Coral Reefs


Coral Reefs introduces students to this specific type of habitat or biome. Student will learn about the characteristics of three of the main types of coral reefs and the aquatic life that live in them. They will also discover a little about other kinds of reefs that are less common.

You will find several suggestions in the “Options for Lesson” section that you may want to include if you have extra time to spare or want to extend the lesson. One idea is to have students draw pictures from some of the scenes from the video “field trip.”

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What our Coral Reefs lesson plan includes

Lesson Objectives and Overview: Coral Reefs explores the characteristics and features of this underwater habitat. Students will learn where to find reefs around the world and what plants and animals live in them. They will also discover facts about the three main types and will be able to distinguish them from one another. This lesson is for students in 4th grade and 5th grade.

Classroom Procedure

Every lesson plan provides you with a classroom procedure page that outlines a step-by-step guide to follow. You do not have to follow the guide exactly. The guide helps you organize the lesson and details when to hand out worksheets. It also lists information in the yellow box that you might find useful. You will find the lesson objectives, state standards, and number of class sessions the lesson should take to complete in this area. In addition, it describes the supplies you will need as well as what and how you need to prepare beforehand. For this lesson, you will need colored pencils or markers, construction paper or poster board, and scratch paper. You will also need to ensure students have access to the internet.

Options for Lesson

The “Options for Lesson” section of the classroom procedure page lists a number of suggestions for additional ideas or activities to incorporate into the lesson. A few of these suggestions relate to the lesson activity. Students could work by themselves or in small groups for the activity rather than in pairs. You could also provide other scenarios for them to choose between in addition to the nine on the activity worksheet. Another option is for students to create a new type of coral and decide on the species’ characteristics, such as color and shape. During the video “field trip,” you could have students draw images from some of the scenes in the videos. The students could also draw pictures of the different types of reefs. One final idea is to invite an expert, or someone who has explored coral reefs, to speak with the class about their experience.

Teacher Notes

The paragraph on the teacher notes page gives you a little extra information regarding the lesson and what you can expect from it. It suggests that you teach this lesson in conjunction with others about the ocean, ecosystems, or habitats in general. You can use the blank lines to write out ideas or thoughts you have as you prepare.



The Coral Reefs lesson plan contains five pages of content. Students will first learn something about coral that many people do not realize. Most people believe that a coral reef consists of colorful rocks. This is not actually the case. Coral reefs are marine ecosystems that we find in clear, shallow tropical waters all around the world. They are home to many types of marine plants and animals.

The reefs consist of individual animals called coral polyps, which have a hard exoskeleton. They form from the skeletal remains of many generations of stony corals. Their hard covering supports and protects the coral. These small animals have soft, cylindrical bodies and a ring of tentacles around their mouths. The polyps eat much smaller animals, called plankton, and algae to stay alive.

Huge reef structures have taken thousands of years to form from tiny coral polyps and tiny algae that live in their tissues, as well as from other organisms. We can find reef-building corals 150 feet deep — or more — in the water. The water is clear enough for sunlight to penetrate it adequately. Coral reefs are actually among the oldest living ecosystems of plants and animals in the world. And they vary in shape, size, and color.

Water around coral reefs generally maintains a temperature between 68°F and 82°F. Reefs develop in areas where there are lots of waves because waves bring in food, nutrients, and oxygen. They also prevent sediment from falling on the reef. Speaking of nutrients, reefs need calcium from the water to grow, and calcium is often available in the warmer, shallow waters. The largest reef in the world is the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. It spans more than 1,600 miles. In fact, it is so large that astronauts can see it from space! Many reefs exist along shorelines of continents and islands like those in Hawaii and the Caribbean.

Types of Coral Reefs

Most coral reefs that exist today formed after the last ice age. After the ice melted, it caused sea levels to rise and flood the continental shelves. Thus, coral reefs are less than 10,000 years old. Some have become incredibly popular tourist attractions because of their wide variety of flora and fauna. There are many types of coral reefs, and scientists classify them according to where they are in the ocean. There are three main types: fringe, barrier, and atoll.

Fringe reefs grow close to the shorelines of continents and islands. Some are actually connected or attached to the shore. Channels or lagoons, which are narrow strips of water, might separate the reef from the shoreline. Barrier reefs, however, are farther away from the shore, sometimes found several miles away from continents or islands.

The other main type is atoll. These look like rings of coral surrounding a lagoon. They usually begin as a fringe reef around a volcanic island. As the corals expand and grow, the island sinks into the ocean, leaving a ring of coral. Some are so large that people live on them. Other types of reefs include apron, patch, ribbon, and table. Apron reefs resemble fringe reefs but have more of a slope. Patch reefs are isolated and circular. Ribbon reefs are long and narrow winding reefs that are often associated with an atoll lagoon. And similar to the patch type, table reefs are isolated, but they have no lagoon.

Marine Plants and Animals

A variety of plants and animals inhabit the coral reefs all around the world. Every reef will, over time, develop three different zones. Different kinds of corals, fish, plants, and ocean life will inhabit different zones depending on where that reef is in the world. The three zones are shore or inner reef, crest reef, and fore or outer reef.

The shore zone rests between the crest and shoreline. Depending on the shape of the reef, this area can be full of life, including fishes, starfish, sea cucumbers, and anemones. The crest reef zone is the highest point of a reef, which is where waves break over it. Finally, the outer reef zone is where the reef walls fall off. Located about 30 feet deep, the water is calmer here. However, it is the area most populated with a variety of coral species.

Students will discover that even though coral reefs make up only about 1% of the ocean floor, they are home to 25% of all ocean life. Animals use reefs as stopping points as they travel from place to place. Some of them live among the corals, which are the most abundant animal on the reef, of course. Corals can be white, red, pink, green, blue, orange, and purple.

Other animals that live in these habitats include sea urchins, sea stars, sharks, lobsters, and snails. Many animals have symbiotic relationships because they rely on each other for their survival. For instance, a sea anemone has tentacles that provide protection for certain fish and their eggs, and the fish protect the anemone from predators.

Just like on land, sun is the energy source for the plants under water. Plant plankton (phytoplankton), algae, and other plants convert the light into energy. Algae and seagrasses are two of the main types of plants in the coral reef ecosystem. The other main plant that lives in these areas is called zooxanthellae, which is a microscopic type of algae. All of these plants provide food and oxygen to the animals that live on the reef. Seagrasses are among the most important because they provide shelter for juvenile reef animals like conch and lobster.

Why They Are Important

Coral reefs are beautiful, but people often don’t realize just how important they are to the planet. They positively impact many people throughout the world. In addition, they help protect coastlines from erosion and have been the source of medical discoveries, such as medicines for cancer. They also help remove and recycle carbon dioxide and protect land from harsh weather by absorbing the impact of strong waves and storms.

Unfortunately, students will learn that these beautiful and important ecosystems are being destroyed faster than they can regrow. Much of the damage results from overfishing, sewage, pollution, and global warming. Even though many people love to visit the reefs, tourism often leads to reef damage as well because people stand on the reefs, touch them, or bump into them with their boats.

Coral bleaching is another major issue. It occurs when the temperature of the water becomes too warm or too cold. Corals expel the algae living in their tissues, which causes the corals to turn white. They have not necessarily died and may survive, but this causes the coral to stress and become subject to death. They can survive and return to normal if the water temperature returns to normal as well.

Key Terms

Here is a list of the vocabulary words students will learn in this lesson plan:

  • Coral polyp: the individual animal that has a hard exoskeleton for support and protection
  • Exoskeleton: hard outer coverings that some animals have instead of skeletons inside their bodies
  • Lagoon: a narrow strip of water
  • Symbiosis: a relationship between two living organisms in which both species help each other in some way
  • Coral bleaching: a process in which corals expel algae living their tissues, causing them to turn white


The Coral Reefs lesson plan includes three worksheets: an activity worksheet, a practice worksheet, and a homework assignment. Each one helps students demonstrate what they learned in different ways and solidifies their comprehension of the lesson material. Refer to the guidelines on the classroom procedure page to decide when to hand out each worksheet to your students.


Using the supplies listed on the worksheet, students will work with a partner to create a poster that encourages people to protect these marine habitats. The worksheet provides nine scenarios. Students will choose at least three of them and either sketch or find images online or from other resources to represent the scenes. They can use text, pictures, logos, and more to persuade people to protect reefs around the world. When all of the students have finished their posters, they will present them in front of the class.


The practice worksheet is divided into two sections. For the first section, students will read 10 definitions. They will then match those definitions to the correct terms from the word bank on the right-hand side of the page. The second section requires students to answer 10 questions that relate to the content from the lesson.


For the homework assignment, students will first read 10 statements and decide whether each statement is true (T) or false (F). Next, they must fill in the blanks in 10 sentences using the terms from the word bank. You can choose whether or not to allow students to use the content pages for reference.

Worksheet Answer Keys

The last pages of the PDF are answer keys for the practice worksheet and the homework assignment. The correct answers are in red to make it easy to compare them with your students’ responses. There should not be any variation in their answers except for on the last question on the practice worksheet. If you choose to administer the lesson pages to your students via PDF, you will need to save a new file that omits these pages. Otherwise, you can simply print out the applicable pages and keep these as reference for yourself when grading assignments.

Additional information


4th Grade, 5th Grade


Science, Video

State Educational Standards


Lessons are aligned to meet the education objectives and goals of most states. For more information on your state objectives, contact your local Board of Education or Department of Education in your state.

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United States United States

Great information

I haven't had a chance to review all the information, but what I have looks like it will be very helpful with our summer reading program.

Ellen H.

Coral Reefs

Excellent resource with beautiful graphics. Meaningful and engaging all in one which is so valuable.

United States United States

Great Lesson!

Great material to supplement my unit on coral reefs with my modified Aquatic Science students.

Gregory L.

Wow this is amazing !

We love this program and the teaching content! Very informative content. Thank you so much for this!