The Causes of World War I Lesson Plan: Teaching WWI

5th grade history 8th grade u.s. history for history teachers world war i
Causes of World War 1 (WWI) Lesson Plan

Engage your students in the causes of the first World War, a.k.a. the "Great War", and the role of the United States in World War I, with well-curated lesson plans!



Teaching about the First World War can be a challenging task for history and social studies teachers. It's essential that you provide your students with a comprehensive understanding of the main causes of the war, the events that took place during the WWI period, and the impact it had on the modern world.



This article will focus on effective ways to teach your students (irrespective of grade level) all about the origins of World War I, through the use of primary sources and interactive activities to keep students engaged and interested!


Presentation slide from my lesson on the Breakout of WWI - included as part of my 5th Grade Social Studies Curriculum Bundle!



Essential Question and Background Knowledge

Before diving into the main causes of WWI, I highly recommend introducing an essential question that will guide students throughout the lesson. For example:

"What were the main causes of World War I, and how did they impact the modern world?" 



I've broken this article out into four sections, each section covering one of the major causes the war



Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

A great way to begin the lesson is to show students a video clip that provides a brief overview of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Here's two examples videos from YouTube that I like to use:

How a Wrong Turn Started World War I 3:23 minutes long by the History Channel

Franz Ferdinand Assassinated - 1914 0:40 minutes long by AP


Often considered the trigger for WWI, by presenting students with the information of this event, it helps students understand how one event can lead to such a significant conflict. After watching one or both of the videos I've linked above, and after going over the other 3 main causes of the war that I've outlined below, I like to have students work in small groups to discuss the event and create a timeline of the events that led to the war.


European Imperialism

One of the key underlying causes of WWI was the desire of many European nations to increase their power, wealth, and influence by placing more territory under their own control, which is essentially known as imperialism. Specifically, prior to the outbreak of WWI, many of these European nations were competing for territory in Africa and portions of Asia. These European powers sought the raw goods and natural resources these territories provided, in particular, because of the wealth they could potentially generate for their nation.


Fill in the Blank worksheet from my lesson on the breakout of WWI - included as part of my 5th Grade Social Studies Curriculum Bundle!



European Powers Military Buildup (Militarism & Nationalism)

Another of the main causes of WWI was the arms race that had sprung up amongst numerous European powers. Specifically, the militaries of Germany, Great Britain, and the Austro-Hungarian Empires had all been dramatically built up in the years that led up to WWI. Russia had also increased their military size in the wake of the recent Russian Revolution, and many European governments became increasingly influenced by military leaders. 

With several European powers competing for territory (both in Europe and abroad), resources, wealth, power, and influence, a strong sense of nationalism was prominent throughout Europe. In addition, Slavic peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina wanted to be a part of Serbia, not the Austro-Hungarian Empire, further fomenting much of the sense of nationalism sweeping across the European continent.



The numerous intertwined and convoluted mutual defense alliances amongst European powers  signed in the prior years also played significant role in the outbreak (and escalation) of WWI in 1914.

Because of these alliances, after Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Russia, who'd signed a mutual defense agreement with Serbia, declared war on Austria-Hungary. After which, Germany, who had an alliance with Austria-Hungary, declared war on Russia. As such, France had an alliance with Russia, and after Austria-Hungary and Germany declared war on Russia, France declared war on them! Then, when Germany decided to attack France through Belgium (who was allied with Great Britain), and Britain was then pulled in to the war. And on, and on, and on! 




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Primary Sources and Class Discussion

As you teach your students about WWI, be sure your lesson plans incorporate the use of primary sources as they're an effective way to engage students and provide them with a deeper understanding of the underlying causes of the war. For example, students can examine political cartoons, primary documents, propaganda posters, and digital versions of historical artifacts. A useful resource for primary sources is the National Archives, where teachers can find a vast collection of documents related to US history.

After analyzing primary sources, I like to have students participate in a class discussion to compare and contrast the different causes of the war. A great way to follow-up such a discussion is by assigning your students a Venn diagram that highlights the similarities and differences between the causes of the war!



As you delve further into WWI after this initial lesson on the origins of World War I, be sure to highlight with your students each of the following!


Trench Warfare and the Western Front

Trench warfare was a significant aspect of WWI, and it is crucial to teach students about the conditions soldiers faced on the Western Front. Students can work in small groups to research and create a PowerPoint presentation about the different weapons used during the war, the living conditions of soldiers, and the impact of trench warfare on the outcome of the war.


Presentation slide from my lesson on the breakout of WWI - included as part of my 5th Grade Social Studies Curriculum Bundle!


American Involvement in the War

Although the United States did not enter the war until 1917, it had a significant impact on the outcome of the war. Students can learn about Woodrow Wilson's role in the war, the military buildup that occurred in the US, and the African Americans who fought in the war. A useful resource for this topic is the Zimmermann Telegram, which led to America's role in the war and unrestricted submarine warfare.


The Treaty of Versailles and the End of the War

The Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, and it officially ended the war. Students can learn about the impact of the treaty on the Austro-Hungarian Empires, the Ottoman Empire, and the Central Powers. A great way to engage students in this topic is to have them work in small groups to create a final project that highlights the key points of the treaty.




  • Spending more time on teaching and less on lesson plans

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  • No longer endlessly searching for amazing lesson plans and resources  


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Thanks so much for reading!

-Jillian (a.k.a. the "Lesson Plan Guru")  



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