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Nautical Terms

Name of Corresponding Unit Plan: War of 1812

Grade Level: 6-12

Common Core Standards
RS.9-10.4. Determine the meaning of symbols, key terms, and other domain-specific words and phrases as they are used in a specific scientific or technical context.

Content Areas: Reading, Writing, Social Studies

Recommended Length/Duration: 45-60 minutes

Learning Goals: Students will become familiar with the meaning of nautical terms and archaic phrasing in primary source documents. Students will use a variety of context clues and/or reference sources to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words and phrases.


  1. Present students with the three accounts of the Battle of Plattsburgh: Macdonough, Pring, Robinson (pdf from “Whom do you Trust: Comparing Accounts of the Battle of Plattsburgh”).
  2. Explain that these writers were professional naval officers writing to their commanders. They used specialized language that sailors understood, but often unfamiliar to landsman. Also, the reports were written 200 years ago using vocabulary and a style that is very different from prose today.
  3. Discuss how the meaning of a word or phrase can often be determined by the context of the sentence in which it appears. Give several examples.
    • The officer of the deck wrote notes in the ship’s log.
    • A line was thrown to the approaching boat.
    • The crew fired the carronade.
  4. Discuss how sometimes the meaning of a word cannot be determined by the context of a sentence and a reference source must be consulted.
    • The compass binnacle stood forward of the wheel.
    • The rudder gudgeons were shot away.
    • The firelocks malfunctioned.
  5. Discuss the various reference resources available to look up unfamiliar terms.
  6. Pass out Nautical Terms worksheet. Explain that all the terms are used in the accounts of the Battle of Plattsburgh. Tell students that they may already know certain terms, may be able to determine their meaning by contextual clues, or may need to look them up in a reference source.
  7. Have students work individually or in pairs to find the meaning of each term and record it on their worksheet.
  8. When everyone is finished, review responses. Discuss any disagreements or multiple meanings.

Assessments: Collect and assess the accuracy of responses.

Materials/Resources: Three reports concerning the Battle of Plattsburgh from Whom Do you Trust? and Nautical Terms worksheet

Special Considerations: The teacher will need to determine if this activity needs to precede or follow a reading of the three reports.

Extensions: Students may wish to discover more nautical terms not in the Plattsburgh reports. Students may wish to read additional older manuscripts or books and identify other archaic phrases.