The purpose of this activity is to model the observation and writing skills necessary for developing confidence in science and literacy. This activity is also available as part of the Closer Look activity guide (pdf 123kb).

  1. What You Need

    Contact the TeacherResource Center at or 617-973-6590 for materials and information to support this activity. We have thousands of books, activity materials, and educational films for loan to teachers and other educators.

    • Fish poster, live fish, or other animal in tank
    • A poster-size sheet of paper (a Post-it Easel Pad sheet works well)
    • Marker
    • Vocabulary words on small Post-it Notes®
    • Tape
    • Student observation worksheets (see sample)
    • Pencils
    • Prompting questions
    • Optional: colored pencils
  2. What to Do

    • Tell your students: “We are going to imagine that we are at the Aquarium. Pretend that the poster is an exhibit at the Aquarium.”
    • If you are using live fish or other classroom animals, be sure that students all have a good view by putting students in small groups, with their own animal to observe.
    • Mark the poster-size sheet of paper so it resembles the student worksheet (see sample).
    • Post the large worksheet model on the wall and post the vocabulary words nearby.
    • Set up the fish or poster where everyone can see it.
    • Show the students the worksheet and tell them that you need their help to draw the fish.
    • Ask what you should draw first: “What’s the first thing every living thing has to have?” Wait for most, if not all, hands to be raised before calling on a student to speak. You can lead students to refer to aspects of the fish that need to be mentioned for the drawing to work (like the body) or you can work from the parts, trying to keep them more or less in proportion to the drawing space.
    • Continue by asking more questions such as “What tells you that this is a fish?”
    • As you draw what the students suggest, take the appropriate word card and tape it in the correct location (see the fish diagram). If you aren’t using cards, label the parts directly on the fish.
    • Continue until you have drawn the fish.
    • At the Aquarium or with a classroom aquarium, give each student the observation worksheet (you may include vocabulary words on the sheet if you choose) and take a group to one tank. If you are at the Aquarium, it is ideal if you can divide the students among the chaperones and have each group go to a different exhibit. Be sure to prepare the chaperones in advance and give them worksheets so they understand the purpose of the exercise.
    • Ask students to pick out one fish and watch it carefully. They should draw the fish and write down everything they see or wonder about while they watch the fish.
    • Ask the students the prompting questions or other similar questions.
    • Upon returning to school or at the end of the activity, ask students to hang their worksheets around the room. Students should take a turn standing in front of their pictures to say something about what they saw, drew, or wrote. Ask what is special about each fish.
  3. Tips

    • Encourage students to talk about what they have noticed and then get it down on paper – draw and write their observations.
    • In observation lessons, “what,” “when,” “where,” and “how” questions are more useful and more answerable than “why” questions.
    • Avoid questions that prompt one-word yes or no responses.
    • Follow the students’ observations by encouraging them to offer additional features and details.
  4. Options

    • Use this activity with different Aquarium animals (e.g. penguins) or in the classroom with videos, posters, or classroom pets.
    • Invite chaperones to watch you and the students practice the activity in your classroom.
    • Have students create their own fish in its habitat (research, diorama, story).
    • Set up a classroom fish tank and place a labeled poster above it.
    • Create a word wall/poster for students to use writing a story about their fish.
    • Compare and contrast pictures of different fish.
    • For older students add dorsal, caudal, pectoral, pelvic, anal fins and the lateral line as vocabulary.
  5. Fish Vocabulary

    Write each of the following words on index cards. Make two copies of gill slits and eye, and six or more copies of fin depending on the fish. Definitions for most are self-explanatory, but a few have been provided.

    • body
    • gill: fish breathe through gills. Oxygen-rich water enters the mouth, crosses the gills, where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged, and exits the gill slits. Gill covers protect delicate gill filaments.
    • slits
    • mouth
    • eye
    • head
    • scales
    • fin: fins help fish move and provide swimming stability. In most fish, paired fins are used for starting and stopping. Medial fins, like the anal and dorsal fins, act like the keel of a boat enhancing stability. In many species, the caudal fin or tail fin provides most forward movement and controls direction. Of course, there are always exceptions. See if you can spot them.
    • lateral line: the lateral line is a unique sensory system found only in fish. It consists of a series of vibration-sensitive hairs linked to the nervous system, protected within pores that form one or more rows along each side of the fish. It helps a fish avoid obstacles and predators. You can see the lateral line as a faint stripe running along each side of a fish’s body.
    • tail fin
  6. Prompting Questions

    Pick a fish or other animal. What do you notice?
    • Describe the animal’s appearance and the adaptations that set it apart from all other animals. Using your drawing, show me its body.
    • What parts does it have? Show where the ___ goes.What about that___? (indicate another part of the animal.)
    • What shape is it? How do you think that helps the animal?
    • What color is it? Does it have any lines, spots, stripes, or other marks?
    • Is there a mouth? Are there any teeth or eyes?
    • Show how it is/they are shaped.
    Describe its behavior
    • What is it doing? What (evidence) makes you think so?
    • Does it go around or stay in the same place?
    • Where is it spending most of its time?
    • What happens when it meets another animal?
    • How does it move? Write it down.
    • What parts are moving? What do they look like? Which parts move in rhythm?
    • How does it use its tail and other fins?
    • Is it breathing? How can you tell?
    Describe the kind of place it lives — its habitat.
    • What does its home look like? Show me in your picture.
    • Is there anyplace to hide?
    • Is there something to hold onto?
    • Are there any rocks or sand? Are there any things that were made by people?
    • Are there any plants or other living things?
Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks — Life Science

Pre-K-2: Characteristics of Living Things, Living Things and their Environment, Organisms and their Environment, Characteristics of Plants and Animals
Grade 4-5: Adaptations of Living Things
Grade 6-8: Classification of Organisms, Interactions of Living Things within an Ecosystem, English/Language Arts
PreK-2: Language Strand, Literature Strand, Composition Strand