Science and Literacy Lessons About Mammals

In the elementary grades, students often study individual mammal species (polar bears) or families of related mammals (cats, dogs). According to the Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS, 1993):

By the end of the second grade, students should know that

  • Some animals and plants are alike in the way they look and the things they do, and others are very different from one another.
  • Plants and animals have features that help them live in different environments.
  • Stories sometimes give plants and animals attributes they really do not have.

By the end of the fifth grade, students should know that

  • A great variety of kinds of living things can be sorted into groups in many ways using various features to decide which things belong to which group.
  • Features used for grouping depend on the purpose of the grouping.

These benchmarks suggest that at the elementary level, teachers should focus on characteristics and adaptations of organisms and how these attributes enhance an organism’s survival in a particular environment. Students should have the opportunity to group animals and mammals according to a variety of criteria. Teachers can use these sorting activities to introduce characteristic traits of mammals (as well as other classes such as birds and fish). For more information about students’ ability to classify and sort animals, please see “Common Misconceptions About Mammals.”

We’ve highlighted lessons and activities that fall into three categories: Mammals, Diversity and Adaptations, and Polar Mammals. For each category of lessons, we’ve suggested a literacy integration: alphabet books, question-and-answer books, and pairing fiction and nonfiction to enhance comprehension. This month’s Virtual Bookshelf and Feature Story provide additional resources for literacy integration.

The science lessons in this article meet the Life Science Content Standard of the 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.


Mammals

These three lessons introduce students to the mammal class, its defining traits, and representative species.

What’s a Mammal? (Grades K-5)
Students learn about the class of mammals and how mammals differ from other animals. Students also learn about different types of mammals. This lesson plan includes discussion questions, ideas for assessment, and lesson extensions.

Mammals (Grades K-2)
Students learn the characteristics of mammals and use pictures, books, and web sites to identify mammals.

Mammal Oral Reports (Grades 3-5)
Students research a mammal, create and present a report, and self-evaluate using a rubric.

Integrate literacy skills into lessons about mammals with the following lessons:

A-Z: Learning About the Alphabet Book Genre (Grades K-2)
Students learn about the characteristics of alphabet books and create their own books on any topic. This lesson could be easily modified to focus on mammals. This lesson meets the following NCTE/IRA Standards: 1, 8, 12

Writing ABC Books to Enhance Reading Comprehension (Grades 3-5)
Instead of using fiction as suggested in the lesson, use nonfiction text and science lessons to help students learn about mammals and create their own alphabet books. This lesson meets the following NCTE/IRA Standards: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 11, 12.


Diversity and Adaptations

These six lessons focus on the adaptations that enhance animals’ survival in their particular habitats.

Animal Diversity (Grades K-2)
This lesson exposes children to a wide range of animals and guides them through observation of animal similarities, differences, and environmental adaptations. Modify this lesson to focus specifically on polar mammals.

Animal Adaptations (Grades 3-5)
In this lesson, students will participate in classroom discussions and visit a web site to learn more about animals and how well (or poorly) they’ve adapted to satisfying their needs in their natural habitats. Modify this lesson to focus specifically on polar mammals.

Rubber Blubber Gloves (Grades K-5)
Students model the layer of blubber that helps insulate polar mammals.

Slowing the Flow (Grades 3-5)
Students learn about the mammalian diving reflex, which helps mammals survive in cold water.

Specialized Structures & Environments (Grades 3-5)
Students learn how organisms use their special structures for a survival advantage in a particular environment. Modify this lesson to specifically focus on polar mammals.

Variations for Survival (Grades 3-5)
Students compare two organisms and describe how the physical characteristics of each provide it with a survival advantage in the environment in which it lives.

To integrate literacy skills into these lessons, try the following:

Creating Question and Answer Books through Guided Research (Grades K-2)
Students generate questions, gather information, and create a collaborative class book. Students could investigate polar mammals and their adaptations. This lesson meets the following NCTE/IRA Standards: 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 11, 12.

Question and Answer Books – From Genre Study to Report Writing (Grades 3-5)
This lesson looks at question-and-answer books as a genre study. The lesson is a springboard to research activities that can help students learn to present information in an organized and interesting way. This lesson meets the following NCTE/IRA Standards: 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 11, 12.


Polar Mammals

These lessons focus on mammals found within the polar regions.

Arctic Animals (Grades K-3)

Arctic Animals (Grades 4-8)
These two teacher’s guides from the Sea World Education Department include interdisciplinary lessons about the Arctic region and the animals that live there. Note: Not all animals included in this unit are mammals.

Seals, Sea Lions, and Walruses (Grades K-3)

Seals, Sea Lions, and Walruses (Grades 4-8)
These two teacher’s guides from the Sea World Education Department include interdisciplinary lessons about the three types of pinnipeds.

Whales (Grades K-3)

Whales (Grades 4-8)
These two teacher’s guides from the Sea World Education Department include interdisciplinary lessons about whales.

Beluga Whales in the Ice (Grades K-2)
This lesson asks students to think about how beluga whales survive in icy Arctic and subarctic waters and why they sometimes need to migrate.

Caribou Migration (Grades K-2)
This lesson introduces students to caribou and their migratory behavior.

How Do Leopard Seals Hunt? (Grades 3-5)
Students learn about the hunting behaviors of animals in general and leopard seals in particular.

Polar Bears: Keeping Warm at the Arctic (Grades K-5)
Students learn about the polar bear’s body coverings and how the coverings help the bear survive in the Arctic climate. While the lesson is written for fourth grade science, the activity can be modified for students in Grades K-3.

Polar Bears and Their Adaptations (Grades K-5)
Students explore how a polar bear’s body adapts to survive in the harsh environment in which it lives. While the lesson is written for fourth grade science, the activity can be modified for students in Grades K-3.

Incorporate literacy into lessons about polar mammals with the following lessons:

Animal Study: From Fiction to Facts (Grades K-2)
This lesson describes how to use selected fiction and nonfiction and careful questioning techniques to help students identify factual information about animals. The lesson can be adapted to focus on any animal of interest. This lesson meets the following NCTE/IRA Standards: 1, 3, 6, 7, 8.

Blending Fiction and Nonfiction to Improve Comprehension and Writing Skills (Grades 3-5)
This lesson supports the use of a text set (paired fiction and nonfiction texts on a similar topic) to increase student interest in and understanding of content area material and to develop critical writing skills. This lesson meets the following NCTE/IRA Standards: 1, 3, 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 January 2009 – 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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