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How to Read the Periodic Table of Elements

Read Time: 2 minutes

The periodic table of elements contains the building blocks that make up the objects in our world. Water is a combination of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Carbon atoms are in all living things.

As of 2016, the periodic table contains 118 unique elements. Scientists are trying to create new elements by using particle accelerometers, but this can be a tricky process.

Once you’re familiar with the element key, layout and structure, it’s easy to read the periodic table.

Element Key

The box containing each element’s information is known as the element key. Each key contains an element’s name, unique symbol, atomic weight and atomic number.

Oxygen, for example, has an atomic number of 8, an atomic weight of 15.996 and a unique symbol, “O.”

Atomic Number

Each element is ordered by its atomic number, which is located in the top left corner of each element key. The atomic number corresponds to the number of protons located inside an element’s nucleus and the number of electrons surrounding the element’s nucleus.

Carbon’s atomic number is 6, which means it has six protons inside its nucleus and six electrons surrounding its nucleus.

Atomic Mass

The atomic mass is the number located at the bottom of an element key. This number is the average mass of the element’s isotopes, including all electrons, protons and neutrons. Isotopes have the same number of protons, but a different number of neutrons.

Scientists created elements 93 through 118 in a laboratory. These artificial elements don’t exist naturally and haven’t survived longer than several milliseconds at a time. The atomic weight of these elements is based on the element that survived longest when it was created, and can change based on future research.


Elements are grouped into columns based on their chemical properties. Each column is labeled with a Roman numeral, or in modern tables, with an Arabic numeral. This is the number of electrons an element has in its outer shell, which are known as valence electrons.

Valence electrons are the number of electrons an element has available to bond with other elements to make molecules.

how to read the periodic tableFeatured Image By: Armtuk (Own Work). This image is under the CC-BY-SA-3.0 licence via Wikimedia Commons.


Each element’s nucleus is surrounded by a shell which can only hold a certain number of electrons. Elements in the periodic table are broken out into rows based on the number of shells they have.

Neon is in the second row, or period, which means it has two shells. The first shell can only hold two electrons, while the second shell can hold up to eight electrons, for a total of 10.


To make it easier to read the periodic table, modern versions include color-coding which breaks out elements into their different groups, such as noble gases, metals, etc. Elements 57 through 71 and 89 through 103 are in separate rows because they are classified in different groups with different properties.

Using the guide above, you should be able to read the periodic table with ease.

Category: Chemistry

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Article by: Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance science writer and science enthusiast. Her favorite subjects include astronomy and the environment. She encourages discussions in these fields. Megan is also a regular contributor to Datafloq, The Energy Collective, and David Renke's World of Space. When she isn't writing, Megan loves watching movies, hiking and stargazing. Love what you're reading on Schooled By Science? Don't forget to subscribe today.