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The Amazing Power of Floor Maps

Giant Floor Map Puzzles are one of my favorite teaching tools in upper elementary! 

For many years my biggest struggle teaching social studies was all the things my students didn't know about the WHERE of where they lived.  And that was AFTER I was done teaching them!

"What country do you live in? What city? What continent are we on? Is Paris a country or a city?" It didn't matter what question I asked, they often looked at me blankly.

I tried everything I could think of - the tried and true: maps to label and color in, appeal to the senses: mnemonics and chants - and more.  

This went on for about 20 years. I worked hard all year each year to make sure my kids left me literate in the simple basics of their own geography.  But the results were far less successful than I hoped.  

UNTIL I brought out the large floor map puzzles. My upper grades kids loved them! They begged for floor map puzzle time. But most important - all of a sudden, they were able to answer my questions about the world, and their place in it.


I started with a single puzzle that I used as a rotation activity. It was so successful, I eventually collected enough floor map puzzles so my whole class could work on them at the same time. 


My idea was to have a collection of as many different puzzle stations as possible.  I collected world maps, country maps, with some specialized maps thrown in for fun (puzzle maps of the solar system, national parks, etc.) 


The big ticket items are the world and country maps, as those address the important geography skills I want to target. I like to have 3 country maps and 3 world maps available and want groups to work with these frequently. Though I mix in novelty maps to keep things interesting, it's the world and country maps that make the difference in their knowledge of the world. It's important to make sure students have lots of time with these main maps.


One puzzle for 3-5 students works well. For a class of around 25, I like to have about 6 large puzzles. I often add a few small desk puzzles in case a student needs the quiet of working alone for a bit.


I soon discovered how much my students loved working on the map puzzles and how much they were benefitting.

So, I schedule the map sessions into our geography lessons - and also integrate them into our regular routine all year. I keep our floor maps handy, and whenever we have some extra time, or need a quick break, or time to relax, we pull them out.

You can do floor maps for a quick single rotation (when the groups have completed one map, we pack up) or have your groups rotate through 2 or 3 maps in a session. (Groups work on their map until it's complete, then put it away and get another map from the pile. You will need more maps than groups for this system to work.)  


I set the basic ground rules: stay with your group, keep focused on the task, talk quietly, etc. The engagement is always high, so management isn't usually an issue. If interest starts to wane on a particular day, I wrap things up after just one rotation.

As the groups put together their puzzles, I walk around passing out $1 bills to engaged workers. (I usually have a classroom economy.) Walking around, observing and interacting is an important component of floor map management.

Something that boosted learning even more was when I let them know I was paying those I overheard saying the names of the (country, state, etc.)

I wanted to hear, "I found Japan." or "Here's Louisiana!" as I walked around. Why is that so important? Seeing the shape and size of the puzzle pieces, touching and putting them in their places, and speaking the names is very powerful learning.


Though the main goal is working on the world and country, I like to include some specialized maps thrown in for fun, just to spice things up in the rotation and keep their interest. These novelty maps can be puzzle maps of the solar system, national parks - whatever you can find. You can even have a personalized aerial-view jigsaw map made of your school's hometown!




One type of novelty map my kids really loved was globe puzzles. These and other jigsaw puzzles, however, take MUCH more time than is available in a single map puzzle session. This presents logistics issues. How to find enough time to devote to letting your students finish the puzzle? If you teach more than one class, how to keep the puzzle preserved for the next class - over a period of days?  If your classroom space is limited, how to find a place to store the partially-completed puzzle? For this reason, I save these puzzles for rare occassions and only bring them out as a special treat when I'm prepared to cope with the logistics.


You can order a nice variety from Amazon. I also found many floor puzzle maps at my local teacher supply store - before it went out of business.  I found a small, state jigsaw puzzle I was able to buy in quantity from my local dollar store.  


The MOST IMPORTANT thing to look for when choosing a floor puzzle is: do the pieces correspond to the actual countries or states?  "Pieces Shaped Like Countries!" in the puzzle in the first picture above says it all.  That's what you're looking for.  Some puzzles cut their pieces randomly, with many countries or states lumped together. Be sure to select puzzles that, instead, have pieces cut out for the countries or states individually. 

The reason this is so important: the power of the floor map puzzle play is seeing, touching, saying the name of and placing the individually shaped country or state.  
A map big enough for a group of students to cluster around is also important. 


Floor puzzle maps can be an important tool to help you meet the basic geography knowledge goals you've set for your students.

Happy puzzling!


Be sure to check out some of our other favorite things for upper elementary teachers!

The Polar Express Holiday Book The Little Ladybug Shop

Favorite Classroom Tool // Tried & True Teaching Tools

Favorite Cardboard Cutting Tools // Feel-Good Teaching

Learn Your Students' Names on the First Day!

Knowing your upper elementary students' names is gold! When my new fifth graders understand I know all their names on the first day, I've both gained and given a valuable measure of respect and even mystique.

Taking the time to learn your students' names is a powerful management tool that can start you off on a positive footing. When your teacher knows your name, your level of personal accountability rises dramatically. Even more important - when your teacher knows your name, chances are, you feel seen and respected.  What a great way to start the year!

But how to learn so many names at once?

Here’s the strategy I use.

The Strategy

I start the day by giving an instruction to my new students as they look at me wondering, “Who is this new teacher and how is our year going to go?” I tell them that at the end of the day I want them to give me a test. 

Their eyes get large and they draw a collective breath. Things just got interesting.     

Then I set to work learning their names as we go about the rest of our first-day-of-school activities.    

Name Tag

First step - I provide each student a name card for their desk, a name tag, or name badge on a lanyard. 

Tell Me How to Say Your Name

I ask them to say their name and let me know if I’m saying it correctly as I repeat it after them - and make a note if there’s a name I need help to remember.

As we go through the day, I look at each student and silently repeat their names three or four at a time. I can often be seen muttering their names under my breath. 

Seating Chart

I test myself secretly as I scribble names into an empty seating chart. I take paricular note of any names I’m having trouble with. I use mnemonics of any kind to help me remember - red hair/Raul, friends with Jessi, etc. 

100% Non-negotiable

More than anything, I know that I MUST pass this test with 100% success. Passing the test with 100% never fails to impress - on the first day!

But the real reason I have to get 100% is that I know I can't let a single student suffer the public embarrassment of being the only one whose name I can't remember.  

So I study hard and only invite them to test me when I know I’m ready. I repeat their names over and over.  I pay particular attention to anyone I have a tendency to falter on. 

By the time I'm ready to publicly pass my test (and impress my charges) -  my bonding with my new group is on its way.

Click through to find more Back-to-School activities and freebies to help build relationships from the first day of school!

Samson’s Shoppe

Get to Know Your Students with the 4 C's of Engineering // Kerry Tracy


Quick Tip for Decoding Independence

Looking for a quick tip to help your readers become independent decoders?

Teach them to use a personal white board as they read!

If your readers keep a small personal white board at their side while reading, they can jot down any word they're struggling with.  Teach them to "operate on" the word.  Many long words can be demystified simply by looking at them to see what readers already know.

Write It Out

For example, if a reader is stuck on the word "impressive," writing it out shows us this:

The middle of the word has a smaller word we can recognize - "press." The beginning of the word has a word part we know - "im."  The end of the word has a word part we know - "ive."

Instead of ten letters to sound out, the reader now just needs to sequence three parts - im, press, ive. Voila!

Support Tips

I make sure my readers know all the parts they'll need to recognize (like "im" and "ive") in order for them to identify the parts when they see them in words.

I teach these parts as I would sight words.  I use the same methods and strategies as I would to teach sight words - games, activities, flashcards, printables.

To teach the "sight parts", you can make up flashcards, bingo games, or tic tac toe and more!  If you'd like premade activities, flashcards, games and printables, plus student progress trackers and other assessments created to save you time, you can find them  HEREHEREHEREHERE, and HERE.

https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Decoding-Multisyllabic-Words-TIC-TAC-TOE-Word-Parts-Word-Study-Activity-3861076Decoding Multisyllabic Words WORD PARTS FLASHCARDS RAINBOWDecoding Multisyllabic Words BINGO Word Parts Study

DIY White Boards

If you don't have personal white boards for each of your readers - laminate pages, half pages or bookmark-sized strips! Or place white paper in page protectors and use dry erase markers. HERE is a FREE set of student mats you can laminate for your readers.

Your readers will LOVE the feeling of independence they get from decoding their own words as they read!

But wait! There's more!

Check out these additional tips for upper elementary! Click on the advice and grab free reflection tools, checklists, questionnaires, and more!

Kerry Tracy of Feel-Good Teaching says, "Take the time to reconnect with your calling to get you through the rough patches!"

Kathie Yonemura of Tried & True Teaching Tools says, “Find your teacher tribe!”


Looking for a way to wrap up your WORD WORK year?

End of the year is a great time for celebrations.

Celebrations are an important component of Progress Monitoring.  In the final days and weeks of a school year or intervention cycle we collect data to assess our students' progress.

In addition to the numbers and statistics of our Data Collection, we take this time to celebrate our students' growth.

End-of-Year WORD WORK Wrap-Up Activity - a Freebie
End Your Year Word Work Activity - a FREEBIE
Word Work WRAP-UP - a FREE Decoding Activity
Wrap Up Your Year with this FREE Word Work Celebration

Students Note Their Growth

My readers take note of their progress using information they and I have recorded throughout the year or intervention cycle. We gather the list of gigantic words they can read from their student-facing Trackers, Student-Teacher Notes BookletA-Z Mini Dictionary and collected student flashcards.



Readers celebrate their new skills decoding multisyllabic words by collecting gigantic words and word parts they are now able to read with automaticity or decode independently.


We add to the festive air of our last days by creating and hanging a GIGANTIC WORDS and WORD PARTS CHAIN. Each reader writes the multisyllabic words and word parts they can now read with automaticity or decode independently. The very long chain is a visual reminder of the group's success and skill.


I provide Celebrations Coloring Pages to my students to work on during down moments in our end-of-year class cleanup sessions, group parties or free-choice work time.  Readers refer to the collections of words and word parts they've learned to read during this year or intervention cycle, then write them on the coloring pages. Then color.




Stopping to celebrate success. Noticing how far one has come.  I love to send my readers off wearing the pride they've rightfully earned.  What a great way to end our work together!

UPPER ELEMENTARY: We want you to end the year with a celebratory bang! Check out these other free ideas for your upper elementary students and let us do the planning for you!

End of the Year Review Game // The Owl Teacher
Tried & True Solution for End of Year Teacher Tired // Tried and True Teaching Tools

Test Prep Twist for Struggling Readers

It's a question we all wrestle with. How to help our struggling decoders read high-stakes tests that are written above their reading level?  

While it isn't possible to solve the problem instantly, I like to harness my existing decoding skills intervention to do double duty as supplemental test prep.


  • First, I check out sample tests looking for words that my students might encounter across more than one testing situation.
  • Then I use these words in my regular decoding intervention sessions.
  • During decoding intervention time, I show my decoders how to use the strategy I'm currently teaching to decode the words.
  • After teaching them strategies they can use to decode these words, we use word work practice to transfer as many of the words as possible to their automatic sight reading vocabulary.


I teach my decoders to look for word parts and small words they may already know inside bigger, more daunting words. So during decoding test prep lessons, I teach them how to find these smaller parts inside the words on the testing words list.


We use our personal white boards to practice breaking the words up into the parts we see. Then we practice the words using flashcards. 


After that we play games using the words, like BINGO. 


BINGO is a time-tested favorite! If you'd like this test-prep version BINGO game, just grab the freebie HERE.

This free resource provides a 
  • BINGO game, test prep words version 
  • 12 versions of the BINGO card  
  • Calling cards for each of the 30 words
  • LIST of the 30 basic words used
  • This version has only 8 words per BINGO card, so your struggling readers can locate and read the words more quickly.


Alas, extra decoding test prep won't, by itself, magically bring our struggling below-level decoders up to grade level in time for the test.  There will still be words on any test written above their reading level that these readers will struggle to decode and recognize.

So why do it?  I'm certain that, for our strugglers, every small piece of the puzzle that I can put into place helps.  I know that the more skills I can give them, the more confidence they'll have to keep trying.  I know if they keep trying, together we'll get there!


Want a Decoding Multisyllabic Words Intervention Binder, Test-Prep Version, complete with guided work pages, matching task cards, flashcards and assessments covering 200 words your students might encounter while test taking?  Find it HERE. Full Test-Prep BINGO set for 200 words is HERE. Looking for a Complete Year-Long Decoding Program for older readers? It's HERE. Or check out this Intensive Summer Decoding Program for older readers HERE.


Need more test prep strategies? Check out these other great ideas for your upper elementary students!

Sorting Reading Test Question Stems // Tarheelstate Teacher

Test Prep Boot Camp // Tried and True Teaching Tools

Preparing Students for Testing // The Owl Teacher

Test Prep Twist for Struggling Readers // Reading by Heart


For most of the year, third-grader Haylee had flitted around the reading room, skittish, looking up from her book every few seconds. She read as if a wildfire threatened the east wall of the classroom, looking up every few seconds as if checking to see if danger had broken through. She read as if she needed to know if now was the time to run.

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