Vials of substances that students will name or write formulas for

“What are we doing to help kids achieve?”

Nomenclature is a tough topic. I tell students that we are living in the land of symbols while we study nomenclature. It is important but it is difficult to get them excited. I started fishing for resources. The American Association for Chemistry Teachers (AACT) has been a great resource to help me try new things.

A quick search of the AACT website allowed me to find a simple and effective nomenclature assignment with a twist. This was developed by Ms. Kathy Kitzmann of Mercy High School in Farmington Hills Michigan (retired). It is a relatively simple idea. The teacher prepares a series of vials of inorganic compounds. I made sure to glue the vials sealed and also glued them onto a small board. There are labels that provide either the names or the symbols of the substance in each specific container. Students rotate from station to station and examine the vials. Given the symbols, they must provide the formulas or given the formulas they must provide the symbols.

This activity has many advantages. One advantage is that it is a nice review. It also gets the students up and moving. There is an opening for the teacher to provide information about where the compounds are found. It is nice to examine the compounds with bright colors and talk about transition metals.

Student reaction to the activity was positive. They were encouraged to walk around, work in groups and apply the rules that we have been talking about to write the correct name or formula for each substance. It was different than just doing a worksheet or flipped assignment. It broke up the monotony of nomenclature.

Here is another crazy idea I am considering trying. What would happen if we used nomenclature to introduce bonding? Bonding is such a huge topic...could this be a way to “front load”?

Do you have a clever way to bring more interaction to a topic that sometimes might be a bit boring for students? Where does it fall in your curriculum? How does it work for you? Would love to hear from you.


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Comments 10

Daniel Dulek's picture
Daniel Dulek | Thu, 11/30/2017 - 15:45

Hi Chad,

It is unfortunate that nomenclature is not the most glamorous part of chemistry.  Most students find it boring and have a difficult time relating to it.  For the last few years, I have taught nomenclature within the bonding unit.  We start with ionic bonding and lattice strength then we go into the nomenclature of ions and ionic compounds.  We then look at covalent bonding, Lewis structures and molecular geometry at which time we talk about the nomenclature of molecules.  I find this seems to be the most natural way to include nomenclature.  In the past, I would teach nomenclature as a stand-alone unit and it was never the most exciting and seemed disconnected.  It's still not that exciting but I have found that by including it within the bonding unit it breaks up the monotony and gives nomenclature more significance.  

Does anyone still make their students memorize polyatomic ions or am I alone in this ancient practice?

Kaleb Underwood's picture
Kaleb Underwood | Fri, 12/01/2017 - 10:20

Hi Daniel,

I still make my students memorize a list of polyatomic ions (and elements, for that matter), as I think it is helpful in their fluencey. I also teach the general rules for naming ionic/molecular/acids but I follow the principle set forth by IUPAC that I communicate to my students as follows. I based this after reading the relevant IUPAC book and this blog post on the topic.

From the notes I give my students:

Since chemical nomenclature is simply a system for communication, if a compound can be reasonably named in more than one way with no ambiguity, then different names are likely to be acceptable. That being said, you are expected to be able to write the chemical formula given the most common name.

For example: CaF2 is an ionic compound with the chemical formula representing one formula unit of the substance. It is mostly commonly named “calcium fluoride”. However, other names may come to mind: calcium difluoride, calcium(II) fluoride, or even calcium(II) difluoride.

The reason the latter three names are not used often is because there is no question as to the charges of the ions and therefore no question about the composition of the compound. Calcium always forms a 2+ ion and fluorine always forms a 1- ion, fluoride. Therefore, it is unnecessary to indicate “calcium(II)” or “difluoride”. That being said, those names are not “wrong”, they are just not commonly used.


Deanna Cullen's picture
Deanna Cullen | Fri, 12/01/2017 - 11:19

Hi Daniel! I found early on that teaching nomenclature as a stand alone unit was no fun for me or my students. Like you, I decided to teach nomenclature of ionic compounds along with the other topics related to ionic compounds and the rules for nomenclature of molecular compounds while covering topics related to molecular compounds. I would then teach rules of nomenclature for acids. The tough part for students would be when students were asked to name and write formulas for all three types of substances. We would work on creating a flow chart of nomenclature rules for those that needed extra support. And yes, I had students memorize about 35 of the most commonly used, including polyatomic ions. In general chemistry, I did allow them to use a list that I provided during assessments, but I found that if I had not asked them to memorize them ahead of time, some students spent way too much time looking at the sheet and could not complete an assessment in a reasonable amount of time. Of course, we worked through activities and practiced writing names and formulas through several units so that most of the students did not need to use the reference sheet after a while. My AP chemistry students were given a longer list of ions and they did not have a page with the list of ions on any assessments.

Chad Husting's picture
Chad Husting | Fri, 12/01/2017 - 13:57

Daniel - First, I like the idea of possibly not making this a stand alone topic.  Bonding is so huge I feel like it could some could be incorporated into nomenclature or nomenclature into bonding.  As I mentioned to Deanna, I do make students memorize some polyatomic ions.  I am not big into memorizing but for safety reasons it helps to know some symbols and names.  Thanks for you thoughts on bonding and really helps and provides something for me to consider.

Wendy Czerwinski | Sun, 12/10/2017 - 07:31

My students like the Nick the Camel mnemonic:

 I do not like memorization, but I did write in my notes from years past that it does help to make students  memorize the basic  ones in the beginning. Facing this dilemma now. 

Chad Husting's picture
Chad Husting | Fri, 12/01/2017 - 13:53

I really like the way you explained the naming.  It makes sense.  I am not big into having students memorize factoids but for safety reasons I want them to know some common symbols and their names.  Thanks for the input.

Hamid Saadzoi | Sun, 12/03/2017 - 13:53

Nomenclature has never had a standard  attached to it in my state so it has always been an optional topic to teach. That was annoying when I started teaching since I always made it a point to teach it but the 1-2 weeks it took to get my students to understand it meant I was unable to teach a standard that was required. I've always felt a student taking chemistry had to know how to write and read them so I have been ok with the trade off. When the NGSS rolled around I decided to revisit this and I realized that I spent the majority of my time making students learn the skill via the criss cross method but I really didn’t spend enough time on the relevance and application to real life. Since I was rolling into thematic units I decided to take a different angle. Now instead of doing it as a stand alone unit, I look at it thematically on what’s in our water and can it kill us. This has allowed me to connect the concept to the students lives and start with how ions form and are in their water and then expand into nomenclature and other concepts like solution chemistry and acids and bases as part of the same unit. Besides allowing me to look at solutions from many conceptual angles, this has also allowed me to integrate nomenclature into a more engaging unit. I want to end the unit this year with a project where students build their own water filter and am still trying to hash out the details with only thing left being whether I want them to build it under a specific cost to make it more challenging. 

Chad Husting's picture
Chad Husting | Sun, 12/03/2017 - 15:56

Hamid - You really gave me some great food for thought.  I like the idea of themes and perhaps teaching nomenclature on a need to know basis.  It seems like it would make sense to teach it with ions and solutions.  Your filter project sound fascinating.  I hope you consider sharing on ChemEdx.  Thanks again for the thoughts and ideas.  I am already starting to reconsider ideas for next year.  My goal is to make it to BCCE this summer.  Maybe we can meet there and exchange ideas?  Something to think about...

Hamid Saadzoi | Tue, 12/05/2017 - 15:44

It would be great to bounce more ideas off each other since I went full tilt thematic this year after doing some trial units in the past so it would be nice to get other peoples opinions about how well things mesh together. Unfortunately I will be unable to attend BCCE this summer but could do email if you want to exchange any other ideas. Thanks for bringing up the topic and spurring the discussion.

Email is if you want to exchange any other ideas.