Plate Tectonics


Plate Tectonics explains the movements of the earth’s crust and the different ways by which that movement occurs. Students will learn the three types of boundaries and be able to provide examples of each. They will also discover and identify major continental plates of the earth.

There are several ideas listed in the “Options for Lesson” section that you could take advantage of if you have time or want to extend the lesson. One such option is to distribute a world map that shows the seven continents and have students draw in the plate boundaries.

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What our Plate Tectonics lesson plan includes

Lesson Objectives and Overview: Plate Tectonics explores the movements of Earth’s crust. Students will discover the two types of tectonic plates and the three kinds of boundaries that the plate encounter. They will be able to describe and identify major continental plates of the earth. This lesson is for students in 4th grade, 5th grade, and 6th grade.

Classroom Procedure

Every lesson plan provides you with a classroom procedure page that outlines a step-by-step guide to follow. You do not have to follow the guide exactly. The guide helps you organize the lesson and details when to hand out worksheets. It also lists information in the yellow box that you might find useful. You will find the lesson objectives, state standards, and number of class sessions the lesson should take to complete in this area. In addition, it describes the supplies you will need as well as what and how you need to prepare beforehand. For this lesson, you will need to provide scissors, glue, colored pencils, and construction paper. You will also need a world map for display.

Options for Lesson

The “Options for Lesson” section of the classroom procedure page outlines several additional ideas for the lesson. You can take advantage of these if you have time or want to extend the lesson. A couple ideas relate specifically to the activity. Students could work in pairs, for example. And you could have them include arrows that show the plate movements at the different boundaries. Another idea is to replace the activity and instead have students redraw the plates on larger-sized paper, labeling and shading each one. You could also distribute a world map displaying the seven continents and have students draw in the plate boundaries. Alternatively, you could have them redraw the world as Pangaea on a separate paper using the world map for reference.

Teacher Notes

The teacher notes page gives you a little extra guidance on the lesson. It describes the importance of stressing the concepts of tectonic movements and not focusing so much on memorizing names of places. You can use the blank lines to write down any other thoughts you have before presenting the lesson to your students.


What Are Plate Tectonics?

The Plate Tectonics lesson plan contains three pages of content. The lesson begins by asking students whether or not they can feel the earth moving beneath them. The answer, of course, is probably not. Students will learn, however, that the earth is actually always moving. The earth’s surface constantly moves throughout the world, but it moves at very slow speeds. Because of this, people don’t notice or can’t feel it moving.

Every year, the earth moves between one and six inches. The reason it moves is because of the concept of plate tectonics. The lithosphere of the earth, which includes the earth’s crust and part of the mantle, is the layer of the earth that moves. It divides into big pieces that we call tectonic plates. Some plates are so big that they cover entire continents. There are seven major plates: African, Antarctic, Eurasian, North American, South American, India-Australian, and Pacific. These roughly align with the seven continents. In addition, there are 10 other minor plates: Somali, Nazca, Philippine Sea, Arabian, Caribbean, Cocos, Caroline, Scotia, Burma, and New Hebrides.

Tectonic plates are around 62 miles thick. There are two main types: oceanic and continental. The oceanic plates consist of crust below the oceans. Scientists refer to them as sima because their main components are silicon and magnesium. Continental plates include the surfaces of the earth below the continents. These are sial because their main components are silicon and aluminum. Because there are different plates, there are different plate boundaries. The three main types of boundaries are convergent, divergent, and transform.

Types of Boundaries

The first type of boundary is convergent. Convergent means push together, so plates at these boundaries push toward each other. One plate moves under the other, which is the process called subduction. Students will discover that it is by this process that mountains and volcanoes develop over a long period of time. In addition, earthquakes often occur along these boundaries. Examples of convergent boundaries include the Marian Trench, which is the deepest part of the ocean between the Pacific and Mariana plates. Mount Everest and the other Himalayan mountains formed between the Indian and Eurasian plates.

Divergent boundaries are the opposite of convergent boundaries. Instead of pushing toward each other, they spread apart, creating a rift. A rift is the area of land that results from this divergence. In fact, magma from below the earth’s surface can then push up from the mantle and reach the surface. Examples include the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the East Pacific Ridge, East African Great Rift Valley, and the Galapagos Rise.

The final main type of boundary is the transform boundary. Students will learn that plates at these boundaries slide laterally past each other. These locations create faults where earthquakes often occur. They don’t create much of a change on the earth’s surface, however. Examples include the San Andreas Fault in California, which is between the North American and Pacific plates, and the Alpine Fault in New Zealand.

At the end, students will also learn a little about Pangaea. This is the giant land mass that the world used to have before the continents separated over the course of 250 million years. Scientists actually use GPS to track the movement of the tectonic plates. Hopefully, they will one day be able to predict the occurrences and locations of earthquakes.

Key Terms

Here is a list of the vocabulary words students will learn in this lesson plan:

  • Lithosphere: the part of the earth’s surface made of several layers that moves and includes the crust and part of the upper mantle
  • Tectonic plates: big pieces of land that move
  • Oceanic plates: plates that consist of crust below the oceans and that are made of mostly silicon and magnesium; called sima
  • Continental plates: plates that include the surfaces of the earth below the continents and that are made of mostly silicon and aluminum; called sial
  • Subduction: the process in which one plate moves under another that occurs at convergent boundaries
  • Rift: the area of land that occurs when plates spread apart at divergent boundaries
  • Pangaea: the name for the one, giant land mass that existed 250 million years ago when most of the continents were undivided


The Plate Tectonics lesson plan includes three worksheets: an activity worksheet, a practice worksheet, and a homework assignment. These worksheets will assist students in solidifying their comprehension of the lesson material. The guidelines on the classroom procedure page outline when to hand out each of the worksheets to the students.


The activity comprises two pages of puzzles pieces that represent 14 tectonic plates. Students will cut apart each plate and correctly join them together. They will then label the plates using the titles in the chart in the top-right of the first worksheet page. As the “Options for Lesson” section mentions, you can have students draw bigger puzzle pieces and create a larger map.


There are two sections for the practice worksheet. The first section lists 15 definitions. Students will match the definitions to the correct terms from the word bank on the right. For the second section, students will first list the 7 major plates and then list the 10 minor plates alphabetically.


The homework assignment likewise splits into three sections. For the first section asks students to explain the three types of boundaries and draw arrows to demonstrate the correct movement. Next, they will answer nine questions based on the content pages. The last section requires them to draw a picture that shows how the world might appear in 250 million years.

Worksheet Answer Keys

The final pages of the lesson plan are answer keys for the worksheets. The answer key for the activity shows the correct placement for the 14 tectonic plates. The answer keys for the practice and homework worksheets show the correct answers in red. For the most part, students responses should mirror the answer keys. However, the homework assignment will have some variation. Students’ pictures of the future world will like vary greatly from student to student. Students’ responses for the first section that explain the three boundaries may also vary slightly from the answer key. If you choose to administer the lesson pages to your students via PDF, you will need to save a new file that omits these pages. Otherwise, you can simply print out the applicable pages and keep these as reference for yourself when grading assignments.

Additional information


4th Grade, 5th Grade, 6th Grade


Science, Video

State Educational Standards

LB.ELA-Literacy.SL.4.1, LB.ELA-Literacy.SL.4.1.C, LB.ELA-Literacy.SL.4.5, LB.ELA-Literacy.SL.5.1, LB.ELA-Literacy.SL.5.1.C, LB.ELA-Literacy.SL.5.5, LB.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.4, LB.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.7, LB.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.10

Lessons are aligned to meet the education objectives and goals of most states. For more information on your state objectives, contact your local Board of Education or Department of Education in your state.

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Product Review

Thank you for this resource!

Yohana T.
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Perfect lesson plan!

It's a great lesson plan I can use for my students anytime! :) Better than expected.

Yohana T.
Indonesia Indonesia

Perfect lesson plan!

It's a great lesson plan I can use for my students anytime! :)

United States United States

A Prime Resource

This resource was very useful in helping my students gain a concrete understanding of how plate tectonics work and the results of their various interactions. Please continue to produce quality products such as this. This is great.

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great engaging lesson