Thoughts on Using Maps

The Map is Not the Territory

© Robert A. Buckmaster 2020


Maps, paper maps that is, are beautiful things; visually appealing, colourful and a promise of adventure. Maps, carried by traders and used by armies on campaigns, and the charts of seafarers, were the first examples of augmented reality. Maps nowadays are used in navigation, urban planning, holiday/trip planning, archaeology, disease control, war (still), policing, search and rescue etc.

Maps, as a visual representation of reality should be viewed as a series of layers: a layer of boundaries, a layer of roads, of rivers, of buildings, and so on. The map maker choses which layers to use: a political map would have boundaries and settlements, while a topographic map would also have contours showing the shape of the land and land use information (forests etc.), as well as rivers, roads etc.

Maps can contain a huge amount of information and be extraordinarily useful in many situations, but they are flawed. The map is not the territory. The map is, as a flat surface, a distortion of a curved surface; map north and true north and magnetic north are distinctly different; the data on a map has been selected and is a partial representation of all the data of reality; and finally, maps are usually out of date as soon as they are published.

Why Maps?

Still, despite their flaws, and in some cases because of their flaws, we can use maps, in real life, and in the classroom to learn English. Currently, though, in coursebook materials, maps seem to be restricted to a ‘giving directions’ task at pre-intermediate or similar level, and perhaps as an illustration to a text or a listening task which is generally not exploited much, if at all. This is a pity as maps have much to offer. But “Google maps!” say some, “Why do we need paper maps?” In fact, we need both. We can use both together, but our learners need to be able to use paper maps because these are still used in the occupations mentioned above and being able to understand and use maps is a key learned competence which needs practice, and there may come a day when the electricity fails (think Zombie apocalypse), and, finally, just because beauty is truth and paper maps are beautiful and true.

What do we need?

Obviously, we need maps (paper and electronic; on your phone is the most convenient); perhaps a compass; smartphones because they have maps and cameras, pen/pencil and paper, and most of all a little imagination. A board is useful as well, but we don’t really need a lot of worksheets or handouts; the maps have enough information for our purposes; and as a generally rule we shouldn’t be spending a lot of time producing worksheets and materials.

In the rest of this article, I will outline a number of activities which you can do with maps with little more than a set of maps, as well as a couple which the internet. In all the task we will be trying to develop the students’ critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication skills.

Activities with Maps:

One: Teacher and Student-generated Quizzes

Maps can be used as the basis for quizzes. Teachers and students can use maps to generate quiz questions of all different kinds. Students can use the maps to answer the questions. The questions can be about almost anything which is represented on the map, from the shape of the countries to the size and location of features on the map. There are many ‘Test Your geography’ apps which students can download onto their phones.

On general principle though it is best if your students create the quizzes (and answer them) as this is more pedagogically useful than you spending your precious time at home creating a quiz. Here are three ways of doing this:

Version 1

  1. Students reorder words to make questions. [Grammar Focus].
  2. Students look at map [Data analysis] and answer the questions from stage 1 [Test].
  3. Oral class check of answers [Listening/speaking-based activity].

Version 2

  1. Pre-task check of word order in Qs [Grammar Focus].
  2. Students look at maps [Data analysis].
  3. Students create questions for other students [Grammar practice].
  4. Students ask other students their questions [Listening / speaking-based test activity].
  5. Teacher gives points for correct answers given orally or in writing.

Version 3

  1. Pre-task check of word order in questions [Grammar Focus].
  2. Student groups given different maps.
  3. Students analyse maps [Data analysis].
  4. Students create questions on separate pieces of paper [Grammar practice].
  5. Questions collected and randomized in a pile.
  6. Maps displayed on walls around the room.
  7. One student from each group takes a question and group try to find answer from maps, a Question – Map Race; though they should already know the answers to some questions from the randomised pile [Language use and data analysis; reading test].
  8. Group with most correct answers wins.

Two: Giving Directions

Despite having Google Maps and the like on Smartphones, it is still useful to be able to give directions and to ask for and understand directions. Even if the zombies have not arrived, your phone battery might die, or the person asking your for directions might not have a smartphone – such people do exist. Anyway, it is also pedagogically useful to practice giving directions, so we should do it. Even if it weren’t useful in the real world outside the classroom, it would still be useful to do in the classroom. And why is it pedagogically useful? Well, giving directions, first and foremost, helps with prepositions, which are extraordinarily important in English (substituting for many case endings found in other languages), and something students find difficult (thus warranting more practice); and, in order to give effective directions, the student needs to logically sequence the discourse, use the appropriate grammar (including word order and noun phrases, not just verbs), check understanding, and respond to misunderstanding and requests for clarification, all in a speaking and listening task. And, with one map between two, there are infinite varieties of the task.

The most important thing to remember, though, is that it is a repeatable task which needs to be repeated. Coursebooks sometimes have checkboxes which students are supposed to check ‘I can give directions’ on completion of the unit. But just practicing something once (or twice) isn’t enough. Giving directions is tricky and something which needs to be repeated often in order for the competency to be properly developed (and giving directions is a competency, a micro-competency if you will). As for many tasks building competency requires repetition. In one lesson you will introduce the task. Then you should do the task again in the next lesson. Then do it again 2 weeks later. Then do it again the next month. Then do it again after three months. Then do it again after five months. Once is not enough.

Three: Variations on Tours

In these activities, students collaborate on developing an itinerary for different people and places and purposes. In order to do this they need to be creative, to discuss options, make evaluations, justify, agree, disagree, and make decisions.  Then they should communicate the result, and then take it further with a written task.

Version 1: Town Tour/visit

Student groups or pairs plan a visit to their town for their friends.  They should discuss using maps and plan an itinerary for their friends, with justifications. Then they prepare to present. They present to other groups or pairs. The class votes on the best itinerary; the teacher gives feedback on the presentation and language use (future forms etc.). Then students write an email to another friend about what happened during the visit of their friends to their town. They have to imagine the visit has happened and report about it to their friend. This reinforces the language used but with a switch from future to past.

Version 2: VIP Visit

In this version the students have to imagine they are in the Secret Service and are protecting a VIP on a visit. “You are the secret service advance team for a visit of the president of x to a certain place. Plan the visit schedule and the security procedures to be followed.” The teacher should discuss with the students what security procedures might be followed in such a visit (how to control the crowds, where to place snipers on roofs etc), which establishes the success criteria which will be used to evaluate their plans.  Then students plan the visit using maps, and then prepare to present and then present. The plans are evaluated according to the criteria established earlier.  The teacher gives feedback on the presentation and language use (future forms etc.).  Then students write a report about the visit – a switch into the past like in version 1.

Version 3: Visiting an attraction

Many local attractions like theme parks, zoos etc. have maps which show what can be seen on a visit.  Students can be asked to plan a visit to such attractions. The key is who they are planning for. The instructions should be something like ‘Plan a visit for a family with four children aged 2, 4, 6 and 16.The ages of the children are constraints, or really criteria which have to be satisfied. They need to find things suitable for children of these ages and justify them. Like before the students have to present their plan to the class and justify their decisions. You might want them to imagine that they are one of the children and ask them to write a letter describing the experience.

Version 4: World tour

The final version of a tour also relies on complications and restrictions to make it an interesting challenge. The students are told they are specialist travel agents and they have been asked to design a world tour for a small group of people. With a world map and some knowledge of the world (or their phones and the internet if that is an option) they should plan the tour. Using your imagination, you should provide information about the tourists and their interest (which have to be satisfied) e.g. Mr Smith is 50 years old and likes fly fishing. The restrictions are in the things like the number of countries which should be visited (e.g. they should visit 10 countries), how long can be spent in each country (e.g. 10 days max), how they can travel to each country (e.g. they can fly to five countries only), and where they can stay in each country (e.g. they should stay in hotels (max. 4 stars) and camp in some countries). The plan should include the route between and within the countries visited, time spent in each country, places visited in each country (and why), activities done (and why), and accommodation.

The students discuss and plan, present and justify their plans. After a vote of the best plan and feedback from the teacher on their presentations students would do a writing task. You could ask the students to imagine they are one of the group halfway through the tour and to write home describing what has happened on the tour so far and what is happening next. Or they could write a letter at the end of the tour to someone they met on the tour. Or they could write a Risk Assessment of the tour, or an Environmental Impact statement on the proposed tour.

Four: Treasure Hunt

Everyone, apart from victims of modern-day piracy, loves pirates and talk of pirate treasure. But the treasure hunt I have in mind here is more like orienteering, which is a map-based sport with instructions and checkpoints. Given a map students could be given a set of questions in sequence which would lead them around the map from a starting point to the ‘treasure’ at the end. The questions could be something like these: 1. Find the Town Hall. 2. What is opposite the Town Hall? To the North? 3. Face this building. Now turn left, go down the High Street. Cross the crossroads. Which building is on your left? 4. Find the shortest route from here to the cinema. What is it? 5. Halfway to the cinema there is a circular object – what is it? 6. Stand in front of this object; with your back to the object. What can you see in front of you? 7. Now, solve this cryptic clue to find out where you should go next…….. and so on.

Five: Weather Station

To tie in with science and climate change you could present a scenario to the students like this: “The local town council has asked your team to find a suitable site for a new weather station. Research the requirements for weather station placement (e.g. how far they have to be from buildings, and how far off the ground) and then, suing your maps, create a shortlist of three sites in your town where such a weather station could be located. Present the three locations and your preferred option. Be ready to answer questions about the locations.’’ Obviously, this would be followed up with presentations and discussions, and could be followed up by a report writing task.

Six: Map-based Infographics

Being able to develop infographics is a useful skill and you could task the students to prepare a map-based infographic of the topic of practically anything, using any of many websites where you can do this for free (Google ‘Infographics, and see images for examples), and then present it to the class.

Seven: Mental Maps

Mental maps are the mental representations we all have of our environment. Ask students to draw their mental representations of their town in a sketch map, which shows places they know, what is unknown (‘There be dragons’) the routes they take [weighted by frequency] and colour code everything to show how they feel (e.g. red = danger) in different places. They can then present/explain their mental maps.

Eight: Land Use Survey

This could be a project which students do as homework, and is something they might have to do in Geography. Given a section of map they should visit the area and colour in parts of the map depending on what it is used for. Private housing would be one colour; fields another; apartment buildings another colour; industrial areas another colour, and so on. Then they prepare a presentation, and then write a report.

Nine: Best Route

Students are tasked to choose the best route from A to B on a paper map. They can calculate the distance using string and estimate time walking, driving etc. All this information can then be compared with Google Maps distance, time and route. They can write up a report about the data and comment on how accurate their estimates were. The report can be illustrated with photos and screenshots.

Ten: Comparisons

For this activity you need to find somewhere which has recently been developed/changed e.g. new shopping centre, as this activity takes advantage of the fact that maps are out of date. Visit the area and photograph the place (360 degrees), or ask the students to do so. Compare the photographs with what is shown on maps and Google Street view. What are the differences? Discuss and write about the changes.

A variation is to compare what is shown on a paper map with what is revealed by Google Street View – how accurate is the paper map?

Eleven: Contributing to Maps

It is possible to add to electronic maps found on the internet and this can be made into a project. Your students can add to the layers of information on electronic maps by adding info e.g. Google Maps.,, and wikitravel. This could be photos, information about places of interest or even adding roads and rivers.

A paper-based variation on this is to take a paper map and then enhance it with photos and text to create an augmented map/poster for discussion/display.

Twelve: Create your own Maps

Finally, you can create your own maps in a number of ways. They can be hand drawn from your imagination, or they can be drawn or copied electronically in a drawing program, or a map can be exported from OpenStreetMap and information added to it to create individualised maps.


Maps are a wonderful resource which can be exploited in a number of ways with not further materials in order to develop our students language skills – both speaking and listening and writing in particular. They are data-rich and this can be exploited in numerous ways as prompts for developing our students’ critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication skills in tasks which can and should be repeated but with different maps.

As teachers we should have a collection of different maps (tourist offices are an obvious source) of various kinds – world maps, country maps, city maps, attraction maps, all maps. Armed with these and nothing else (except a board, pens and paper, and maybe internet connected devices) we can engage with the real world through the augmented reality of maps and encourage real extended discourse from our students which they can learn from.