Pin Me

Creating a Dichotomous Key

written by: Janelle Martel • edited by: Noreen Gunnell • updated: 8/2/2012

A Dichotomous Key is helpful for identifying objects or conditions found in the natural world. You can make your own as a fun school project!

  • slide 1 of 3

    A dichotomous key is a tool that asks questions in order to identify of items within the natural world. Dichotomous means "split it two" and, therefore, two choices are given at each step. Creating your own dichotomous key can help to develop skills of categorizing, organization, and comparing.

  • slide 2 of 3


    First of all, you need to examine the objects you will be comparing. Characteristics used in the dichotomous key must be constant or, in other words, not vary. The user of your key should be easily able to identify the answer to the questions. Therefore, make sure you use the correct terms and, when necessary, use measurements rather than objective words. Here's how to create a dichotomous key.


    In this key, we will be comparing the desk items of pencil with eraser, pen, paper clip, staple, thumb tack, and eraser, as everyone is familiar with these items and no technical terms are necessary.

    1a. Object is used for writing.......... Go to 2.

    1b. Object is not used for writing.......Go to 3.

    A clear division between our items are items used for writing and other desktop items. This is a good comparison as there will be no confusion about where the object fits and the items will be clearly divided.

    2a. Object contains ink........Pen

    2b. Object does not contain ink.......Pencil with eraser

    Our writing objects only had two objects remaining - pen and pencil with eraser. This is a good time to split them in two, and determine the object. The most obvious difference is compared here.

    3a. Object is used to attach papers......Go to 4.

    3b. Object is not used to attach papers......Eraser

    Being left with eraser, thumb tack, paper clip, and staple, we once again need to divide our objects. Here we classify the paper clip, thumb tack, and staple together, while leaving eraser to be revealed.

    4a. Object does make holes in paper...........Go to 5.

    4b. Object does not make holes in paper.......Paperclip

    Both the thumb tack and staple make holes in the paper, leading them to be categorized together. The comparison here can be easily made to reveal the paperclip.

    5a. Object attaches paper to paper.......staple

    5b. Object attaches paper to hard surfaces.....thumb tack

    Left with the staple and thumb tack, the obvious comparison is the surface of what the object is used to attach paper to. All objects have now been revealed, and the dichotomous key is complete.

  • slide 3 of 3

    Further Information

    The dichotomous key above used functions of the objects to make comparisons. Another way of completing a dichotomous key with these objects would be to make comparisons of the objects' composition. This could be done by comparing wooden, metal, and rubber objects, for example. There are many ways to approach a dichotomous key, but the most important thing is to make sure two clear choices are given, and that these choices are always constant.

More To Explore