On The Origin of Species / During Reading / /

Drawing The Tree of Life

Illustrating Darwin’s metaphor

Lesson length: 1 hour 0 minutes / 1 session

Lesson from On The Origin of Species series

Required reading: Whole book

Text potential

  • Background knowledge: Animals
  • Background knowledge: Camouflage
  • Inference opportunities: Elaborative inference
  • Background knowledge: Extinct and Endangered Animals
  • Literary features: Metaphor and simile
  • Background knowledge: Natural World
  • Language features: Word Class: verbs (movement)

Strategies used

  • Visualisation


Science relies heavily on metaphors to explain complex theories and none are so famous as Darwin’s ‘tree of life’. This lesson provides the opportunity to explore the meaning of this metaphor and to deepen the children’s understanding by drawing a visual representation of it. By exploring their visual understanding they can develop questions about elements they are unsure of and compare their interpretation with others thus deepening their understanding.


  • Have read the whole book
  • Have Darwin’s quote from page 29 to display on the IWB without the images 
  • Copies of On The Origin of the Species, at least one between two
  • Paper and pencils


Ask the children to tell their partner what scientific theory Darwin is famous for and to try to explain the theory to one another. Whilst they are talking, listen in and share with the class any good explanations you hear. Once you have agreed that it is the theory of evolution, together agree a simple explanation of the theory. 

For example: 

Darwin believed that all life on earth shares a common ancestor and that species evolve over time to adapt to their environment and new species then evolve.

Explain that when Darwin was developing his theory he wrote ‘I think and beneath it drew a tree to explain his theory (you can find images of this page online to show the class). From then on he used the metaphor of a tree of life to explain his theory of evolution and you are going to explore this metaphor with the class.

Ensure all the children have a piece of paper and a pencil. Explain that you are going to read Darwin’s quote about the tree of life. You are going to read it once, whilst you are reading you want the children to shut their eyes or cast them down and try to picture the metaphorical tree that Darwin is describing. Before you read it, explain that there are three words in the quote that you just want to check that they all understand the meaning of before you start. Share the words and definitions with the class. As you are sharing the definitions, display the words of the quote you are going to read on the interactive whiteboard. You can then point out the words that you are explaining.

The adjective vigorous means strong and healthy and full of energy.

The comparative adjective feebler means lacking in strength or weaker.

The word ramifications can mean the consequences of an action or the act or process of branching off so a new shoot or branch growing on a tree.

Now read the quote as the children shut their eyes and listen carefully trying to imagine this metaphorical tree.

Explain that you are going to read the quote again and as you are reading you would like the children to draw what they picture in their head. How do they visualise the trunk and branches and what do they see growing on the branches? Are there many branches on the tree? What do they see beneath the tree?. You will repeat the quote several times and they can refer to the words displayed on the IWB. The idea is not that they create perfect drawings, just describe what they see. They can add words if that helps them.

When everyone has completed their drawing, explain that they are going to look at their drawings with a partner. Partner A will show their drawing to partner B. Partner B will describe what they see and how they think A’s drawing relates to the metaphor. Partner A will listen to all of their partners comments before they then respond and explain or clarify any details that their partner has discussed or missed out. The pair will then swap roles and repeat.

Adults in the room should support conversations where necessary, listening in and developing conversations through questioning to build upon comments heard.

Final reflection

  • How similar or different were the trees you drew?
  • Why do you think Darwin’s metaphor has endured?
  • Look at page 33. How does this metaphor link back to the Tree of Life metaphor?

Tier two vocabulary

ramifications, feebler, vigorous

Subject-specific and technical vocabulary

evolution, buds, crust of the earth

Academic process words

explain, illustrate, clarify