How to Use the 5E's for Comprehension of Ecological Succession | Science in the City

Nov 14, 2016

How to Use the 5E's for Comprehension of Ecological Succession

Strategies for Teaching Ecological Succession

How I use the 5E's model to teach Ecological Succession, includes helpful resources

I was asked to write about how I teach ecological succession.  Ecological succession is a simple topic, but for some reason students have a difficult time sometimes with the finer points, or remembering the vocabulary. 

Let's start at the beginning

What is succession?  

It is defined as "the progressive replacement of one community by another until a climax community is established." (  In terms of science, it refers to barren land, which has never had life, or land where the life has been wiped out, gradually developing an ecosystem, until there is a stable ecosystem in that place (climax community).

So how do I teach it? 

In general, I believe it using the 5E's model.  This is a small topic, so I might only spend 1-2 class periods on ecological succession, but I still follow that basic model.

It is helpful when planning to think about where students are likely to get stuck.  In my experience, students get stuck on the difference between primary and secondary succession.   Students also get stuck on the term 'succession;' they can't come up with the term, or even select it on multiple choice. 

The 5E's Model: Ecological Succession

If you aren't familiar with the 5E's model, a good basic summary of the steps is here.  Below I will give an example of how each step could be applied to teaching about ecological succession, even on a short time frame.


Some simple engagement activities could be showing a picture such as this, and asking students to write about how it got there, or what they think will happen next.

If you have a higher level group of students, or more time, the engagement activity might be a news clip about life returning after a volcanic eruption, or something similar.

Here is a great example. (to the right)

If you want to go one step further, you could even pause it about halfway through, after the devastation is shown, and ask students to predict what scientists will find, and what they think will happen to Mt. St. Helens.


During the explore phase, students can build experiences, or manipulate materials.  This is a great phase for a lab, but maybe not in this case.

Exploration might be a time for students to manipulate cards or pictures and try to put them in the correct sequence showing what happens. Some example card sorts (not mine) are located here or here, It would also be a good time to watch a time lapse video such as this one, and note the changes that they see happening.


Now is the time for some instruction.  This could come in the form of notes from you, or guided notes with a video.  Some of my standbys for instructional videos are Amoeba Sisters, or Bozeman Science.  Their videos on ecological succession are here.   I also found this other video that is short, but very to the point by Mark Drollinger


This is where students create something of their own.  It could be a simple comic strip, stop motion animation, a video, a song, a news report, or any number of other creative endeavors. Here is a very basic Succession Storyboard assignment that could be a great starting point. For more advanced students, this would be a great time to show the rest of the video clip from the engage activity and have students write the narration, or have them create the ending. They could also research a relevant case study, such as Mt. St. Helens.

Whichever option you choose, I think it is critically important to have them using the vocabulary!  This is how they will remember it.


This is your unit test.  It will likely (at least where I'm located) consist of state test questions or standardized test questions. You may add a project, essay, or something more open ended, but make sure that you are preparing your students for any high stakes testing as well. Make sure that they are familiar with the language, the type of diagrams, etc.

How do you teach ecological succession?  If you have resources or ideas to share, please link up or share in the comments. I'd love to see your ideas.

1 comment :

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