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ESL Lessons: Using Food Chains, Webs and Pyramids in Language Teaching


Using Scientific Concepts In ESL Teaching

This is a guide to how ecological food chains, food webs and food pyramids can effectively be used in ESL lessons; all the information here is based on my personal teaching experience.

Many ESL teachers may feel reluctant to use scientific concepts to teach language due to the confusion it might cause the students or, more likely, the teacher. However, the concepts involved in food chains, webs and pyramids are so simple that even the most hung-over of teachers shouldn't struggle to cope with them.

There is no need to worry about the students troubling over these concepts, they'll be trying their hardest once they realize that animals are involved. By walking into a classroom and announcing that the topic for the day is animals you will be rendered the most popular teacher of the decade in the minds of young students. I have had classes break out into Mexican waves after making this proclamation.

Food Chain from

Food Chain from

Creating Simple Sentences - Basic Use Of Food Chains In The ESL Classroom

By drawing a simple food chain on the board, you can encourage the students to make basic sentences about what they see, e.g. a spider eats a fly.

It doesn't get any easier than this, if you and your class struggle with this then maybe you should consider an alternative career. You can get students to practice with the diagrams that you draw on the board and then they can make a display for the wall by drawing their own diagrams and writing about them.

Don't forget to label the wall display with the students' names and your name so that your boss knows which fantastic teacher was responsible for this masterclass of language tuition. If you work in a school that doesn't allow you to display students' work on the wall, I sympathize; get another job with a school that understands the benefit of allowing children to take pride in displaying their work.


A Food Chain - Here Is A Simple Example To Explain Things

An example of simple speaking/writing with a food chain.

1. The sun makes energy.

2. The plants grow.

3. The slug eats the plants.

4. The frog eats the slug.

5. The heron eats the frog.

Depending on the country and culture you are teaching in you will want to choose creatures that are familiar to your students.

Acknowledgements: The food chain picture comes from The Gwent Wildlife Trust.

Mammals Poster

Mammals Poster

Building Vocabulary - A Great Way To Use Food Chains In ESL Teaching

This can be done by starting with the same simple diagram as in the last stage. The easiest way to introduce new vocabulary is by substituting more unusual beasts into the diagram and creating more complex food chains to introduce new creatures. Children's imaginations are captured by animals so that teachers can teach all manner of unusual creatures in this way. One of the most popular animals I ever included was a secretary bird, which stamps snakes to death before eating them; this really seemed to please my students. Other more unusual creatures students particularly liked were plankton, coral and duck-billed platypus. One advantage of such peculiar animals is that it takes the children ages to draw them; an obvious bonus for the teacher there!

A really interesting and fun way of introducing new vocabulary is to pre-teach different words as substitutes for the verb to eat.

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Verbs such as catch, kill, trap, consume, swallow or even disembowel are useful here and will be enthusiastically used by students. By combining using unusual animals and strange verbs the students will produce some surprisingly imaginative and graphic work.

Plurals And Collective Nouns - Teaching Some Strange Terms


To teach plurals or collective nouns for groups of animals a food pyramid is particularly useful. A simple pyramid with five plants on the bottom, three mice on the next level and one fox at the top encourages students to speak and write about the relative numbers of animals involved. This is particularly useful in drilling plurals in countries where the native language doesn't include them. It is also rather entertaining to teach some unusual collective nouns such as flock of birds, pride of lions or herd of cows. I don't advise teaching words such as murder of crows or exaltation of larks unless you really want to confuse your students.

Once again, students can be encouraged to produce their own food pyramids and write about them. Remember, the more levels they draw, the longer it will take them! This is important to remember for those teachers who work in language schools where students are encouraged to take classes that are too long for them.

Some Fun Collective Nouns

Collective nouns for animals can be very descriptive and bizarre

  • A Shrewdness of Apes
  • A Siege of Bitterns
  • A Storytelling of Crows
  • A Piteousness of Doves
  • A Business of Ferrets
  • A Tower of Giraffes
  • A Prickle of Hedgehogs
  • A Sneak of Weasels
  • A Murmuration of Starlings
  • A Rhumba of Rattlesnakes
  • An Ostentation of Peacocks
  • A Mischief of Mice

Many more can be found here - Fun With Words Collective Nouns.

More bird collective nouns can be found here - Collective Nouns for Birds.

Food chain poster on

Food chain poster on

The Passive Voice - A Fun Way To Teach A Tough Concept

The passive voice can be a really awful thing to teach, especially to children, as it is a strange concept that does not exist in some languages. However, by using an interest in animals, and the three types of food diagrams, it can be practiced rather simply. Instead of saying "a shark eats a fish", demonstrate that by starting with the fish, a different sentence can be made; "a fish is eaten by a shark".

With a few examples and the grammar structure explained, most students are able to get at least a rough grasp of what the passive is all about; more than a few teachers might also get to grips with it this way.

Ecological Food Pyramid

Ecological Food Pyramid

The Scientific Aspect Of Teaching Food Chains

From a language point of view there isn't a lot of difference between which type of diagram to use, only that the food web gets very complex very quickly. For those of you who like to teach some conceptual aspects with your language lessons, it might prove useful to know the strengths and weaknesses of the different diagram types.

Food chains are obviously useful for their simplicity. They are also good for showing the role of plants and small organisms in providing food for a community. However, they don't show any aspect of omnivorosity or alternative food sources for each animal. In language teaching they are good for introducing new vocabulary because it is easy to substitute new words without affecting the rest of the diagram.

The strength of a food web is that they show a more realistic community and the complexity of its nature. It shows the various food sources for each animal, but it can be confusing for students to understand, not to mention rather difficult for the teacher to construct on the board. For those who fancy themselves as real scientists, the other shortcomings of food webs are that they don't show the proportions of different types of prey in the diet, and nor do they demonstrate seasonality of prey. This of course won't be of concern if you are teaching young children. If your students can deal with this type of thing, I suggest letting one of them teach the lesson while you sit back and relax.

Food pyramids, such as the one above, can be used to demonstrate the numbers of animals involved in the community. This is quite difficult to do accurately, but for language teaching it gives students an idea of how the number of individuals decreases as you go up the pyramid. For those of you that have super-students then food pyramids can be used to show the biomass at different levels in the pyramid. As this is a rather complex issue, that is all I have to say about that! However, these diagrams don't show different food sources for each animal in the pyramid, only one food source per animal.

At their simplest, food pyramids are easy for even young children to understand, I've successfully used them with 6 year-olds whose mastery of English was poor to say the least. Food pyramids also look rather wonderful when coloured in and displayed on the wall of a classroom!

Try Using Food Webs & Food Chains For ESL Language Teaching

Hopefully this might encourage you to use some science in your English classes. Even if you don't understand it perfectly, you will probably be quite surprised how quickly and enthusiastically your students produce excellent food chains, webs and pyramids together with coherent annotations.

If you didn't find what you were looking for here, I have provided some links to pages that teach food chains in a more traditional way:

Food Chain/Web Theme

Food chain/web lesson plans from Teacher Planet.

Food Chain Flashcards

Flashcards/game that teaches relationships in the food chain.

Food Chain Lesson Plan

A food chain lesson plan from

Food Chain Poll - Let Us Know If You Have Used This Idea

Some ESL Teaching Resources - A Selection Of Useful Books

Choosing The Correct Writing Implement - This Can Make All The Difference

Have you ever had a group of young students for a writing activity where almost nothing gets done due to broken pencils, ink spills, tipped pencil cases and exploding pens?

If the answer is yes then you need to give more thought to what writing implements you are allowing in the classroom. By being in control of which pens or pencils are allowed in the classroom you can save lots of wasted time and use it to actually getting some meaningful work from your students: How to Save Time in The Classroom by Using The Right Pencil.

English Grammar - A Light-hearted Look At A Stuffy Subject

If you enjoyed this article about using food chains in ESL lessons please leave some kindly comments here and tell all your friends about it. If you didn't think much of the article then find something better to talk to your friends about, the weather or politics for example.

Leave A Comment Here - Your Opinion On Using Food Chains In ESL Lessons

nickupton lm (author) on May 22, 2013:

@jennifer-collie: Thanks. Yes, I had some great fun with the kids I taught with these.

Jennifer on May 22, 2013:

Everything that can be drawn in a particular visual shape seems to be a nice way to teach kids. These ideas are great! Thanks!

ESLinsider LM on January 18, 2013:

The food chain pyramid looks like a good way on how to teach vocabulary.

nifwlseirff on December 02, 2012:

A great idea for teaching targeted vocabulary! I'll definitely be using this when I teach passives!

SAMEPRINCESS10 on January 26, 2012:

Wow! that's cool the birds, and insects with english. Thanks for sharing!

Beverly Lemley from Raleigh, NC on October 08, 2011:

What a great lense! Wonderful pictures and supportive text ~ very informative, even for those not involved in teaching aspects ~ great lesson for all! Thank you!

nickupton lm (author) on May 02, 2011:

@stevebrown94: Give it a go. Some of my students used to come up with really funny things like Vampire bites the girl, hero kills the Vampire, Werewolf eats the hero etc. It is a very adaptable concept!

stevebrown94 on March 23, 2011:

Food-chain idea looked good. Am thinking of incorporating that in my classes too. :)

nickupton lm (author) on March 18, 2011:

@MargywannabeTESOL: Thanks for your kind words.

MargywannabeTESOL on February 06, 2011:

I LOVE this! I am taking an online TESOL course and one of my assignments was to go searching for a controlled activity. I'm so glad you created this and I feel very strongly if I was one of your young learners, I would always look forward to learning English from you! I wonder if you have created the next generation of scientists! Wow!

jackieb99 on January 12, 2011:

Thanks for the information. This looks like a fun subject to teach.

Jeanette from Australia on October 31, 2009:

I've never taught ESL but I like this idea.

nickupton lm (author) on October 30, 2009:

I have had some wonderful lessons using these and the smart kids really excel. Some surprising results from the kids who don't usually do so well too.[in reply to spirituality]

religions7 on October 20, 2009:

What a great idea. It helps differentiate too: the smart students get to use their intelligence in something other than learning words & grammar.

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