5 simple anticipatory sets that make a big difference

This post originally appeared on the blog Heart 2 Heart.

Even though it might be freezing outside, you can still enjoy this season. Just bring the fun inside the classroom by learning about winter animals such as penguins, polar bears, and caribou. Students will love learning about these cool creatures! One of the best ways to introduce a new unit is with a fun and creative anticipatory set.

What is an anticipatory set and why does it matter?

The anticipatory set refers to an activity to focus the attention of the class to get ready for the lesson that will follow. It is also known as the hook, lead, or set induction. At the beginning of a unit or lesson, it’s important to have students complete a short activity to pique their interest and build prior knowledge.

To make your anticipatory set have the desired impact, it needs to:

  • Be related to the topic, theme, or lesson of the day.
  • It can build off of a previous lesson, skill, or strategy if it’s related or connected to the current lesson.
  • The message, question, or strategy needs to reveal itself or reappear again in the lesson. That way students make the connection, almost like a light bulb going on.
  • It should help the student get ready for the upcoming lesson by leading directly into the lesson.
  • For our sports fans, think of it like a PRE-game show before the big game.

While this is all super creative, it also takes a ton of time to plan these activities. So let’s take a look at 5 simple and easy ones that you can use over and over for any subject area.

Anticipatory sets help prepare your students, like this class of eight, for upcoming lessons so that they're ready and excited to participate and learn.RULE #1 – KEEP IT EASY:

  • KEEP IT VISUAL: Use something that students can visualize that gets them interested in the topic such as a short video, a photograph, or just having them close their eyes and visualize what something looks like. One of my favorite activities is taking students outside to lie down on the grass, look up at the sky, and sketch what they see as a way to introduce a unit about clouds or weather.
  • KEEP IT FACTUAL: Write 3-8 statements or questions on the whiteboard for students to predict the answers (T/F) at the beginning of a unit. Another option is to have one question or statement each day like a “Question of the Day” method. To save paper, have students write them in their notebooks each day and then answer them. These questions or statements should be connected to the essential questions or standards so then it serves as an informal assessment too.


  • KEEP IT MYSTERIOUS: Everyone loves a good mystery, and this method is sure to surprise. Place an artifact, photograph, vocabulary word, riddle, or other item related to the lesson in a box or large envelope. Introduce the mystery box at the beginning of class. Give the students a few hints or clues about what it is being very careful not to give away too much information. You want to give them just enough information to make them curious. After the lesson is complete, come back together as a class to figure out and reveal the mystery item.

There are several ways to reveal the mystery item at the end of the lesson:

  • hold a whole group discussion or vote on it
  • review the clues or hints given at the beginning of class before making their predictions
  • create a concept map on the board to review and relate to that day’s lesson
  • have students write down their prediction of what it could be and why in their notebooks. Then share them.
  • play the game “10 Questions” (like 20 questions) where students ask questions to help them figure it out. However you decide to solve the mystery this technique is guaranteed to keep it fun!
  • KEEP IT SENSORY: Using the five senses is a unique strategy that students will love. With a little bit of planning, this is sure to captivate students’ interests. The key here is to think outside the box to figure out what you can use as a sensory stimulus that is related to the lesson at hand. Think about unique smells, tastes, textures, sights, or sounds, which are linked to this lesson. For example, for a unit about dolphins have students listen to the unique sounds of dolphins communicating with each other or of ocean water crashing against the shore. For my lesson on daily life in ancient Greece, I brought in cucumber slices, figs, and pita bread with olive oil for the students to taste. (Remember to get parent permission and check for allergies before having tasting parties.)


  • KEEP IT REAL: Present a real problem in the world, your community, or school. Ask students to brainstorm how to solve the problem. This method must cross over to connect with the lesson at hand. To kick off our ecosystems unit, for example, I showed the students real facts about how many pounds of paper our school uses on average every year and how many milk cartons students throw away at lunch every year. I told them how this was a huge problem and had them brainstorm in their notebooks how we can help save the earth. As we learned more and more about protecting our environment, we came back to these stats and added to their brainstorming list. At the end of the unit, we discussed one service project we could put into place in our school to cut down on waste. Students were motivated as they researched solutions, and came up with a plan of action to present to our school’s administrators.

Having an anticipatory set has the bonus of making students wonder what you will do next. Students will love that whatever weird thing you do at the start of class ends up meaning something later on in the lesson. Research has shown that using an anticipatory set helps students learn better and retain the information.

Anticipatory Set Checklist
Grab your anticipatory set checklist freebie here! Here is a PDF checklist of 5 simple anticipatory sets that will make a big difference in your classroom.


A colony of penguins ready to jump into water.


Let’s see it in action with a unit on penguins

KEEP IT VISUAL – Show a short video. (Imagine penguins waddling along the icy ground. Usually, students laugh because penguins are funny!)

Show a short video. Here’s a couple just for kids:

KEEP IT FACTUAL – Introduce the unit with the Anticipatory Set with T/F questions to pique students’ interest and build background knowledge. Have students predict the answer to several True/False statements that are based on the essential questions or standards for that unit. After each lesson or at the end of the unit, have students check and correct their answers. I have students draw a happy face on any predictions they guessed correctly.

Here are some sample True/False statements to use for a unit on penguins:

  1. Penguins are birds that cannot fly!
  2. Penguins can hold their breath and stay underwater for up to 15 minutes.
  3. Penguins are cold-blooded. That’s why they can swim in the icy water.
  4. A penguin’s black and white coloring is a form of camouflage to protect them from predators.
  5. The Emperor Penguins lives in Africa.
  6. Penguins spend more than half their time swimming in the water!

Each day after the lesson, as a class we come back to check and correct their answers. This is a great way to start and close at the end of the lesson each day as it serves as a quick evaluation of their learning.

In this lesson on penguins, factual checklists help scaffold your students' learning–an instrumental application of anticipatory sets.KEEP IT MYSTERIOUS – Place an item to represent Antarctica (habitat) in a large envelope.

  • a photograph of Antarctica
  • a large piece of ice
  • a map
  • a thermometer
  • a riddle (I’m black and white and I live in a very cool desert! (Antarctica is classified as a desert because so little moisture falls from the sky. The continent receives an average of 2 inches of precipitation in the form of snow each year.)
  • a fact about Antarctica “It is the coldest place on Earth!” “Antarctica is the world’s largest reservoir of fresh water.”

Give the students a few hints about what is inside the envelope. After the lesson, come back together as a class to see if students can figure out what’s inside the mystery envelope or box.

KEEP IT SENSORY – Have students place their hands in a bucket of ice water for a few seconds and write down in their notebooks how it feels to them. Encourage them to use descriptive adjectives that are colorful in place of cold such as frigid, icy, wintry, chilly, frosty, and freezing. Have them describe or draw a picture of what type of habitat this might represent. Another option is to go outside to see the snow. Don’t live in the Northeast? No problem. You can make your own sensory snow.


  • 2 large boxes of baking soda
  • Up to 1/2 a bottle of hand lotion OR hair conditioner
  • Blue or silver glitter

Directions: This awesome recipe only takes a few minutes to make. Slowly combine the baking soda and lotion/hair conditioner in a large storage container and mix well. Continue to add more lotion and mix until the desired consistency is reached. You want the snow to be moist and moldable but not too wet. The snow will also be COLD. How cool is that?

KEEP IT REAL – Explain to students that it is important to learn about animals because we share the earth with them and depend on each other for survival. Describe a real situation where animals are endangered for a variety of reasons (due to loss of habitat, poaching, global warming) and explore ways that your students can help. Another option is to read a book about penguins to get students thinking and making connections between animals that you have studied earlier in the year. How are they alike? How are they different? How is our world changing? How does our changing world affect animals?

Providing your students with real or relatable examples that bring the lesson to life help reinforce their learning. In this example, we've personified a penguin (Willy Waddle) with information about his life and habitat, and included a diagram for students to fill out facts about the type of penguin Willy Waddle is (Rockhopper Penguin)

When most people think of penguins, they think about their funny waddle. But their waddle isn’t the only thing that makes them unique! Their black and white colorings, called countershading, often makes them look like they are dressed up in a tuxedo. Countershading is a form of camouflage that helps protect penguins when they are swimming in the water. Did you know that penguins are birds that cannot fly? Birds lay eggs, have feathers, and have wings and so do penguins. However, penguins’ wings are more like flippers that help them glide quickly through the water. The average swimming speed is 15 mph, which is faster than the fastest man can run! Penguins spend more than half of their time in the icy cold waters. Maybe that’s why they are such great swimmers!

Don’t forget to grab the checklist here: Anticipatory Set Checklist

If you’re interested in a teacher-tested, student-approved unit on penguins, that’s ready to print and teach with an anticipatory set included, look no further! 

A lesson plan on penguins with an anticipatory set to accompany it, for second, third and fourth grades.

Want these resources? See how your school can buy them on your behalf.



Heart 2 Heart Teaching logo: three students holding hands around the globeJuliette Roman is the owner of Heart 2 Heart Teaching. Juliette is a certified teacher with 15 years of classroom experience and loves creating resources for other educators. When she’s not busy working, she enjoys traveling with her hubby and kids, hiking, photography, and yoga. Check out her TpT store. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.