What are Vertebrates? Teaching Elementary Students About Vertebrates

By Elizabeth Wistrom

This is the second lesson in a series designed for teaching vertebrates to students in the elementary grades. Here, students will learn what a vertebrate is. In subsequent lessons, students will learn classifications, characteristics and categories.


After teaching vertebrates, you should expect that your students will be able to provide simple definitions for the words vertebrate and invertebrate. Students will also be able to sort animal photos into the appropriate categories of vertebrate or invertebrate. The culminating project will demonstrate mastery of these concepts.

Background Knowledge

0778732770.01. AA240 SCLZZZZZZZ Teaching vertebrates in the elementary grades means answering the most basic question, "What is a vertebrate?" Begin by explaining to your students that almost all animals fall under one of two categories: Vertebrates and Invertebrates. Continue by providing the following basic definitions:

A vertebrate is an animal that has a backbone.

An invertebrate is an animal that does not have a backbone.

You can go on to explain that while the majority of common animals we often see, read about and think of (like dogs, cats, frogs, alligators, birds and fish) are vertebrates, there are actually more invertebrates living on our planet.

To further aide in the discussion, you may wish to consider reading the book What is a Vertebrate? by Bobbie Kalman. Geared for teaching vertebrates to children ages 6 to 10, this nonfiction story gives the reader a unique look at an animal from the inside out. Students will actually be able to distinguish the backbone for each vertebrate shown.

Finally, remember to point out to your students that they are vertebrates, because each one of them has a backbone!

Image courtesy of Amazon.com


To further illustrate the concept, spend some time sorting photos of animals into their appropriate category - vertebrate or invertebrate. For this activity, do not split the students into small groups or pairs. Conduct the sorting as a whole group activity, so that you can be certain the students are correctly labeling the animals vertebrate or invertebrate. Using the chalkboard, marker board or white board, draw two columns. Label one column "Vertebrate" and the other "Invertebrate". Have available photos of various animals falling under each of the categories. Be sure you have examples of animals in each of the following animal groups:


  • Fish
  • Birds
  • Mammals
  • Reptiles
  • Amphibians


  • Sponges
  • Coelenterates (for example, jellyfish)
  • Echinoderms (for example, starfish)
  • Worms
  • Mollusks
  • Arthropods

Work together sorting the animals under the appropriate heading.

When the activity has been completed, point to the column of animals listed as "Vertebrates." Ask students to explain why those animals are all considered vertebrates. Look for responses indicating that the animals have been classified as vertebrates because they have backbones. Repeat the same procedure for the animals shown under the "Invertebrate" heading, and look for responses which indicate that the animals shown there do not have backbones.

Demonstrate Learning

To demonstrate mastery of understanding the physical difference between animals which are vertebrates and animals which are invertebrates, have students work in pairs to sort animals into either the vertebrates or invertebrates categories using preprinted animals card sets.


Extend the Lesson

For fun, let students try this vertebrate word search, or encourage them to make a word search of their own to share with a friend.

Moving On

In the next lesson on teaching vertebrates, we will explore the distinct categories of vertebrates.