Learning About Fossils Through Hands-On Science and Literacy

An effective unit on fossils involves developing concepts in a logical and sequential manner. Students should first understand what a fossil is, the differences between fossils and other natural objects, and that not all plants and animals become fossilized. Next, students learn about the various types of fossils and model the process of fossilization. Finally, students can model the excavation process and use fossils to make inferences about past environments.

Our featured lessons integrate science and literacy through the activities themselves and through lesson extensions. These lessons have been designed for upper-elementary students, but can be easily modified to include primary students as well.

We’ve subdivided the lessons into four categories: What is a fossil? How do fossils form? How do people find fossils? and What can we learn from fossils?

The categories and lessons are listed in a sequential order. Although each lesson is written as an independent entity, taking one lesson out of the larger sequence may lessen the impact on student learning. Therefore, we recommend using as many lessons as possible in the suggested order.

Though not explicitly addressed in all lessons, children’s literature is a perfect complement to the hands-on activities featured here. Use our suggested titles (see the Virtual Bookshelf column) or your own favorites to start the unit, or intersperse them throughout.

For each science lesson, we’ve included the appropriate National Science Education Standards. You can read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free PDF. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.


What is a fossil?

Fossilization and Adaptation: Activities in Paleontology (Grades 2-5; modify for K-1)
This page includes several different activities. Activity II, the fossilization game, asks students to take on roles as a variety of different organisms in environments. At various points during the activity, the teacher “freezes” time and has students draw cards to determine if they become fossils or not. The activity helps students understand that not all organisms become fossilized. This lesson meets the National Science Education Standards Content Standard A: Science as Inquiry and Content Standard D: Earth and Space Science.

Literacy Integration:

After playing the fossilization game, students could write a story describing what happened to their organisms and whether or not they became a fossil. Stories could be assessed with a rubric like this one from RubiStar. This meets NCTE/IRA English Language Arts standards: 4, 5, 6, 7, 12.

Suggested modifications for grades K-1:

Use the cards and information provided to create a story beforehand and read it to students. Students could illustrate events to create a class book.

Identify and Compare Fossils (Grades 3-5; modify for K-2)
In this lesson plan, students examine a variety of items and classify them as a “fossil” or “not a fossil.” This lesson meets the National Science Education Standards Content Standard A: Science as Inquiry and Content Standard D: Earth and Space Science.

Literacy Integration:
Students could select one of the fossils from the activity and draw or describe it in their science notebook or journal. These descriptions could be assessed with a rubric like this one from RubiStar. This meets NCTE/IRA English Language Arts standards: 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 12.

Suggested modifications for grades K-2:
Complete the activity as a class. A teacher or volunteer could record students’ descriptions if needed.


How do fossils form?

Fossil Formation Fun (Grades 3-5; modify for K-2)
The activities in this lesson will help students compare and understand the three types of fossils: preserved organisms, mineral replacement fossils, and impression fossils. A related lesson, Simulating Fossil Formations, includes trace and cast and mold fossils. It also provides directions for using gelatin and gummy candies to simulate preserved organisms. You could also download our directions (pdf documents) for making impression and mold and cast fossils. Combining the activities in the two lessons makes for a more complete set of activities. This lesson meets the National Science Education Standards Content Standard A: Science as Inquiry and Content Standard D: Earth and Space Science.

Literacy Integration:

  • Students are asked to draw and describe fossils and to explain fossilization in several of the hands-on activities. These journal entries could be assessed with a rubric or checklist.
  • In the lesson, students read and retell the expository lesson in pairs. An included retell form may be used to assess comprehension.
  • This meets NCTE/IRA English Language Arts standards: 4, 5, 6, 7, 12.

Suggested modifications for grades K-2:

  • Complete the survey orally or as a class.
  • Use a scribe to record student observations as needed.
  • Use the fossil simulations as whole-class demonstrations, center activities, or in small groups with an aide or volunteer.
  • Substitute an appropriate trade book (see our Virtual Bookshelf for suggested titles) in place of the expository article.

Examining Your Fossil (Grades 3-5; modify for grades K-2)
With a hand lens, students will look at the fossils they made previously and come up with conclusions about the fossils. They will record what they see and draw conclusions about the environment of the fossil. This lesson meets the National Science Education Standards Content Standard A: Science as Inquiry and Content Standard D: Earth and Space Science.

Literacy Integration:

  • Students answer questions and make observations in their science notebook or journal. Observations can be assessed with a rubric like this one from RubiStar.
  • A lesson extension involves writing a fictional story about a fossil chosen by the student. The story involves the use of content vocabulary and the elements of stories (beginning, middle, and end). Stories could be assessed with a rubric like this one from RubiStar.

Suggested modifications for grades K-2:
Interview students about their fossil after students examine it.
A teacher or scribe could record student responses from the oral interview.

To support students in the transition from drawing to writing, use Drawing a Story: Stepping from Pictures to Writing, a lesson from ReadWriteThink. This lesson meets NCTE/IRA English Language Arts standards: 4, 5, 6, 7, 12.

Fossil Footsteps (Grades 3-5; modify for grades K-2)
After studying photos of dinosaur tracks, students will create their own tracks using clay. In addition, students will compose a story about the dinosaur or other animal that created the tracks. A related lesson, Dinosaur Tracks, involves student observation and analysis of a diagram of tracks. It could be used as a follow-up activity or assessment.

Literacy Integration:
Students work cooperatively with a small group to create a story about their tracks. Stories can be assessed with a rubric like this one from RubiStar.

Suggested modifications for grades K-2:
Complete the activity as a class. Write one collective story and display it in the classroom.
After writing a story as a class, have each student illustrate one page. Give each student a copy of the finished work.

To support students in the transition from drawing to writing, use Drawing a Story: Stepping from Pictures to Writing, a lesson from ReadWriteThink. This lesson meets the National Science Education Standards Content Standard A: Science as Inquiry and Content Standard D: Earth and Space Science. This lesson meets NCTE/IRA English Language Arts standards: 4, 5, 6, 7, 12.


How do people find fossils?

The two lessons described in this section are written for students in grades 1-5. Students in kindergarten could model excavation with a stream table, kiddie pool, or individual bar cookies or cupcakes. For these young students, the focus should be on exploration and the fact that scientists dig up fossils carefully.

Paleo Cookie Dig (Grades 1-3; can be used with grades 4-5)
Students simulate a paleontology/archaeology excavation using bar cookies. Students are introduced to the grid system used in excavations and create a bar graph to represent their findings. This lesson meets the National Science Education Standards Content Standard A: Science as Inquiry and Content Standard D: Earth and Space Science.

Literacy Integration:

  • Students could compare and contrast their quadrant with that of a partner.
  • Students could use procedural writing to describe the excavation process. Procedural writing can be assessed with a rubric like this one from RubiStar.
  • This lesson NCTE/IRA English Language Arts standards: 4, 5, 6, 7, 12.

Layer-Cake Earth (Grades 3-5; can be modified for K-2)
(free for NSTA members, $0.99 for nonmembers)
This article, from the National Science Teachers Association’s magazine Science and Children, explains how to use a layer cake to create a hands-on activity in which students take core samples, locate fossils, and investigate concepts relating to geologic sampling. This lesson meets the National Science Education Standards Content Standard A: Science as Inquiry and Content Standard D: Earth and Space Science.

Literacy Integration:
The article includes extension questions which can be answered in science notebooks or journals. Students can also draw their group’s core sample, label, and describe their findings. Descriptions and drawings can be assessed with a rubric. This meets NCTE/IRA English Language Arts standards: 4, 5, 6, 7, 12.

Suggested modifications for grades 1-2:
Cupcakes would allow for individual participation.
Modify the core description so students draw and describe their sample.


What can we learn from fossils?

The two lessons described in this section are designed for students in grades 3-5. Teachers of grades K-2 can use class discussions during other activities to support students in understanding that fossils can help scientists understand what the world was like long ago.

Fossil Inferences (Grades 3-5)
Students will use their knowledge about fossils to arrange fossil pictures in sequence from oldest to youngest.

Literacy Integration:
This lesson relies heavily on the idea of sequencing. Teachers could integrate this activity with a study of procedural writing and words that indicate order (first, second, next). Students could practice using these words to describe the order of the fossils orally or in writing. Procedural writing can be assessed with a rubric like this one from RubiStar.

This lesson meets the National Science Education Standards Content Standard A: Science as Inquiry and Content Standard D: Earth and Space Science. This lesson meets NCTE/IRA English Language Arts standards: 4, 5, 6, 7, 12.

Fossils (Grades 3-5)
Students will act as paleontologists and attempt to figure out the environment where various fossils would have existed. This lesson meets the National Science Education Standards Content Standard A: Science as Inquiry and Content Standard D: Earth and Space Science.

Literacy Integration:

  • This lesson relies heavily on students’ ability to make inferences. Teachers could integrate this activity with reading lessons that focus on drawing inferences from text. Students can record their inferences and evidence using a graphic organizer or in a science notebook or journal.
  • Lesson extensions involve writing a poem about fossils or a newspaper story about the discovery of a fossil and its environment. These could be assessed with rubrics for poetry or a newspaper story, like these from RubiStar.
  • This meets NCTE/IRA English Language Arts standards: 4, 5, 6, 7, 12.

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Jessica at beyondpenguins@msteacher.org .

Copyright April 2008 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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