Make distance-time graphs come alive by engaging students through storytelling

distance-time graph example of dogs running

“Come on! Let’s go! Just because I see you doesn’t mean you can slow down!” I call to the panting student trying to charm me with their reason they’re late to class. But I know why. I was watching Charlie chat it up in the courtyard with friends during passing period. Suddenly he looks at his phone, realizes he’s late, bolts to class, and slows down as soon as he knows I see him. 

The joke is on him though. I’m using him as an example* in today’s bell ringer. 

I stand at the door during passing period and watch all the late kids rush to class.

Now imagine the surprise on his face when he finally gets his stuff out and looks at the screen, only to see a graph with the sentence that begins with, “Charlie’s teacher watches him talk to friends during passing period…” 

Charlie makes eye contact, smiles, and says, “BRUH!” And you just smirk back. 

That’s not the beginning of the story

Before I continue, let’s flash back and look at how this story really started.  

I looked at the clock. It was 3:30 on a Wednesday. I decided to sit at my desk and psyched myself up to look at the physical science unit I was getting ready to teach. Fun fact – physical science is not my favorite. I saw distance-time graphs and cringed. Could not even tell you what that meant.

I Googled. And Youtubed. And TPT searched. I scribbled all of my notes down and tried to organize them.  

I wish I could tell you that I had a magical breakthrough moment and taught distance-time graphs so well. The truth is, I struggled to teach them for a couple years before I figured out how to make sure my students really got it. I had to refine what I was teaching year after year. 

Realizing I could use a student’s hypothetical route to class as a connection point was one of my best ideas. Every student can picture walking from one class to another, making it the perfect distance-time graph example!

Graphs are Data Pictures

A graph shows data in a picture so that our brains see what that data is telling us. We process that picture much more quickly than a list of numbers. A distance time-graph is a picture of the relationship between the distance an object travels and the time it takes to cover that distance. It offers insight into the object’s motion. 

If you’ve gotten to this point and are thinking that your student’s graphing skills are sub-par, let me urge you to not try and teach students graphing skills while teaching them how to create distance-time graphs. I use this resource to give students a solid graphing foundation in just a few days. Then revisit distance-time graphs. 

Give students some basic distance-time graph knowledge

Students are most likely bought into distance-time graphs or motion graphs when they realize it applies to their life. To move from connection to understanding, explain the following few elements briefly: 

Reference Point

The reference point is the starting location you’re comparing the object’s motion to. 

Distance and Time

Motion is measured by how far an object travels in a given amount of time. This calculates into the formula for speed. Distance/time = speed. Time (minutes, seconds, hours, days, ect) is placed on the x-axis and distance (meters, feet, kilometers, miles) is placed on the y-axis.


Slopes Indicate Motion

Distance and time coordinates are graphs, creating slopes. An upward slope indicates movement away from the reference point. A flat line means that time is passing, but the object is not in motion. A downward slope indicates movement back toward the reference point. 

A steeper slope indicates faster motion, whether upward or downward. A shallow downward slope means the object is moving toward the reference point slower than a steep downward slope would indicate.  

Using Distance-Time Graph Story Match to Teach

Do you remember a story a teacher told you? Of course you do, because stories activate the emotional parts of our brain that feel, not just process information. We want to keep listening! 

Once students understand the elements of a distance-time graph, they can extend that understanding into the analysis, evaluation, and creation levels of thinking. Use the power of stories to your advantage.

In this teaching distance-time graphs resource, the teacher helps students match simple lines on a graph to the motion of a person walking their dog. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very simple story. Emphasis on the very. The distance-time graph story illustrates all of the elements of a distance time graph with a realistic description of what that motion looks like. 

Why does the student turn around? 


Simple illustrates the concept, but it’s fun to get a little more detailed. The next graph incorporates distance, time, and speed of a student getting up from their desk and turning in homework. But suddenly, they return to their desk? Why. And then they stop. What’s happening? Do you want to know? This story incorporates the exact data for the distance-time graph story examples, solidifying the concept for kids. 

Let them practice with a distance-time graph story match activity. In this activity, students match the motion description to either the teacher walking out to playground duty or the student walking to class. Since they’d both walk at similar speeds, students really need to think, analyze the graph, and assign the correct motion description to the line it is describing on the graph.

Distance-Time Graphs In Real Life

Mack sits with his ears perked and his tail wagging as fast as it can possibly wag. He’s panting. He’s focused on a ball about 30 yards ahead. He looks up briefly in anticipation at his owner, trying not to take his eyes off the prize for too long. “Retrieve!” The command is given and Mack launches forward.

How much more engaging is that story than some random set of numbers on a data table? A lot more! Use this story as an attention grabber. What might Mack do next? Run back to have it thrown again? Catch a scent and stop to sniff?

A distance-time graph can be made of any object in motion, given the right units for distance and time are used. Graph a whale migration. Make a motion graph of skiers going up the lift and down the run. Create a distance-time graph of a baseball going through the different parts of a play. Include the pitch, the hit, and who it’s thrown to. 

If you’re looking for simple, real life examples, this distance-time graph worksheet bundle includes scaffolded opportunities for students to practice story matching and even make their own story with a given distance-time data set.

Your students will make simple distance-time graphs of an object moving at a constant speed, resulting in a straight line. But distance-time graphs can get pretty complicated and are used in real life. For example, they can help city planners make informed decisions based on the speed and traffic patterns during rush hour.

Do you have the right tools?

My husband is a contractor, and it would be silly if he went to work with just a saw, a hammer, a screwdriver, and some nails and screws. He could probably get the job done, but it would be long and difficult. 

You need the right tools. Stories are your tools. Using stories to teach-distance time graphs is the key to unlocking your student’s understanding. Start with a story they can relate to. Keep using stories while they practice. I promise. The right tool makes a difference. 

*As a note, using a student as an example on your bell ringer or daily task has to be done with some finesse. Be sure the student can handle the attention they may get from the class and possibly students from other classes. Consider asking the student beforehand if you can use their name for a bell ringer. Maybe even run it by their parent. I’ve personally never had a problem, but I don’t want to steer you wrong when it comes to the fragility of the middle school ego. 

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