Can Anyone Read a Map Around Here? Creative Ways to Teach Map Skills to All Students

Creative Ways to Teach Map Skills to All Students

February 13, 2019
Ryan Crawley

It’s a good thing Google Maps is pretty popular on all phones nowadays because students seem to have a serious issue with map skills in school. I’m speaking in general, of course, as you will still get that random student that can name all the capitals of every state and be able to name all seven continents without missing a beat. But for many students, if you ask them if Europe is a continent or a country, they may stare back at you blankly.

I Can Sympathize

I’m concerned (sometimes overly) about all of my students’ map skills for a few reasons. The biggest reason of all, though, is I know what they are going through. My map skills all the way through high school were atrocious. I thought I was absolutely horrible, and the sad news was that there were many students worse than me.

I used to have nightmares about being called up to the map to locate a certain country or state because I knew I was going to probably fail at it. I can still remember that fateful day in fourth grade where I was asked to put my finger on Canada at the map. I had no idea where it was. I look back and wonder how I struggled so much with learning maps, but whether you believe it or not, my teachers just assumed we all knew where everything was located. I feel many of us educators fall into this trap still.

There Is Hope

Before your students start to depend on map apps for the rest of their lives to navigate where they are going, there is still hope. You can educate them on learning all about maps whether they are in middle school, junior high, or high school. It’s all about taking the right approach. No student wants to be humiliated at the front of the class, so leave that tactic behind for now. There are other options to go with instead.

Use Technology to Your Favor

Almost all schools have computers in the classroom in this day and age. And not just one, either, but one computer for every student. Take advantage of this. Don’t just leave that cart of Chromebooks as something you stack papers on in the corner.

There are numerous websites and apps, many of them completely free, that will help with your map needs. Perhaps you are interested in students learning just about the United States. It can be done. Plus, they are doing it from the comfort of their own desk without having to face the ridicule if they get something simple wrong.

Maybe you have bigger goals in mind and would like your students to learn about the world instead of just one country. If you feel your students are ready to conquer other countries and continents, there are numerous websites that can be used to help them learn.

Provide the Students Real Maps

There is nothing like taking an authentic approach to learning map skills. Give your students a map of the United States or even Europe. Have them all start in the same place on the map and then ask them to travel to another specific location. Ask them to write down not only which direction they will have to travel (north, south, east, or west), but what other states or countries they must go through to get to their desired location. This strategy is a simple one, but it is nice knowing that they may actually use this for real someday during one of their adventures.

Give Them a Compass and Watch Them Go

Even many adults don’t know how to use a compass, so if you can get your students using one correctly, then you are obviously doing something right. Ask them to use a compass for one week during the school year and write down which direction they had to travel for everything. This would be best for high school students as it seems they are always on the go. Junior high students might only be going to school, maybe practice, and sometimes a best friend’s house.

Learning how to use a compass correctly is a skill that could actually benefit them later in life. If they enjoy hiking or traveling at all, then they should know how to use a compass. You may save them from getting lost in the wilderness someday like those kids from that Blair Witch movie.

Using a Map Is Just as Important as Finding Locations

It is not enough for students to be able to find cities, states, or countries on the map. They must also know how to use the map for a purpose. If they want to travel from one state to another, ask them to locate on the map which interstate they plan on using. Or maybe wonder aloud what they would do to take a more scenic route instead. Would they be better off taking two-lane highways rather than flying down the interstate at high speeds? And propose them questions that deal with distance as well. If they are interested in going from one city to another, how much time will it take them if they look at the distance on the map?

These are just a few ideas on how to improve your students’ map skills without causing nightmares. These may seem like simple activities, and they are, but they also work. Now, my students will spend 10 minutes just looking at the map before they even start answering questions. To see such a turnaround and know how much I struggled as a kid with maps, it does the heart good and makes you believe that everything happens for a reason.

Posted By Ryan Crawley | Educator & Writer

Ryan Crawley is an educator from Illinois with a Master’s in Reading and Literacy. Before he entered the wonderful world of education, Ryan was a journalist for about 10 years. He enjoys spending his free time with his two dogs, Flair and Smoosh.

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