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The elements: element analyser interactive Capability: Interpret representations NoS achievement aims: Communicating in science Contextual strands: Material world Level : 5

L2552, Scootle

You will also need a copy of the periodic table of the elements

This resource provides an opportunity for students to strengthen their capability to make sense of representations in the context of science.

Curriculum Aims and AOs

NZC LINKS: The Nature of Science strand


Achievement objectives relevant to this resource

Communicating in Science

Develop knowledge of the vocabulary, numeric and symbol systems, and conventions of science and use this knowledge to communicate about their own and other’s ideas.


Use a wider range of science vocabulary, symbols, and conventions.

NZC LINKS: Material World


Achievement objectives relevant to this resource

The structure of matter

Interpret their observations in terms of the particles (atoms, molecules, ions, and sub-atomic particles), structures, and interactions present.


Describe the structure of the atoms of different elements.

Learning focus

Students explore the way scientists have used symbol systems and the patterns these form on the periodic table to represent the properties of elements.

Learning activity

This simple interactive Scootle resource uses a “chemical analysis tool” to reveal the properties of six elements. Students use the properties of these elements to sort each one according to relevant categories. The elements are then positioned on the periodic table according to this categorisation.

Adapting the resource

This adaptation reinforces the idea that scientists systematically built the periodic table around the patterns they discovered when the properties of various elements were still being established as “cutting edge” chemistry. These patterns then allowed scientists to predict the properties of as yet undiscovered elements. The adaptation develops students’ understandings about how symbol systems were devised to code key patterns and display these on the periodic table.  

Allow students to complete the Scootle interactive model. Ask:

  1. What happens when they put each of the six elements onto the table? [They go into a certain place setting.]
  2. Can they make them go somewhere different? Why or why not? [The model has been built to assign each element to its correct place.]
    • What do the different colours represent? [Metals, non-metals, metalloids, reactive gases and unreactive gases.]
    • What do they notice about the way these colours are distributed around the table? Again ask if this could be changed – why or why not?

Give students a copy of a more detailed periodic table or get them to look at one on-line.

  1. If colour and position each stand as a symbol for something about an element, how many other symbols can they find? [Atomic number; mass number; vertical columns; horizontal rows, one or two letter identifier – K, Sn etc.]
  2. What is each of these a symbol for?

Ask them to pick an element they know nothing about.

  1. Using the symbols for this element, have them build a description of what they think it might be like. [You could use the properties from the interactive as a basic starting point.]
  2. Have them justify their descriptions based on what the symbols convey.
  3. Ask them to check on-line to see how many properties they correctly predicted.

Conclude by discussing the whole table as a symbol system – multiple symbols that are organised to add meaning both collectively and individually. 

What’s important here?

Developing an appreciation that the periodic table is a “shorthand” way of representing years of careful systematic research into the nature and atomic structure of all the elements is a pivotal insight in chemistry.  However, complex symbol systems that are familiar to anyone with a science background can be easy to take for granted. For students they can be mystifying or obtuse unless carefully unpacked. This exercise does that unpacking by making clear just how many symbols are packed into this one table, and that their nature and positioning is both deliberate and full of meaning. The final part of the activity is designed to demonstrate that once you can “crack the code”, a symbol system can be a very useful knowledge tool.   

Scientists represent their ideas in a variety of ways, including models, graphs, charts, diagrams and written texts. Understanding and using the literacy practices of science supports students to think in new ways.

What are we looking for?

Can students recognise the different symbols and what each one contributes to the overall symbol system we call the periodic table?

Do students recognise that each place on the periodic table represents a unique set of properties that is specific to just one element?

Can they “read” the symbol system to build correct or near-correct descriptions of unfamiliar elements?

Opportunities to learn at different curriculum levels

For suggestions about adapting tasks in ways that allow students to show progress in gathering and interpreting data see  Progressions .

Exploring further

The Linnaean classification system is a quite different but equally pivotal symbol system. In this case Latin names stand as symbols that shorthand what is known about evolutionary relationships between living things. It could be interesting to compare this symbol system with the periodic table. Whereas ongoing discoveries have consolidated the latter by filling in gaps, some quite extensive revisions have been made to the Linnaean system as new methods of biological investigation (e.g., comparative DNA analysis) have overturned previous understandings of actual evolutionary relationships.  

Other resources for this capability

Watch Me! (L1) Ready to Read series 2009, Guided Reading level: yellow

Seeds (L1 & 2) Connected 1, 1999

Light and Colour: Our Vision of the World (L1 & 2) Building Science Concepts, Booklet 10

Standing Up: Skeletons and Frameworks (L1 & 2) Building Science Concepts, Booklet 51

An Interview with a Glass of Water (L3 & 4) Connected 2, 2002

Ferns (L3 & 4) Connected 3, 2002

Why Does It Always Rain on Me? (L3 & 4) Connected, Level 3, 2012

Spring is a Season: How Living Things Respond to Seasonal Changes (L3 & 4) Building Science Concepts, Booklet 44

The Air around Us: Exploring the Substance We Live in (L4) Building Science Concepts, Booklet 30

Catch My Drift (L4 & 5) Connected, Level 4, 2012

Bioaccumulation interactive (L5) Science Learning Hub

Garden Bird Survey: Participants’ Stories (L5) Landcare Research webpage

The Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale (L5) GNS Science webpage

Key words

atomic theory, symbol system