Lesson plan

Connecting the Coasts: Effects of the Transcontinental Railroad

Look at history! In this lesson, guide students through an exploration of the context, causes, and effects of the Transcontinental Railroad, and help them practice identifying the main idea and supporting details in a nonfiction text.
Need extra help for EL students? Try the Nonfiction Main Idea pre-lesson.
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Need extra help for EL students? Try the Nonfiction Main Idea pre-lesson.

Students will be able to identify the main idea and supporting details in a text about the Transcontinental Railroad.

The adjustment to the whole group lesson is a modification to differentiate for children who are English learners.
EL adjustments
(5 minutes)
  • Ask students to close their eyes and imagine a world without motor vehicles or airplanes. Ask them to think of how people traveled, and listen to their responses.
  • Explain that during the early 1800s, the main mode of transportation was on horseback or horse-pulled wagon. Trains were invented in Wales in 1804 and were considered the most modern technological advancement in transportation at the time.
  • Show a map of the United States and explain that there was no formal transportation between Nebraska and California. Draw a line from Omaha to Oakland so they may see the distance of the Transcontintental Railroad.
  • Tell them that there were plenty of train tracks in the eastern states but none west of the Mississippi River, and none to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts. For people to make the journey to the West Coast, it often took them up to 6 months.
  • Explain to students that the California Gold Rush (1848–1855) caused the government to think of ways to connect the West with the eastern states. Many people were interested in migrating to the West to seek wealth and natural resources.
  • Tell students that today they are going to learn about how and why the Transcontinental Railroad was built and the ways in which it changed our country.
(5 minutes)
  • Write the words "transcontinental," "migrating," and "mass-transit" on chart paper and ask students to turn to a partner to describe what they think the words mean.
  • Explain that "trans" is a prefix from Latin that means across or through. Therefore, the word "transcontinental" means across a continent. Call on students to share their definitions for the two other terms and write them on the chart paper.
(25 minutes)
  • Show students a few images of the railroad from the resource provided (see related media). Remind them that these are primary sources which allow us to interact with historical events authentically.
  • Pass out an index card to each student.
  • Ask students to use the Visual Thinking Stategy of "I see... I think... I wonder..." to reflect critically on the images. Model this for them by saying, "I see two men shaking hands amidst a group of men and two large locomotives. I think they are celebrating the completion of the railroad. I wonder if any women were there."
  • Give students a couple of minutes to write their thinking on the index card. Have them turn to their partner and share. Call on a couple non-volunteers to read their sentences.
  • Hand each student a copy of the Notecard Notetaking worksheet and write on a chart paper the title "Effects of the Transcontinental Railroad." Instruct students to write the title as the "Main Idea" on their notecard and to listen as you read for supporting facts/details of the effects of the Transcontinental Railroad on people and on the land.
  • Read aloud a book on the Transcontinental Railroad such as The Transcontinental Railroad by John Perritano or show a video on the topic (see related media). Pause for reflection throughout the reading/video and give time for students to take notes about the effects and supporting details.
  • Invite students to contribute to the chart with information from their notes. Some effects to include are:
    • It gave jobs to many immigrants, including Chinese and Irishmen, although they were not paid well and faced harsh working conditions.
    • Transportation of goods and people became quicker and less expensive.
    • It allowed more people to migrate and settle in the West.
    • It helped expand the U.S. economy.
    • It forced many Native Americans off of their lands.
(15 minutes)
  • Explain to students that they will do a close reading activity on the Transcontinental Railroad.
  • Hand each student a copy of the Close Reading: Identifying the Main Idea: The Transcontinental Railroad worksheet and inform them that they will independently read the text, identify the main idea and supporting details, and complete the graphic organizer on the second page.


  • Read the text aloud during Independent Work time or allow students to work together in partners.
  • Display the instructions throughout this history lesson plan for students to refer to.


  • Have students continue researching the topic of this history lesson plan on their own, and have them write a newspaper article set in 1869–70 related to the Transcontinental Railroad.

Show a video about the Transcontinental Railroad so that students may hear another perspective and see more visuals on the matter. Have students discuss the video afterward. See related media.

(5 minutes)
  • Write the following statements on chart paper and instruct students to make a specific gesture (for example, palms facing each other, with two feet of space in between) for a statement that is a main idea, and another gesture (for example, palms facing each other with four inches of space in between) to signify a supporting detail. Point to each statement and look at students' gestures to gauge how well they understand the concept of main idea (MI) and supporting details (SD).
    • Many more people were able to migrate to the West after the Transcontinental Railroad was built. (SD)
    • The Transcontinental Railroad was a major historical event in U.S. history that made coast-to-coast travel much more accessible for people and goods. (MI)
    • The Transcontinental Railroad took six years to complete, from 1863–1869. (SD)
    • The last rail was laid in the Golden Spike Ceremony at Promontory Point, Utah, in May 1869. (SD)
(5 minutes)
  • Write the following on the board/chart paper: "Do you think the building of the Transcontinental Railroad had more positive or negative effects on the people and the land? Why?"
  • Have them write their response on the back of the index card they used earlier. Remind them to back their opinion with evidence from the resources in the lesson.
  • Invite a few students to share their answers.

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