Lesson Plan: Identifying Different Types of Coal


Based on the article “Meeting the Energy Challenge! There Are More Ways Now Than Ever!

Click here for a printable PDF version of this lesson.


Important: In order to implement this lesson, coal samples are required.

Objective: To review the characteristics of one of the most plentiful natural resources and examine samples of coal; identify coal reserve locations around the world; and understand the role coal plays in addressing our global energy challenge.

Overview: Students will distinguish between the different types of coal; categorize the ranks of coal; and complete a mapping activity identifying countries and states where large coal deposits are found.

Standards Addressed: National Science Education Standards (NSES):

  • Science as Inquiry, K-4, 5-8: Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
  • Physical Science, 5-8: Properties of matter and changes in properties of matter

National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) Standards:

  • Production, Distribution, and Consumption
  • Global Connections


  • Specimens of four types of coal (ordered through the American Coal Foundation)
    Note: Subbituminous coal is another type of coal that is not included in the Coal Sample Kit. It is medium-soft and has less moisture than lignite. It is generally used to produce steam for electricity generation. Reserves of subbituminous coal are found mostly in the western United States and Alaska.
  • Photocopies of outline maps of the world and the United States
  • Colored pencils or crayons

Activity Steps:

  1. Begin by explaining or reviewing the differences between rocks and minerals. You may want to write this information on the blackboard or display it on the overhead projector and have students copy it into their notebook. Explain that minerals are inorganic (nonliving) substances found in nature that are made of single elements or compounds. There are many types of minerals. Students may even recognize a few, such as copper, gold, silver, diamond, topaz, and quartz. A rock, on the other hand, is a combination of two or more types of minerals fused together. Rocks may sometimes include organic materials such as microscopic remains of plants or animals. Both rocks and minerals are essential components of our planet.
    Rocks are classified according to how they form. There are three types of rock: igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic. Igneous rock forms when magma, molten rock material within the earth, forces its way to the surface and cools. Sedimentary rock forms from mineral fragments deposited by wind, water, or glaciers. Metamorphic rock is rock whose minerals and texture have been changed by high temperatures, water, and pressure.
    No rock’s life is set in stone. One type of rock can change into another when erosion, heat, or pressure (or a combination of all three) break down the rock and transform it. This transformation is called the rock cycle. It can take thousands, even millions, of years for one type of rock to change into another. Through the forces of nature, the earth’s landscape is constantly changing.
  2. Pass an unidentified sample of anthracite coal around the classroom and ask students to guess whether the object is a rock or a mineral. Explain that the object is a rock, but see if students can guess what kind of rock it is. When students have finished guessing, explain that anthracite is a type of coal that is formed by metamorphism. Most other types of coal are classified as sedimentary rock. Reproduce the following chart on the blackboard or overhead projector. Pass around the other samples of coal as you review the four types of coal:
    • Peat
      Appearance:Dark brown to black, with many visible plant fragments
      Texture:Soft; breaks unevenly when dry
      Rock or Mineral Classification:Sedimentary rock
      Carbon Content: Low
    • Lignite
      Appearance:Brown to black; fossilized plant material may be visible
      Rock or Mineral Classification:Sedimentary rock
      Carbon Content: Medium
    • Bituminous
      Appearance:Black; shinier than lignite
      Texture:Hard and brittle
      Rock or Mineral Classification:Sedimentary rock
      Carbon Content: High
    • Anthracite
      Appearance:Glossy black
      Texture:Uneven surfaces
      Rock or Mineral Classification:Metamorphic rock
      Carbon Content: Extremely high
  3. Explain to students that the carbon content in coal makes it burn and produce heat used to generate energy in power plants. Coal is important because of its abundance and its use in producing energy. Ask students if they know where coal can be found.
  4. Distribute two blank outline maps: one of the world and another of the United States.
  5. Students will brainstorm which countries would have the largest coal reserves and explain their reasoning for why they believe this is so.
  6. Have students create a color-coded legend for the world map, identifying, in order, eight countries with the largest coal reserves. Using their own legend, have them color in the following countries according to their rank in recoverable coal reserves. Provide the information in descending order so that students are surprised to find that the United States has the largest recoverable coal reserve in the world:
    • Ukraine
    • South Africa
    • Germany
    • Australia
    • India
    • China
    • Russia
    • United States.

    Ask the students if they are surprised to find that the United States has more coal than any other country in the world. Ask them if they know where in the United States coal is found.

  7. Name the 37 states that have coal deposits:
    • Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

    As you do, have students identify them on the map, then color or shade them in. Ask students whether they are surprised to find out how many states have coal deposits. Tell them that one-eighth of the land area of the United States lies atop coal beds.

  8. As a class, discuss the role that coal plays in the economy of the United States. Review with students that coal is a plentiful, inexpensive, and reliable source of energy. How do these attributes affect the economy of the United States and the lives of Americans?

Assessment: Have students write a newspaper article or a television news report about coal. Make sure they include information about where coal can be found, what types of coal there are, what characteristics coal has, and how it is used.


  1. This same type of mapping activity can be done with other rocks or minerals, such as gold, silver, copper, granite, quartz, marble, or slate. In any case, the study should culminate in a discussion about the importance of the rock or mineral to humans and where it can be found.
  2. How is coal extracted from the coal beds?  Have students research from extraction to use of coal.
  3. For additional curriculum materials on the mining of minerals around the world, visit www.cat.com/groundrules


Students will brainstorm which countries would have the largest coal reserves and explain their reasoning why they believe this is so.