North Carolina Lighthouse Lesson: Elementary School

Imagine that you are a captain of a ship sailing along the North Carolina coast. It is night and the ocean is rough. You know that land is nearby, but it is too dark to see anything. You also know that there are dangerous shoals and that the constantly shifting sand can move or fill in the previously safe channels. Your heart begins to pound along with the rain that is pounding your ship. "There!" a crew member excitedly shouts and points to a flickering light. The pulsating light - four quick white flashes one second apart, every ten seconds - tells you that you have found the Oak Island Lighthouse! This lighthouse will guide you to the Port of Wilmington, the destination for your cargo ship.


  • Lighthouse: A lighthouse is a tower with a bright light at the top that is used to guide ships. Each lighthouse is assigned a unique identification signal - a series of rhythmically flash or eclipse of their lights.
  • Shoal: A place where the sea, lake or river is shallow or a mound of sand just below the surface of the water
  • Sound: A large body of water such as a bay or channel
  • Bay: A large body of water connected to an ocean or sea formed by an inlet
    • A bay and a sound are similar large bodies of water; a bay has one large opening to the ocean while a sound has a series of inlets (small openings) to the ocean
  • Inlet: An opening or entrance; A small, narrow strip of water; a water passage between islands
  • Barrier Island: A long broad sandy island parallel to a shore that is built up by the action of waves, currents and winds

Note: It is important to understand the vocabulary to develop a good mental map from the names of areas on the map. Initially, a tactile map or raised line drawing may be beneficial to build the concept of these vocabulary words.


Concept Development: Drawing post

Lesson Part 1

Read the attached NC Lighthouse book.

Book Questions

This is a social studies lesson geared for elementary students. TVIs can also use this lesson to teach IEP goals. In addition to the social studies goals, are you working on reading comprehension? Drawing conclusions? Tech skills? Determine the goals of this lesson and then ask questions that support these goals. Here are sample questions - these questions can be changed or modified according to your student's grade or goals! It is important to remember facts; however, keep in mind that 21st century students should also use these facts to draw conclusions!

  • How many lighthouses still exist in NC? How many are active?
  • What material was typically used to build the NC lighthouses? Which lighthouse was built with something different? Why?
  • Why are the lighthouses different colors and/or have different patterns?
  • What purposes does the Cape Lookout diamond pattern have?
  • Which lighthouse was moved and why?
  • List three reasons why NC lighthouses were rebuilt?
  • How did the Civil War impact the lighthouses?
  • Why was the last lighthouse built in 1958?
    • Are lighthouses obsolete? Why or why not?

Lesson Part 2

Explore the map and then answer the questions below. Remember, the map links open a traditional (visual) Google Map with customized labels, which can be used for students with vision. Select the Accelerate button in the bottom right corner of the Google Map to open the accessible non-visual digital map.

There are two versions of the NC Lighthouses Map. Choose the appropriate map for your student. If your student is new to using a non-visual digital map, start with the Basic map before moving to the Detailed map.

Remember, YOU can easily customize either of these maps to best fit your needs. Want more information, less information or different information? (Example: Change the label to include the height of each lighthouse instead of the light pattern. Then ask questions pertaining to height.)

Map Questions

If using the NC Lighthouses Basic map, ask simple questions, such as:

  • Find the Bodie Island Lighthouse
  • Where is Bald Head Island Lighthouse in relationship to Bodie Island Lighthouse?
  • Which lighthouse is the farthest north?
  • Which lighthouse is the farthest east?
  • How many miles - as the crow flies - between Currituck Beach Lighthouse and Bodie Island?
  • Describe North Carolina's coast line. Is it a straight line?
  • Choose a lighthouse and imitiate the light pattern by making the appropriate beep sounds.

If using the NC Lighthouses Detailed map, your students should be able to draw more conclusions. Combine the knowledge from the book with the information from the map. Note: Some of these questions may be too challenging for early elementary students.

  • Name the bodies of water by Ocracoke Lighthouse. Why is it important to have a lighthouse here?
  • Which lighthouse flashes every fifteen seconds?
  • Where do the large cargo ships dock? Which active lighthouse is nearby? (Hint: Bald Head Lighthouse is not active!)
  • How can sailors travel in four directions by the Cape Lookout Lighthouse? (Cape Lookout Light house is almost at the end of a barrier island; ships can travel north/south on the Atlantic side or Back Sound Side or east/west - into Onslow Bay or out to Atlantic Ocean - just south of the lighthouse.)
  • Why are most of the lighthouses located on the barrier islands?
  • Why is there a gap (no lighthouses) between Wilmington and Morehead City?

Modified Lesson for Early Elementary Students

Read the story at the beginning of the post, simplify the vocabuarly words if necessary and use the NC Lighthouse Basic Map. If working with a group of students, choose 7 students and line them up by height. Have the tallest student be the tallest lighthouse (Cape Hatteras). Ask each student to mimic their lighthouse's light pattern by making appropriate beeping sounds. 

Ask a student to "act" out the history of a lighthouse as you talk about the history. Example: Cape Hatteras was originally shorter and had a dimmer light. Have the student kneel and beep the light pattern in a whisper voice. The lighthouse tower was extended and a new, brighter light was installed. (Stand and repeat the light pattern with a normal voice.) A new, taller  lighthouse was built (if possible, have a second student raise arms above his head). The sand erosion damged the lighthouse and the lighthouse was not used for 14 years. (Raise one foot and wobble. No light, so no beeping!) The lighthouse was lifted and moved (pick up student and move him back) and painted a black and white candy stripe. (Wrap student in a "candy-stripe" pattern with toilet paper.

Note: If all students have vision, substitute the beeping sounds with flashes on/off with a flashlight.

Non-visual Digital Map Resources

NC Lighthouse Pinterst Pin