Beacon Lesson Plan Library

Cells, Building Blocks of Life

Sandi King
Bay District Schools


What is the basic unit of all living things? Through reading and hands-on activities, students learn about cells, and their function in carrying out processes for life. Study skills are taught and modeled as students make entries in science notebooks.


The student understands explicit and implicit ideas and information in fourth-grade or higher texts (for example, knowing main idea or essential message, connecting important ideas with corresponding details, making inferences about information, distinguishing between significant and minor details, knowing chronological order of events).

The student reads and organizes information (for example, in outlines, timelines, graphic organizers) throughout a single source for a variety of purposes (for example, discovering models for own writing, making a report, conducting interviews, taking a test, performing a task).

The student writes notes, comments, and observations that reflect comprehension of fourth grade or higher level content and experiences from a variety of media.

The student knows that living things are composed of cells.

The student knows that processes needed for life are carried out by the cells.


-Microscopes (one per group of 5 students)
-Onion skin (one piece per group of 5 students)
-Construction paper for covers of the science notebook for student writings (one 9 x 11 sheet per student)
-20 sheets of notebook paper per student
-Overhead projector
-Transparency of the graphic Kinds of Cells As Seen Through a Microscope from the associated files
-Copies and transparency of the article, Building Blocks of Life from the associated files (one copy per student plus the demonstration transparency)
-Transparency of the model outlines from the associated files
-Formative Assessment Checklist from the unit plan's associated files (see Extensions section for a link to the unit)


1. Locate one microscope per group of 5 students.
2. Collect onion skin, one piece per group of 5 students. Make a slide of the onion skin (the thinnest skin that is between layers of onion). If slides cannot be made, locate commercial slides that show cells. Various leaf slides and butterfly wing slides are two possibilities. The purpose in the slide is to show cells, so any slide you can make or obtain that serves this purpose is appropriate. Onion skin is suggested because the cells are easily seen, sometimes even through a magnifying glass. If this is successful with your expertise and equipment, a magnifying glass is perfectly acceptable in place of a microscope.
3. Download, print, and make a transparency of the graphic Kinds of Cells As Seen Through a Microscope from the associated files.
4. Select construction paper, one 9 x 18 sheet per student. Fold in half for the cover of the science notebook for student writings.
5. Locate an overhead projector.
6. Download, print, and duplicate the articles, Building Blocks of Life and Our Amazing Cells, from the associated files for each student. One transparency must also be made of each article.
7. Download, print, and make a transparency of the model outlines from the associated files.
8. Download and print the Formative Assessment Checklist from the unit's associated files. (see Extensions section for a link to the unit)


This lesson plan is to be used on day 2 of the unit, The Inside Story - Cells, Organs, and Systems of the Human Body. This is lesson plan one of twelve included in the unit.

Since this is the first lesson plan, it can be done independently of the others.

This lesson plan contains reading, writing, and science integration.

Administer the Diagnostic Assessment available from the unit's associated files. See Extensions for the link to the unit. If this lesson is being taught independently from the unit, the diagnostic assessment need not be given.


1. Invite students to view the onion skin through the microscopes. Have one microscope per group of five or less students. Each member of the group views the onion skin and then the group makes a guess of what it is they are viewing. They may be able to smell the onion thus guessing onion, but the answer to what they are viewing is “cells." This introductory activity allows for an inquiry of just what is a cell, what are they made of, and how do they function, as students progress through this lesson. If problems arise with preparing the onion skin, a commercially processed slide can be used in place of the onion skin one. Many of the slides of animal and plant parts have cells that are visible. Various leaves and butterfly wings are examples that have visible cells using a microscope. The use of the microscopes should draw students' interest into the following activities.

Reading/ Science–

2. As a reading activity, students silently read the article, “Building Blocks of Life” from the associated file. Before reading, alert students that they are reading for a purpose. The purpose is to discover the main idea of the article and to find at least three supporting facts for this main idea.

* Pass out individual copies of the article, Building Blocks of Life, and display a large projection of the article using the overhead. Allow about five minutes for students to read the article.

* After students complete the reading, ask a variety of questions concerning the content of the article. Be sure to ask about the main idea and supporting facts as well as explicit and implicit information (see associated file for possible questions) gathered from the article.

* Oral formative feedback should be given in response to the student’s answers to your questions as you mark the Formative Assessment Checklist from the unit plan file. Since students are being individually formatively assessed even though they are in a group setting, marking the Formative Assessment Checklist will enable the teacher to know which students are learning and which need further assistance.

* Be sure to give corrective and affirmative feedback. Corrective feedback might include responses such as, “No, the cells are not all alike. What did the paragraph say about differences in cells?” Affirmative feedback might include responses such as, ”Right! Different kinds of cells have different shapes. A red blood cell doesn’t look like a muscle cell.”

3. Display the transparency, Kinds of Cells As Seen Through a Microscope. Discuss the attributes of the various kinds of cells. Be sure to elicit thoughts about the sizes, closeness to each other, and shapes of the cells. It is important for students to understand that the circle the cell is displayed in on this handout represents the view through a microscope. Cells are the shape seen inside the microscope circle.

Writing –

4. Discuss the fact that some of the information from the article was hard to remember. Students may have had to keep looking back at the article for information. Ask students what they think they could do to help them remember what information was in the article without having to keep rereading it. Elicit the response that they could have written down the important information. Model reading the article and taking notes. Your notes should show the main idea and at least three supporting details. The notes need not be in sentence form. See the associated file for an example of this note-taking procedure.

5. Now that you have modeled taking notes, discuss with the students that the notes would be easier to understand if they were organized. One way to organize notes is to put them in outline form. See “Outline Teacher Information” from the associated file. Using the overhead, guide student through making an outline of the information from the article, Building Blocks of Life. A sample is available for you from the associated files.

*Outlining points to stress are: (1) Outlines go from broad information to specific details. (2) We are writing topic outlines. Only words or phrases are written; no complete sentences. Write only enough to force you to remember the point. (3) Never write a single item. For every 1. there is a 2. or more. For every A. there is a B. or more. (It may be helpful to make a chart of these rules to be on permanent display.)

6. Now that you have discussed and modeled note taking and outline writing, students are ready to practice these new skills.

* Have students make their science notebooks that they will be using each day while learning about the human body. Be sure that students understand that these notebooks will have two purposes. First, the science notebook is a study guide for the student to use when getting ready for an assessment. Second, they also are a way to learn and practice the study skills of note taking and outlining.

* These science notebooks should be about twenty pieces of notebook paper stapled inside a folded piece of construction paper. Students' names should be written in the top left corner of the science notebook cover. The title “The Inside Story” should be written in the center of the cover. No illustrations or further writing should be on the covers at this time. Have students number the pages front and back in the upper right corner. Have students write “Table of Contents” as the heading for this first page. Page two is the back of the table of contents and should be left blank at this time. Page three is the first page for the student’s notes, outlines, and illustrations. Title this page “Cells." Return to the table of contents page and add “Cells – page 3."

7. Using the models and procedures of outlining that you have demonstrated, guide students through their first outline writing. Use the overhead to construct a new outline using the information gathered from the same article. This outline will be very similar to the first, but will be used to guide students as they write rather than just copying your original. Doing this procedure twice allows for teaching then modeling while students are watching and listening then writing along. As you are constructing this outline, students are constructing their outlines in their science notebooks.

* Be sure to stress finding the main ideas, supporting facts, and details as you write the outline. These aspects will be assessed in Summative #1.

* Encourage interaction with the students as students explain what to write and the reasons to write it in this style. For instance, students should state that “Different shapes” is a fact and should be listed beside 1. Under it are listed A. round – red blood, B. jagged – nerves, C. long and smooth – muscles, etc. because they are details supporting the fact. Talk and demonstrate this entire first outline entry students are writing in their notebooks.

8. Now that the outline is complete, demonstrate, using the overhead, how to write a paragraph about the new science knowledge learned today. Your model should follow the Florida Writes models of main idea, facts, and supporting details. The paragraph should contain notes about factual information, as well as comments and observations about what has been learned through today’s activities. Students are then directed to write a paragraph of notes, comments, and observations on the pages of their science notebooks with the outlines. Students may need to turn the pages over and write the paragraphs on the back of the outlines. This paragraph is the student’s opportunity to share comments and observations of the microscope activity, the information given in the article, Building Blocks of Life, the graphic of the kinds of cells, or anything else about cells that the student chooses to share. It is like a review of the day’s activities from the student’s point of view. This paragraph writing is an opportunity to incorporate Florida Writes skills with this unit. (See sample in associated file.)

9. The final daily entry in the science notebook is to draw an illustration of the day’s information. Using the Kinds of Cells as Seen Through a Microscope transparency as a model for the illustration, students should draw and label each kind of cell. This is to be a pencil drawing with each kind of cell labeled. It is important to do the paragraph writing before the illustration since students may use excessive time on the illustration and not keep their focus on the modeling of the writing. Doing the writing first helps students remain focused.

10. Pass out the rubric for Summative Assessments 2 and 3, Information Managers. Inform students that this rubric will be used twice during this unit, after they have had many opportunities to practice, to assess their science notebooks Read and discuss each item on the rubric. Demonstrate self-assessment using the rubric and the models used in steps 6 – 8 above. Model how to make any changes needed to keep the rubric score in the “excellent” range. This rubric is available from the unit plan. A link to the unit plan is available in the Extensions section of this lesson.

11. Student’s copy of the rubric should be glued inside the back cover of science notebook where it will be easily available for daily reference.

12. This procedure of reading in the content area, having a science content activity, and making the three types of entries in the science notebook (outline, paragraph, and illustration) will be followed each day for the next ten days as students learn about the various organs, systems, and functions of the human body.

13. Science notebooks will be collected daily. Formative assessments of the outline, writing, and illustration (graphic organizer) are administered each day with written feedback in the science notebook. The criteria from the rubric is used to assess the entries and to generate feedback. Remember to give both specific affirmative, "Great form for your outline. You indented correctly." and corrective, "You have the right details, but you forgot to number and indent." feedback. Mark the Formative Assessment Checklist.


1. The unit diagnostic assessment is available from the unit's associated files. See the extension section of this lesson plan for a link. If you are using this as a stand-alone lesson and not part of the unit plan, disregard the diagnostic assessment information.

2. Formative assessments are integrated in this lesson plan and are described in activity #2. Examples of affirmative and corrective oral feedback are given in the procedures section of this lesson plan. A Formative Assessment Checklist is available from the unit associated files. The purpose of the checklist is to document individual formative assessments and student abilities. The checklist is then used as a guide for assisting individual students.

3. Formatively assess the science notebooks using the rubric criteria. This criteria should also generate affirmative and corrective feedback which is written in the notebook. Be sure to mark the checklist for future reference.


1. The Beacon Unit Plan associated with this lesson can be viewed by clicking on the link located at the top of this page or by using the following URL: Once you select the unit’s link, scroll to the bottom of the unit plan page to find the section, “Associated Files.” This section contains links to the Unit Plan Overview, Diagnostic and Summative Assessments, and other associated files (if any).
2. The paragraphs can be read orally to assist students with reading problems.
3. Students can put the science notebooks together before the start of the unit.

Web Links

This is an additional resource for teachers and advanced students.
Cells Alive

Attached Files

Reading text and associated materials     File Extension: pdf

Writing materials     File Extension: pdf

Graphics and associated materials     File Extension: pdf

Return to the Beacon Lesson Plan Library.