Lesson Plan - An Introduction to Reading North Carolina Maps

A Lesson Plan for Grades 2-4 Social Studies

By Jennifer Job, School of Education, UNC-Chapel Hill

In this lesson, students are introduced to the language of maps and why maps are important in our world. They are given the opportunity to read simple maps and find major features of more complicated maps.

This lesson plan is available as a formatted worksheet which can be printed and distributed. Download the worksheet by clicking the title: reading_maps_k12.pdf

Detail from Americae pars, Nunc Virginia, 1590.

Time Required: Between 20 and 50 minutes, depending on the level of instruction.


  • Projector or Whiteboard for the definitions and instruction
  • Computer access for the requisite maps
  • Worksheet (.pdf)


  1. Depending on level of instruction, the teacher should introduce the students to the following definitions:
    • Map -- A map is more than just a picture of a place. A map is a visual representation; it has words to identify places and symbols to identify different features (railroads, streams, churches, etc.). A map is made to give the reader a sense of a place. Maps are also created for a purpose; in other words, every map does not show everything about a place, otherwise it would be too hard to read. A map may be made to show land, to show streets for directions, to show transportation (like a bus map), or any number of other things.
    • Cartography -- mapmaking. A cartographer makes maps.
    • Orientation -- This is how a reader knows the direction of the map. Cartographers usually put North at the top; if not, he may use a compass rose to show the direction of north. (This is a good time to teach directions of North, South, East, and West.)
    • Scale -- Maps are intentionally smaller than the area they show. The cartographer will use a scale, or a ratio, to show how many miles (or kilometers or feet) equal some length on the map. For instance, one inch may equal ten miles on a map of North Carolina, or one mile on a map of Charlotte.
    • Legend -- This is the list of symbols used on the map and what they mean. A cartographer may color areas differently to show water or dry land or roads. The legend shows what those colors mean.
    • Latitude -- a set of lines drawn horizontally to show where on the globe (representation of the Earth) a map is showing.
    • Longitude -- a set of lines drawn vertically to place a map on a globe. Latitude and Longitude are measured in degrees.
  2. Project the Rail Road map located at http://dc.lib.unc.edu/u?/ncmaps,506 on a screen. (Teachers without access to an LCD projector can also ask advanced students to bring the map up on computer screens.) Show students how the NC Maps site works and how the maps can be manipulated. Ask students to answer the following questions and explain their answers:
    • What is the title of this map? (Railroad Map of North Carolina)
    • What is the date of this map? (1900)
    • Why was this map made? (sample answer: so people would know the routes of the trains)
    • Which way is North? (Pointing to the top) Which way is South? East? West?
    • Zoom in on the legend of the map (bottom right corner). What color is the Atlantic Coast Line? (Green) What color is the Southern Railway Line? (Red)
    • What else does this map tell the reader? (sample answers: terminal stops, mileage)
    • Can you find the county where you live on this map? Describe where it is on the map (sample answers: close to the ocean, in the south, at the top)
  3. Have students complete the handout (.pdf). Activity Two is more advanced than Activity One. You may decide to create a list of links so students don’t have to type in the URLs.

Assessment: Teachers may take up the handouts to assess progress.

North Carolina Curriculum Alignment

First Grade

5.02: Investigate key features of maps.
5.03: Use geographic terminology and tools to create representations of the earth's physical and human features through simple maps, models, and pictures.

Second Grade

5.04: Identify the absolute and relative location of communities.
5.05: Interpret maps, charts, and pictures of locations.

Third Grade

4.01: Distinguish between various types of maps and globes.
4.02: Use appropriate source maps to locate communities.

Fourth Grade

1.01: Locate, in absolute and relative terms, major landforms, bodies of water and natural resources in North Carolina.
1.02: Describe and compare physical and cultural characteristics of the regions.
1.03: Suggest some influences that location has on life in North Carolina such as major cities, recreation areas, industry, and farms.