others at the bottom of the page.


Have students use this site to observe undersea environments filled with animals, plants, and other diverse life forms. Fabio's Scuba Diver Picture Gallery captures the colorful variety of life hidden beneath the ocean and even includes their scientific names. Students can watch a slide show of many amazing (and rare) creatures they've probably never seen before. Encourage them to group these creatures.

Encourage students to make a bird feeder. This will provide a great way for them to observe the diversity of bird life in their own backyard environments. Students can use their journals to draw and record the diverse traits they observe as birds come to feed. It's a "win-win" situation!

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards State Standards