Age of Exploration Unit

Key questions covered by this unit: 

What does it mean to explore?

What does it mean to be an explorer?

What important explorations have taken place throughout history, both before and after the Age of Exploration?

What was the Age of Exploration?

How did the Age of Exploration begin?

How did Europeans view the world before the Age of Exploration?

How did world maps change as a result of the Age of Exploration?

What motivated the European explorers?

What is the meaning of “God, Gold, and Glory?”

What was the idea of mercantilism?

What was it like to be an explorer?

What did explorers need to know before going on an expedition? How did they prepare for expeditions?

What was Prince Henry’s School of Navigation?

How did explorers get royal sponsorships for expeditions?

What challenges, diseases, and trials did the explorers face?

What was the journey to the New World like?

What navigational technology was used by explorers? (caravel, astrolabe, compass, cross-staff, sextant, hourglass, chip log, lead line)

What is cartography?

How were maps made during the Age of Exploration?

Who were the key explorers? (Christopher Columbus, Hernando de Soto, Ferdinand Magellan, Prince Henry the Navigator, Vasco Nunez de Balboa, Juan Ponce de Leon, Amerigo Vespucci, John Cabot, Henry Hudson, Bartholomew Dias, Vasco da Gama, Giovanni de Verrazano, Jacques Cartier, Roberto LaSalle)

What was the Northwest Passage?

What was the Columbian Exchange?

What did explorers discover in the New World?

What did explorers bring to the New World?

How did the Age of Exploration impact Native Americans?  

Every single day’s detailed lesson plan includes:

  • Key question(s) addressed by that day’s lesson

  • Materials that need to be gathered prior to the lesson
  • Connection activity, video, or discussion to activate prior knowledge and/or engage students before beginning the lesson
  • Detailed description of what to say and instruct students to do during the lesson
  • Ideas for enrichment to extend the lesson for students needing/wanting a challenge or if you have additional time leftover in class or at the end of the unit
  • Ideas for informal assessments to monitor your students
  • Ideas for formal assessments to gauge your students’ understanding
  • Ready to print! This detailed plan is ready to sit on the corner of your desk for anyone who wants to know what your plan for the day is to read!

Leveled Texts

There are two volumes of MANY differentiated texts for you to use with your students during these lessons. You can also use these leveled texts during guided reading groups within your reading or ELA block as reinforcement of the concepts that are taught. They are perfect for easy integration!

Activity Sheets, Handouts, Center Rotations, Visual Display

All of the lesson plans are written to make this content engaging and exciting for students. Every activity sheet or handout you need to teach this content is included in the unit. In addition to activity sheets, there is also a set of center rotations, a visual display activity, and several partner/group activities included to keep students active and engaged.

Student Organization Throughout the Unit

It is recommended that students collect all activity sheets, handouts, passages, etc. in one place throughout the course of this unit. You may choose to have them glue/tape/staple their work into a Social Studies interactive notebook or collect them all in a designated folder or section within a binder. Whatever you choose to have students do, keeping everything in one place will make it much easier to review at the end of the unit.

At the end of most lessons, you will find a “Key Teaching Point.” It is recommended that you designate a place for students to record these key ideas throughout the unit so that they may refer back to them. These teaching points represent the focus of the lesson that students should grasp by the end of the class period.

Editable Rubrics for Assessment

For each of the above activity sheets and assignments mentioned, there are rubrics included that you can use to assess your students. Additionally, there are editable versions of the rubrics, study guide, and final assessment included. This will allow you to adjust them to fit your needs.

Before giving grades, be sure to share the rubrics with your students to make them aware of what is expected of them.

Study Guide and Final Assessment

Included are a study guide and a final assessment that address all of the key questions that are covered by this unit. There is an editable version of both documents included in the “Editable Documents” file. You can access this file through the Unit PDF you downloaded when you purchased this unit plan.

The final assessment is very comprehensive. This is purposeful – it allows you to alter and modify it to best fit your students’ needs.



My Story: Why I Began Writing Passages

*A Big Change

When my husband and I relocated to a new area for his job, I had to change grade levels in order to work at my dream school. Jumping from 2nd grade to 5th grade was an overwhelming thought that had me in a state of panic for the majority of the summer leading up to the school year. One of the areas I knew I would need the most help in was content – specifically, social studies. I would be moving from teaching topics such as “What is a good citizen?” and “What is a community?” to teaching “Explain Lincoln’s plans for Reconstruction.” and “What does globalization look like today.” Cue a dropped jaw and sleepless nights with social studies textbooks dancing in my head.


*Learning to Love History

I’ll be honest…I never loved social studies class growing up. History did not really interest me. Remembering dates was not my thing, so I never felt like I had a really good grasp on things. However, one of the things that I most passionately believe to be true about teaching is that your students grow to love what you love. An enthusiastic teacher can engage students with the most boring lesson about pencil shavings if they have the right attitude and passion. I knew I needed to find a way to at least like social studies so that I could teach my students more passionately.

And so, it began. My husband, a history buff, was thrilled that his reluctant wife was finally interested in learning a thing or two about the Past. He and I rented movies on Netflix to start off with. (If you’ve never seen the “Men Who Built America” and “American Genius” series’, they are a great place to start!) I also checked out historical fiction books that were related to the topics I’d be teaching and that my 5th graders might be reading, such as Elijah of Buxton, 40 Acres and Maybe a Mule, Prisoner B-3807, Number the Stars, Lions of Little Rock, and so on. I finally started to see a glimpse of light… Maybe history isn’t so bad after all, I began to think. 

Finally, I got to the point where I was actually a little bit excited about the content I was going to get to teach: U.S. History from Reconstruction after the Civil War to Present Day. I mean, how fascinating are some of the events that took place during that time span?! Hitler and his Nazi Army of World War II. The attacks of September 11, 2001. Lincoln and Kennedy’s assassinations. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s strained relationship with Malcolm X. The list goes on and on! Once my own heart had changed towards the subject, I was finally able to start wrapping my mind around developing lesson plans for my kids.


*An Empowering Challenge

Around the same time that I was soul searching to find a love of history, I was partaking in a research class though my local National Writing Project organization. (Side note… If you aren’t connected with the local project in your area, get involved now! I cannot say enough good things about the many ways the project improved my teaching.) If you’re not familiar with the program, the basic idea is that a group of teachers get together, choose teaching methods and strategies to research, and then share the strategies and best practices with the group. So, in addition to having an opportunity to conduct research on a best practice strategy of my choice, I was also able to learn from the hard work of all of the other teachers in my class about what they found to be best practice. Win-win!

At this point, my recollection of my own project is a bit hazy. I believe I presented on something related to the power of consistently exposing students to poetry, but the actual content of my project is not important. What really stuck with me from the class was a presentation that a lead teacher from a huge school in my district shared. Her focus was on the best practice of differentiating reading instruction in content areas. Her argument for differentiated passages in the content area was this:

*Easy integration of reading and content area (science or social studies)

*Easy way to save time (kill two birds with one stone by practicing reading skills while learning necessary content)

*Easy differentiation to meet students where they are

*Covers content within textbooks that may not be accessible to lower readers who can’t comprehend it

As the lead teacher, she knew that her school had purchased several sets of differentiated passages from major publishing companies. However, the differentiated passage sets were THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS. We all know money does not grow on trees in the public school system! So, her idea was to empower teachers to create their own differentiated passages for use in their classrooms. She taught our class several strategies for taking a text and altering the levels to fit multiple levels of readers. And thus, the idea for differentiated passages was born in my mind.


*Coming Together

By the time the lead teacher I mentioned above shared her idea of creating differentiated passages, I had reached a point where history was really interesting to me. I also was at the point where I fully recognized how little I knew about the content I was going to have to teach my kids in the upcoming year. So, I decided that, while I was working on researching to create a foundational knowledge of the content for myself, I could simultaneously create something to use with my students in the classroom.

To give you a little bit of background about myself, writing has always been in my wheelhouse of passions. I grew up scribbling poems and stories in a many journals and diaries as my mom would let me get my hands on. I lived for English class when I was assigned writing projects and papers while the rest of the class would sigh, moan, and grumble. When I was in high school, I worked for the school newspaper and interned at my local town newspaper. I participated in creative writing contests and submitted my work. I have ALWAYS loved to write. So, it felt very natural to me to want to write about what I was learning as I conducted research. 

I started at the beginning of my state’s standards - Reconstruction. I first researched and then started writing. I’d gather as much as I could learn about the topic, check my standards to see which key people/events/ideas needed to be focused on, and then I’d begin writing passages. After the passages were written, I’d then focus on leveling them. I created three levels for each passage - below grade level, on grade level, and above grade level. (Side note… I’ve now extended this to five levels. All new passage sets I create include five levels to give teachers maximum options. I am in the process of adding additional levels to older passage sets with the goal of including five levels for ALL passage sets included in my shop.)


*Back to School

For the remainder of the summer, I buried myself in the local library with my laptop, researching and writing as much as I possibly could. But, by the time the school year came around, I had only created passage sets for the first three units of my social studies curriculum. However, I had created enough momentum that I was able to continue creating resources for the remainder of my units throughout the school year.

As I created passage sets, I added them to my Teachers pay Teachers store to provide other teachers with access to differentiated passages at a much cheaper cost than the major publishing companies were charging. The more passage sets I added to my shop, the more requests I got for additional passage sets. By the end of the year, I had completely covered all of my state-mandated curriculum with passage sets, and I had also developed a whole new list of ideas based on what other teachers needed. I knew how beneficial the passage sets had been in my own classroom, and I wanted to share that same resource with as many other teachers as possible. I continued my research and writing to extend beyond the content that was covered in my own classroom, and the rest is history!

Differentiated Instruction (Part 3)

Want to learn more about why I began developing differentiated passages? Read my story here! (Link to Post #4 below)

*Differentiated Passages for Quick Differentiation

Differentiated passages (also called “tiered texts” or “leveled texts”) make differentiation a breeze. The idea behind differentiated passages is that you can share the same rich information with every reader on every level in your class. All you have to do is match each reader up with his or her best fitting passage level and voila! Students will be able to learn the same information in a way that is most accessible to them as individuals.

***insert graphic from Differentiated Passages Snapshot that shows the gradient of passages, text complexity, vocab, etc.***


Each level…

Includes the same key content. Your high-flying readers might have access to a few extra “fun facts” or more specific dates, but the key content that is central to the text is the same for every reader. Your lower readers won’t miss any information that the high readers have access to.

Varies in overall length. Lower reading levels are often shortened to cut down the text to include the essential information. Think of it like teaching multiplication to third graders. High-flyers can be challenged by jumping into three-digit multiplication to meet their needs, while sweet-and-lows will be best served by sticking with single-digit multiplication at first. The end goal for all students is to learn how to multiply, but the paths that all of the different learners take are unique.

Varies in sentence structure and complexity. Higher level texts include longer, more complex sentences. Lower level texts include shorter sentences that are easier for students to comprehend in small, manageable chunks.

Varies in complexity of vocabulary. Key content-related terms are included and defined on each level, but the overall vocabulary for each passage level varies. Higher level passages include larger words and more sophisticated vocabulary, while lower level passages include smaller more common words.


*How to Use Differentiated Passages

• During Social Studies / Science Instruction to Teach New Information and Supplement / Enhance the Textbook
Textbooks can be such a great resource, but they can also be quite frustrating. They are filled with information, but they also have a few key flaws. First off, textbooks tend not to line up perfectly with standards. I found that my textbook added a lot of information to cover areas that I didn’t need, while it lacked in other essential areas. Additionally, textbooks only come in one level. I’d like to think that they were written for my on grade level readers, but I honestly think they best fit my higher readers.

Enter differentiated passages. They are perfect because they are short and to the point. Each passage has a narrowed focus on one topic so that you can easily choose only the most relevant topics to your standards or unit. You can also choose not to use passages that cover material that doesn’t fit in your curriculum or unit plan. Another idea is to use the passages to extend learning in the textbook. Often, students will find one or two things that the textbook skimmed over that they are really interested in learning more about. This is the point at which I can pull out a differentiated passage on the topic of interest and allow the student to learn more!

Additionally, you can use differentiated passages to add to or enhance what your textbook does cover. There are some sections of my textbook that I think did an excellent job of covering a certain topic. In these cases, I will just share the differentiated passages with my students to add onto what the textbook already covered. There is a very helpful resource included in each differentiated passage set that covers Common Core standard 2.9 in regards to comparing two or more texts on the same topic. Comparing the information in your textbook with the information from a differentiated passage topic is an easy, effective way to cover the content and practice key reading strategies.


• In Guided Reading Groups and for Close Reading Practice

One of the biggest benefits of the differentiated passages is that they allow for quick and easy integration. Learn the social studies or science content you have to cover and practice reading skills at the same time. What could be easier?! These passages are short and concise, usually being only around a page long, so they’re perfect for close reading practice as well.

• For Homework, Classwork, or Morning Work

Once you initially expose students to the format of the differentiated passages and model how to read/respond to them for the first time, students can easily work on them independently. You can assign the passages and questions as review for homework, for students to work on independently or in groups during class, or as morning work to start off the day.

I’ve had many teachers tell me that they assign the reading passages as weekly homework! The “High-Interest” passage sets are perfect for this if you plan to use content-area passages during class time. For example, you could work on Civil War passages in class together and then send home August History passages as additional reading practice. Check out the “High-Interest” passage series here! (Link here:


• Center Rotations

Using center rotations is not just limited to the literacy or math block if you use a program like math/reading workshop or the Daily 5. Using center rotations with my students in social studies was one of my very favorite things to do - and theirs, too! And, including a differentiated passage as a center rotation was another one of my favorite things to do. I trained students which “shape” to look for and included several copies of the passage on each level in the center rotation bucket. (When I say shapes, I am referring to a discrete shape in the corner of each passage that indicates which level the passage is.) Students can all read the same content on their just-right levels and then work together to answer the same set of questions as a group or in partner sets.

If you want to see my center rotations in action or try them out for yourself, check out my social studies unit plans. (Link here:


• Research Projects

It is so challenging to find on-grade level, content-rich texts for students to use when researching. Differentiated passages make an excellent reference for students when they are conducting research projects, creating booklets/pamphlets, etc.! 

• For Assessment, Unit Review, and Test Prep

You can easily use the differentiated passages for assessment because each individual passage includes a set of questions (usually around eight questions) with an answer key. You can pick and choose which questions you want the students to answer for each passage or have them answer them all.

Many teachers have also used these passage sets for unit review or to prepare for an end-of-year or end-of-course test. Again, because the passages are usually only around a page per topic, it’s easy to just grab the passages for topics you need to review and share them with the students.

For more information and guidance on differentiation and differentiated reading passages, check out this snapshot guide here! ***Link to Differentiated Passage Snapshot on TpT:***

To see a full listing of differentiated passages that you can begin using today to differentiate your instruction right away, click here! ***Link to all passages custom listing on TpT:***


Differentiated Instruction (Part 2)

*What Does Differentiated Reading Look Like?

If your reading class was anything like mine growing up, your teacher likely used the whole group method. Every student in the class had the same book and worked on the same skill at the same time. Differentiated reading instruction is the complete opposite. Differentiated reading instruction means you allow students to practice reading with texts of varying levels and focusing on varying skills.

Differentiated instruction typically takes place in small groups after whole group instruction has occurred.

-The teacher shares a mini-lesson with the whole group in which content, skill, or strategy is taught.

-Students then engage in independent reading time in which they engage with a text and respond to it.*

-The teacher leads group meetings or holds individual conferences with students who need additional support or guidance.

-At the end of the instruction period, students reconvene together to share their responses to the text.

*Note that, in some cases, students may be able to meet in small groups or with partners during this time as opposed to working independently. See further discussion in the header below entitled ‘Differentiated Instruction in Groups.'

Managing a differentiated classroom may seem overwhelming to you, even more than gathering the materials required to do it. (See Part 3 of this series to learn more about getting the materials you need to easily differentiate.) However, like with all classroom routines and procedures, proper modeling and practice allows students to learn the routines of differentiated learning very well. In fact, I’ve even found that managing a differentiated classroom can be easier than trying to engage every single student in whole group. When students are engaged in differentiated tasks, they are more focused and attentive to their work because what they’re being asked to do isn’t too challenging or too simple - it’s a just right fit that holds their attention.


*How Do I Begin Differentiating My Reading Instruction?

Simply put, differentiated instruction is flexible and data-driven. You must know your students as readers and as learners. 

COLLECT AND ANALYZE DATA regarding reading levels: You need to assess where your students are as readers on some sort of scale. You might need to keep a running record or do a Fountas & Pinnell benchmark test to find each student’s reading level. You may choose to use the STAAR test to find Lexile levels. Know your students’ ability levels on whatever scale you choose to use in your classroom or that your school or district mandates that you use. These reading level analytics do not give you the perfect picture of your students’ abilities by any means, but they do give you a good starting point. It is up to you to analyze the data you collect in combination with your experiences with the reader to make decisions about the students’ overall reading ability.

REFLECT ON OBSERVATIONS about learning styles: You should also informally assess learning styles and student motivation as another piece to the puzzle for each individual student as a reader. Reflect on if your students are highly motivated, easily distracted, work well with others, highly interested in particular topics but not others, etc. All of these factors will impact your students’ performance in reading.


*Differentiated Reading Instruction in Groups

Flexible and varied grouping is central to differentiated instruction. We all love to make group charts that are pretty, laminated, and typed up on paper with fancy borders. However, best practice for differentiation is to change up the groups and grouping methods on a regular basis. Switch between whole group, small group, and individual practice. Whenever possible, allow students to work with random partners in class. Also, form observation-based and data-driven groups. Flexible grouping prevents students from feeling labeled or limited.

Rationale for small groups (from Reading Rockets): "Students in small groups in the classroom learned significantly more than students who were not instructed in small groups." []

If you use a reader’s workshop model in your classroom, you will likely have students engaged with the text individually after the whole group lesson. However, with clear expectations and guidelines set in place, students can also be placed in heterogeneous groups to work with differentiated texts independent from the teacher.

Rationale for teacher-led groups (from Reading Rockets): "Small-group instruction offers an environment for teachers to provide students extensive opportunities to express what they know and receive feedback from other students and the teacher. Instructional conversations are easier to conduct and support with a small group of students (Goldenberg, 1993).” []

Rationale for student-led groups (from Reading Rockets): "Student-led small groups have become increasingly popular based on the effective implementation of reciprocal teaching (Palincsar & Brown, 1984). This procedure allows students to take turns assuming the role of the leader and guiding reading instruction through question direction and answer facilitation.” []

Groups should be formed and assignments should be given based on the needs of the individual students. The following ideas for differentiated instruction amongst groups can be used both in teacher-led meetings or when students meet in groups that are independent from the teacher.


1 - Ability grouping, same text, different skills

*Group your students homogeneously based on their reading levels.

*Each group reads the same text on the same level. 

*Each group focuses on different content or skills. Above grade level readers might focus more on extending comprehension beyond the text to think critically about the author’s message. Below grade level readers might focus more on the skill of summarizing the content learned in the text.


2 - Ability grouping, different text, same skills

*Group your students homogeneously based on their reading levels.

*Each group reads a different level text. Give a more challenging text to the above grade level readers and a more basic text to the below grade level readers.

*Each group of readers focuses on the same extension and comprehension exercises related to the reading afterwards.


3 - Ability grouping, different text, different skills

*Group your students homogeneously based on reading levels.

*Each group reads a different level text. Give a more challenging text to the above grade level readers and a more basic text to the below grade level readers.

*Each group focuses on different tasks to extend their understanding and practice comprehension.

You can also differentiate groups by…

Varying the size of the group. Struggling readers or lower achieving students should be placed in smaller groups of 3-5 students at most. Other students can work easily and effectively in groups of 5-7 students.

Varying the length of time given for an assignment. Struggling students will likely need more time to work on any given assignment. Be sure to take this into account when planning. Consider using the additional time for enrichment learning opportunities for higher achieving students.

Varying the frequency of meeting. You may choose to meet with struggling readers more often, whereas fluent readers need less check-ins and monitoring.

For an excellent list of how to specifically differentiate your instruction by content, process, products, and learning environment, check out this article:



Differentiated Instruction (Part 1)

Put simply, differentiation is about meeting the needs of different learners so that all can be successful in the learning process. Differentiation acknowledges that students are unique individuals with diverse needs. Differentiation acknowledges that one size does not fit all. Differentiating your instruction provides multiple ways for students to access information and practice skills. 


*What is Differentiated Instruction?

Differentiated instruction is an approach to teaching - not a single strategy or program. The idea is to get all of your students to the same end goal by allowing them to take different paths, rather than forcing all of them down one singular, preset path.

Differentiation is not, however, a free-for-all. It does not mean letting go of expectations or high standards. Instead, it means being more purposeful and intentional in providing students with multiple means of getting where they need to go based on their individual needs. It does not mean letting struggling students off the hook or giving gifted students more work to do. It does not mean struggling students get boring, repetitive or easy work while higher achieving students get to do all of the “fun stuff." It just means that you uniquely meet both groups where they are.

Fair is not equal, right? Equal means everyone gets the exact same thing. Fair means everyone gets what they need in order to be successful. Differentiating your instruction is about giving students what they need in order to be successful in your classroom. What one child needs is likely very different from the next!


*Why Differentiate Instruction?

Have you ever heard the saying, “Mama knows best!”? In the case of differentiation, the answer to “Why differentiate?” is about similar to this familiar saying – “Research knows best!” According to any research you will find ANYWHERE, differentiated instruction is powerful and effective.

From ASCD: "Compared with the general student population, students with mild or severe learning disabilities received more benefits from differentiated and intensive support, especially when the differentiation was delivered in small groups or with targeted instruction (McQuarrie, McRae, & Stack-Cutler, 2008). Tieso (2005) studied 31 math teachers and 645 students and found that differentiated instruction was effective for keeping high-ability students challenged in heterogeneous classrooms.” [

From the International Journal of Education: "The use of the one-size-fits-all curriculum no longer meets the needs of the majority of learners (Forsten, Grant, and Hollas, 2002; McBride, 2004; McCoy and Ketterlin-Geller, 2004; Tomlinson, 2002; Tomlinson and Kalbfleisch, 1998)… Addressing student differences and interest appears to enhance their motivation to learn while encouraging them to remain committed and stay positive (Stronge, 2004; Tomlinson, 2004b). Ignoring these fundamental differences may result in some students falling behind, losing motivation and failing to succeed (Tomlinson and Kalbfleisch, 1998). Students who may be advanced and motivated may become lost as the teacher strives to finish as much of the curriculum as possible (Tomlinson and Kalbfleisch, 1998). It would further appear that students learn effectively when tasks are moderately challenging, neither too simple nor too complex (Tomlinson, 2004b)." []

As a personal reflection from my experience in my own classroom, I’ve also learned that differentiating instruction has benefits beyond just student growth, motivation, and achievement. Differentiating your instruction draws you into a closer and more meaningful relationship with each of your students. You’re forced to get to know them better as the little people that they are when you seek to learn more about their individual needs as learners. You’ll find yourself interacting with each individual more and forming more personal relationships with them.


*A Little Honesty: Challenges of Differentiation

There is a reason why every teacher in the world is not differentiating his or her instruction. Practically speaking, differentiating your instruction is one of the most challenging things you can do as a teacher. There is no preset formula for how to best differentiate because your students are such dynamic readers and thinkers. For example, you may have two students who are on GRL M, but they may have completely different levels of interest in and motivation to read. They may have the same reading abilities, but you’ve got two totally different readers on your hands, and you have to figure out the best way to serve each. 

There is no pre-planned roadmap that can perfectly account for both of those different learners. For that reason, differentiation is always a work in progress - it is ongoing. You will have to continually assess and reassess your students to see where they are and how you can help them move forward. That’s not an easy pill to swallow for us type-A teacher planners who like to follow a 3-step program. But, according to research, it is what is best for the students as individual learners(Go back and re-read the section on research if you need to! I know I had to read it a few times when I was first swallowing the differentiation pill.)

Differentiation may be more challenging to adopt, and it may be the road less traveled by the majority of teachers, but don’t we often tell our students that the challenging tasks they face are the most rewarding? There is nothing like the growth you will see in your students when you serve them exactly where their needs are. They’ll feel more successful and be more motivated to work. You will draw into a closer relationship with them as you focus on getting to know them better as learners and people. The “just right fit” instruction they receive will allow them to grow and thrive as learners.

The reward is great. Are you up for the challenge to differentiate?