Using the Pokemon Alphabet to Teach Classification and Phylogeny

Article excerpt

Byline: Rolfe Freidenberg Jr. and Martin Kelly

Over the last decade, science teachers have experienced many changes in the standards for science education. The National Science Education Standards now include three unifying concepts and processes: systems-order and organization; evidence-models and explanation; and evolution. In addition, the life science standards include knowledge of the diversity of organisms (levels 5-8) and biological evolution (levels 9-12) (NRC 1996). Biology topics that address these concepts and processes include classification and phylogeny.

Teaching middle school biology students the concepts associated with classification and phylogeny is a challenge. Some of the ideas behind these concepts may seem very abstract to a student. The challenge for a teacher is to develop lessons and activities that are both interesting and educationally sound. A recent science department meeting at my middle school revealed a concern shared by our science teachers. We find it difficult for our students to understand concepts such as classification, dichotomy, and phylogeny. As a colleague stated, "My students have such a problem naming organisms using dichotomous keys. They can't grasp the full concept and understanding that goes along with classification. We need to develop a better method for teaching our kids these tough concepts."

Figure 1. Pokemon alphabet.

Studies have shown that it is useful to teach classification to students using pseudozoids (false animals), because it eliminates any of the students' bias due to prior knowledge about the organism and forces students to focus on observed similarities and differences (Gendron 2000). In contrast, when students use familiar objects in creating dichotomous keys, they are able to learn from their prior knowledge. The activity described here teaches classification and phylogeny using a set of pseudozoids, the Unown or Alphabet Pokemon (see Figure 1). We chose Unown that are inherently graphic in appearance to focus student attention on the similarities and differences they observe between types, rather than on the unrealistic characteristics of Unown as fictitious plants and animals.

Materials and methods

Figure 2. The five groups of Unown used to teach classification and phylogenetic analysis.

Sets of Unown

Unown "species" alphabet letter






The Unown typeface used in this article was created by Nintendo of America and can be found on the internet at a variety of sites (see Resources). On installation into the fonts folder of your computer's operating system, this typeface will insert each Unown character as its corresponding letter is typed. If the Unown font is not available, another way of conducting this activity is to have students perform phylogenetic analysis on letters from archaic or character-based alphabets (see Resources). For example, archaic forms of letters historically used in the English alphabet, or letters from other alphabets (for example, Cyrillic, Hebrew, or Korean) could be used to focus student attention on the similarities and differences they observe between the forms of letters. This related approach could be employed by middle school science teachers seeking to coordinate curricular content with social studies or language teachers.

To start, each student is given a 20- question pretest to measure their prior knowledge about classification and phylogeny (available online at The test includes five matching items; five multiple-choice questions; use of a taxonomic key to identify three species of native North American cats; mapping five evolved traits onto a vertebrate phylogeny; and providing a short written answer to two questions. Afterward, students are assigned to groups of three with mixed achievement levels. Student groups stay the same over the six days of instruction on classification and phylogeny. …