• Anita Demitroff

7 Simple Ideas for Teaching Materials, Simple Machines, Electricity (and Other Tricky Topics)

Updated: May 11, 2021

While many of us who teach natural science in Primary feel comfortable with body systems and flora and fauna, we often don’t know how to handle topics that come later in the academic year: forces, electricity, mixtures, matter, simple machines and materials. Add to this the fact that we have to teach these units in English in our CLIL classes, and we have twice as much to think about.

How can we all, teachers and learners, feel more comfortable with these topics?

Here are seven simple ideas to help you.

1. Go from the practical to the theoretical.

What better way to introduce simple machines than by looking at the ones close to hand: see-saws, scissors, doors and nutcrackers? Pictures or videos are better than nothing, but hands-on examples make concepts like materials, forces, simple machines and electricity even more palpable.

For example, it may be a question of using our hands and a cocktail stick to see how the force is stronger nearer the fulcrum. The entire class can try snapping a cocktail stick at the end of our fingers rather than close to our knuckle, as suggested in the book, "Physics for Every Kid".

2. While learners are slowly getting to grips with these concepts, provide them with ample opportunity to work on the competences they need to become accomplished scientists and communicators in general.

Are we really trying to get our Primary learners to put the Archimedes Principle into their own words? As an adult, I can repeat it rote fashion and set up buoyancy experiments, but it's really hard for me to make it mine.

What about our children? For one thing, they may have a gut feeling of what floats and what sinks; they may not be ready to conceptualise it. In the meantime, they can learn how to organise and present a floatation experiment or how to go through the design process in a STEAM project that has them designing boats in tinfoil.

The same can be said of mass and volume. In later Primary, learners can perhaps start to get their head around these confusing concepts by looking at how we can measure ingredients for a recipe. Earlier on in the educational process , make sure there are plenty of opportunities for children to measure: by weighing things on old-fashioned and digital scales, “feeling” differences in weight in their own hands, or estimating and using the measuring tape for length, width and height. To get a sense of volume, get learners to say which container is best for which quantities of objects in a classroom.

If we feel it first, we can learn it later!

3. Think about the trickier science units as a journey of discovery.

When we are insecure as teachers, we want to be as prepared as possible, but there can be moments of uncertainty. In my own classroom, using an energy stick to test our hypotheses about which material was a conductor and which one was an insulator, my wooden spoon kept on behaving like … a conductor! Months later, I discovered that, although the spoon looked dry, it was still damp enough from the dishwasher to conduct electricity.

At the same time, by addressing my pupils' questions, we all discovered that an orange could behave like a conductor. An open mind from us as the teachers and a sense of exploration means that we can all learn more. By the way, my non-native colleagues may be surprised that I apply the same principle in my English classes. The older I get, the more I am willing to admit that I can't give an immediate answer sometimes. I simply tell my class that I will get back to them with an answer.

4. Connect with your colleagues at your school or at neighbouring schools.

Some of us are lucky enough to have Secondary science specialists at hand in our own school. Others have to reach out. My experience is that colleagues are only too happy to help, including retired specialists. It was thanks to an adult English student that I found out why the wooden spoon mentioned in point 3 misled me. Moreover, these kinds of inquiries start a dialogue between colleagues at different stages in the educational systems so that we can all be better informed of where our learners are at and where they are going.

5. Your kitchen is a good starting point.

We often teach a series of unrelated concepts with the practical applications tacked on at the end and only in photo form, when we perhaps could go from a unifying topic to the concepts. Think about it: is this not what we do with project-based learning in English? The concepts get shaken out of whatever theme we are working on.

Think of how many concepts for fourth of Primary can be covered in a project on brownies: different forms of energy from the electricity in our oven to the noise of our timer; mixtures for the batter or a fruit salad to accompany the cake; states of matter as we melt the chocolate or soften the butter; simple machines with our nutcracker or ice cream scoop or volume versus mass when it’s time to measure ingredients. With one recipe, we can cover most of the concepts covered in the last term of natural science.

6. We may think it is the English that is foiling our learners, but it may be the absence of direct experience.

The other day I realised that many in the third of Primary class didn't know what leather, wool, silk and cotton were in any language, let alone the processes that made them. It took three classes with lots of realia to drive certain concepts home.

For more details on these sessions on materials, download this week's free lesson plan.

In the photo above, older students are weaving wool for the first time, an experience they found satisfying. This happened during a Universidade da Coruña/You First summer camp, organised by Marta Foncasta and Alejandro Mauriz.

7. We need to get out of our comfort zones as teachers.

Just as I think we should all do some voluntary sessions in the age group just before the ones we normally teach, we should also venture into our Secondary or Vocational Education colleagues' classrooms to see what they are doing with topics like electricity or forces. Indeed, with greater dialogue, we can make sure that revisited topics get covered with greater complexity and that competences are developed systematically.

Alternatively, ask a family member to teach you how to use a multimeter to see which batteries have run out of charge. When someone comes in to do a household repair, have them explain what they are doing.

Now I know that fan screws are loosened in the opposite direction from others (so that they are tightened when the blades turn) and what the guts of my electric oven looks like.

I am the only one in my family without a scientific bent, but I have learnt to love this field because I share the fascination my learners have when they solve a technical problem or witness a phenomenon in situ.

So my advice as a non-scientist who has managed to grow confident in teaching these trickier areas of the curriculum is that:

  • we find a way to be hands-on, even if it is to bring in realia at the presentation stage, as I did with the third of Primary class on materials;

  • we turn to our colleagues for help. This builds bonds and opens dialogues, a process that can only be of benefit to a school;

  • as we guide our children, we should try to unleash our own sense of wonder. We may often be so worried about how to teach these topics that we cannot see the magic ourselves. By relaxing a little, we will be in a better position to observe these phenomena from a child's perspective and to enjoy the journey alongside them!


By Ana Demitroff

Bio: Ana has been in the classroom longer than she cares to admit, but she still gets a kick from the experience and continues to learn from her colleagues and students at the You First Language Centre.