How to Teach the Periodic Table of Elements Successfully

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The secret to teaching different students to understand the Periodic Table is to match the teaching methods with their Multiple Intelligence strengths.  Gardner's Multiple Intelligences theory can be a great help in teaching Science in general and the Periodic Table in particular.  Basically Gardner theorised that there were eight basic types of intelligence:  verbal-linguistic, logical- mathematical, body-kinesthetic, visual-spacial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, musical and naturalistic.  For more information on Gardner's Multiple Intelligence theory go to .

Normal teaching techniques are verbal and logical and so only reach some of the students.  All of us have all types of these intelligences but some are stronger than others. The periodic table appeals to the logical- mathematical oriented brain but can be difficult for others to comprehend.  Using techniques associated with Gardner's classification, it is possible to find new and creative ways to help students understand this essential key to chemistry.

To appeal to the primarily  Visual students and enforce the learning of the others, start with some coloring in activities.  Elements are grouped in columns, not rows, and it can be helpful to color in the columns to help group similar elements.  Try starting with the Noble gases in the far right column.  While students are coloring that column, explain the nature of the Inert gases; how their outer electron orbits are filled and therefore these elements do not combine with other elements.  At the same time, ask questions to find out what the students already know.  Monologues by teachers are easy to ignore but give and take dialogues where students can show what they know are more interesting and they give feedback to the teacher about the knowledge levels of the students.

The next steps are to color in the +1 and +2 donor columns and the -1 and -2 acceptor columns, while explaining what a donor is and what an acceptor is and why putting the two together will make a molecule where both atoms complete their outer shells.  This is a good time to put more visual clues out in the form of full colored drawings on the board for them to copy.    Art is a very creative way to help explain the periodic table and drawing elements to show their electron configurations is one way to do this.

Another creative way of teaching is to attack the problem from a bodily-kinesthetic angle.  Think about riding a bike.  No matter how someone explains it to you, you cannot ride the bike until your body masters the skills.  Once the body knows, it never forgets.  Bike riding is something you can do for the rest of your life, no matter how long its been since you last did it.  This applies to teaching the periodic table too.  Understanding how atoms work can be explained over and over verbally to some people and they never really get it, but stand them up and get them to act out the parts of the atoms (protons, electrons and neutrons) and then act out chemical reactions between elements, and suddenly the lights will go on and they will understand it at a deep level.  Get two students to make a Hydrogen atom.  One student is the proton and stands in the middle, perhaps holding a card that has a big plus sign on it.  The other student has to orbit the proton as the electron.  Send in four more students to make a Helium atom: one more proton, two neutrons and a second electron.  Then add a proton, an electron and a neutron to make Lithium.  Keep going until the whole class is part of the atom and each step of the way, have them name the atom they have made.

Now go on to making a salt.  Lithium fluoride is good.  Only make the outer electron shell and with each atom, one student can represent the entire nucleus with a sign.  What matters is the electrons in the outer electron shell and how the donor contributes its extra electron while the acceptor fills its outer shell.  Back this up with pictures and formulas on the board and far more students will understand what is happening than by chalk and talk alone.

There are also ways of creatively using musical intelligence to learn.  Let's say you want your students to learn the names of the first twenty elements.  You can do this by making them memorise the words or you can do it by making up a rap song.  Rhythm is the key.  Studies of young learners has shown that when words are presented in a rhythmic way with clapping, they are learned much more quickly than by simple memorisation.  So get the students clapping while they rhythmically read the names:  hy-dro-gen he-li-um lith-i -um.  Then get the students to stand in a circle and play memory games with the chant.  For example the first person says hydrogen, the second says hydrogen, helium, the third person says hydrogen, helium, lithium and so on around the circle.  Have some rewards for the winners and the students will be begging you to play the game again.

Element bingo is another creative way to learn about the periodic table.  It is available on the web at and is a great activity on a Friday afternoon when students are tired of listening to teachers talk and are itching for the weekend to arrive.  Rewards for the winners is another sweetener to this activity.

There are many creative ways of teaching the Periodic Table of Elements and, in fact, any subject to students.  It requires more effort on the part of the teacher, but is well worth it in terms of the understanding and engagement one will see in the class.

More about this author: M E Skeel

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