Developing prediction skills in scientific enquiries

01 November 2019

The ability to make predictions is the second skill area covered in this series of primary scientific enquiry blogs.


Why should we develop a demanding skill such as prediction in our youngest learners?

This skill is worth nurturing from an early age because it develops thinking skills in general. In science, it helps learners to reflect on what has happened in practical work when they check their conclusions against their prediction.

Most learners in Stage 2 will be able to say whether what happened was what they expected to happen, or not, at the end of an enquiry.  Even if a prediction is not asked for at the start of an enquiry, we can see evidence that learners have subconciously made a prediction.  Statements made after observations have been made or results have been collected can be revealing. For example, when investigating toy cars rollling down slopes a learner might say “I was surprised that the car rolled so far”, showing that the learner had prior expectations before carrying out their tests.

With younger learners, a prediction may seem little more than a ‘guess’. When asked to develop their suggestions further and explain why they think an event will happen, they will often find it difficult to verbalise their reasoning.  Those who can offer an explanation usually base their prediction firmly on everyday knowledge of their world.  For example, their predictions of shadows may be based on their play with a torch at home or when they made a shadow puppet theatre at school.  Their explanations are rooted in their own direct experience.  The important thing for us as teachers is to encourage speculation and give opportunities to express the reasons why they think this.

As learners become more mature thinkers, their predictions in enquiries can be justified in terms of scientific knowledge and understanding. The teacher plays a vital role in encouraging this leap to a higher cognitive level, because many learners feel safer in basing predictions on everyday experiences, rather than trying to use their newly acquired scientific ideas. However, the process of applying new knowledge and understanding will help learners clarify their thoughts and can give you – the teacher – high quality assessment information to act upon.


The use of a prediction is also a motivating factor at the start of any enquiry.  It should encourage the excitement of discovering if your prediction is ‘right’or not.  Therefore, we must make sure learners get as much credit and praise for concluding that their prediction was ‘wrong’ as when they are ‘right’.

Learners will be reluctant ‘predictors’ if they perceive that the purpose of their enquiry is to prove that they were right all along.  It is the weighing of evidence gathered against your prediction that is important in science – and remember that sometimes our evidence will be inconclusive!


What does progression look like in the skill of predicting?

As part of their developing powers of prediction learners will move from speculative guesses on specific instances e.g. The blue car will roll further than the red car’ – with no scientific reasoning offered – to:

  • predictions with some reasoning based on everyday life experiences and observations e.g. ‘The blue car will roll further than the red car.…. because it has bigger wheels.’
  •  more generalised, powerful predictions e.g. ‘The higher the ramp, the further a toy car will roll.’ – These predictions of patterns or trends allow learners to test their predictions out.
  • the use of basic scientific knowledge to justify predictions e.g.‘The higher the ramp, the further a car will roll because it is moving faster so when it gets to the end of the ramp it has more force behind it.’ – This is based on their work looking at forces in science.


So how can we develop research skills?

Here are some strategies that we can use to develop prediction skills in scientific enquiries:

STRATEGY 1 – Predict whenever possible!

Before tacking anly hands-on research science activity, think about whether there is an appropriate opportunity for learners to make a prediction about what they think will happen or find out.  This can be a whole class, group, pair or individual exercise depending on your classroom organisation for that particular activity.

Introduce the word ‘predict’ as soon as possible e.g. “What do we think will happen?  Let’s predict!”).  This should be part of your routine, not just in open-ended investigative work but also in illustrative practicals of the ‘follow this recipe’ style.

(NB Illustrative practical work is designed to elucidate a concept and is tightly controlled in terms of outcomes by the nature of the activity.  It will often involve learners following a set of instructions, with limited opportunities for them to make their own decisions.  However, with a little thought the result of the experiment need not be ‘given away’ at the start of the activity).

The words ‘Predict and Prediction’ can be included in a science word bank on display, best placed near the position in your classroom where you tend to introduce work and conduct plenaries. In group activities, allow time for learners to talk to each other about their predictions. Ask for a group prediction if possible – this often leads learners to justify their predictions to each other.  If they do not attempt to explain their predictions, always stimulate thinking by simply asking why they think that will happen.

It is a good idea to think about ‘Making a prediction’ before your science lessons and making this part of your science lesson planning routine.



STRATEGY 2 – Provide a basis for learners’ predictions

When introducing a ‘hands-on’ enquiry, have the equipment available to show the class. You might demonstrate quickly how the testing will take place, then ask the class for predictions – having an idea about how the testing is going to be carried out makes predicting far more accessible.

Alternatively, you might plan a brief ‘exploratory’ period in which groups can gain direct experience of the testing to be done.  For example, before embarking on an enquiry to find out which material is best at absorbing water, you can distribute the different fabrics together with some hand lenses (or microscopes if available for older learners) to look more closely at the fibres.  Then the learners can be asked to make their predictions. They now have something to base a prediction on.

Without this exploratory phase, the class are bound to base their predictions on everyday life but given the opportunity to observe the fabrics closely,  theories arise as to which will be best, and more importantly, why it will be best. This inevitably requires more time, but it is well worth extending an enquiry by another session to accommodate this.



STRATEGY 3 – Record a prediction in some way

It is a good idea for the teacher to record a whole class prediction, or a few examples of predictions, if differing opinions are expressed.  Some teachers have a prediction board to stick ideas on.

Learners who have started writing can record their own predictions as part of writing up an enquiry.  This is usually one or two sentences and should not take up valuable ‘hands-on’ time as the benefits in terms of developing scientific understanding far outweigh the time-consuming recording of a method. This recording of a prediction is a good way to ensure that learners can check back against their original ideas at the end of an enquiry.

STRATEGY 4 – Predicting doesn’t stop once the ‘hands-on’ activity starts!

Once practical work has started, don’t forget you can still develop the skill of prediction and the timely intervention of an adult during a ‘hands-on’ activity can add greatly to the learning experience.

For example: TEACHER:    “Just wait a second before you push your toy car.  What do you think will happen if you push it harder?”

Young learners find it far easier to speculate on future events when they are considering a specific event and they have concrete experience of the context they are working in.  This can then be extended into a more powerful prediction.

Having pushed the toy harder, the teacher may say:


TEACHER:    “So we can say that ‘The harder you push the toy……..’  You finish it off.  ‘The harder you push the toy, ……..’ This is stimulating learners to make generalisations in preparation for higher level predicting skills needed as they progress through primary education. The language of predicting generalisations can be practised as a whole class with younger learners. They enjoy the rhythm of the sentence construction: “The harder you push, the further it goes!”



STRATEGY 5 – Use a word bank

As mentioned previously, all learners will start predicting by expressing their reasoning in terms of everyday knowledge and will need to be prompted into using their knowledge of science.  To facilitate this with learners at Stage 3 and beyond, it is a good idea to use a new word bank of key vocabulary for each unit of work.  Then insist that when explaining their prediction they use at least one ‘science’ word from the list displayed on the wall in their prediction. This ensures that learners start thinking about scientific concepts in their practical work.

STRATEGY 6 – Challenge deeper thinking about patterns

Many predictions are phrased as generalisations, e.g. ‘The higher the ramp, the further the car will roll because……’

However, we can stimulate deeper thinking in our high attaining, older learners (i.e. those with a reasonable grasp of graph work) by asking for a prediction of the shape of the line on a graph that we might expect.

Once pupils have sketched the shape of their predicted graph, it can be followed up with questions such as:

  • “Will this pattern continue, no matter how many masses we add to the spring?”

(This stimulates a consideration of the range over which a pattern might operate).

  • “So if we double the mass on the elastic band, will it stretch twice as far?” (This is asking if the line will be a straight line or a curve).




  1. How often do the learners in your class get to make a prediction? Are they familiar with the words ‘predict’ and ‘prediction?’
  2. How can you ensure that all learners get involved in predicting and not just the dominant personalities in your class?
  3. Do you allow time for predicting in your lesson planning?
  4. What constraints do you experience in offering an ‘exploratory’ phase before making predictions? How can you overcome them?
  5. How do you ensure that learners can remember what their prediction was by the end of their enquiry?
  6. Think of the last time you intervened and asked a learner to predict what would happen. What was their response?  Were you asking about a specific event or a general pattern?
  7. Think of the next enquiry your class will tackle. What opportunities are likely to present themselves for some impromptu questioning that will develop skills of prediction?
  8. Do you have a science word bank in your classroom? If you do, how often is it changed?
  9. Think of an enquiry that produces data for a line graph. Draw and label the axes on a sketch graph to draw an estimated predicted line. Suggest some questions to stimulate deeper thinking about the patterns that pupils might expect. (Don’t worry – Drawing graphs will be included in later blogs!)
  10. Think of a generalisation your class might enjoy chanting!

Our next post will be on Planning Skills, as part of a series of blog posts by Lawrie Ryan  based on the themes within our Max Science primary: Discovering through Enquiry series. Find out more about the series here!

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