It used to be a lot of work to make a map. Before computers, maps had to be meticulously drawn by hand, their grids and outlines relying on complicated pencil-and-paper calculations. Now, you can download map data from the U.S. Geologic Survey or the Census Bureau, install an application on your laptop, and start cranking out maps of anything and everything. Maps are everywhere on the web. We use them to find photographs, to see where earthquakes occur, and to plan our workouts.

The sheer quantity of maps available is great for educators, because we can easily find visual resources to accompany lessons in science and social studies. But it also presents a new challenge for educators, because it’s now more important than ever that students develop map-reading skills. And those skills are more complicated than most educators realize.

Even young children have more ability than many educators think to read and interpret maps — both maps for wayfinding and symbolic maps. But unless they receive instruction, their development levels off after a certain point. That leaves them susceptible to misconceptions about maps. 1

Map skills as literacy

The skills needed to read and interpret maps are a part of visual literacy — a set of skills and habits of mind necessary to “read” images. Visual literacy means not just decoding an image but comprehending it — grasping the image’s intended meaning, evaluating it, and incorporating it into other knowledge.

Most social studies instruction incorporates maps in some way, and most elementary and middle school teachers provide instruction in how to use maps. But teachers often overestimate how much they’re accomplishing with maps. In one study, when researchers asked teachers to explain how and why they used maps in the classroom, a third talked about analysis and interpretation. One teacher wanted her students to develop an “appreciation of spatial perspectives and understanding of spatial dimensions through scale.” The content of their lessons, though, turned out to be mainly about map conventions — latitude and longitude, scale, how to use a key, map symbols, and how to locate cities and countries. In short, the researchers concluded, “their stated higher-order goals were not supported by their lower-order practices.”2

Of course, students have to learn map conventions. But although understanding conventions is the first step towards literacy, it isn’t literacy. Stopping there would be like teaching a child the sounds of the letters and then handing her a book. Just because she can decode the words on the page doesn’t mean she can comprehend the book — and just because a child can decode a map doesn’t mean he can comprehend it.

Understanding and teaching map skills

In this module, I won’t spent much time on map conventions, because there are plenty of lesson plans and activities out there for teaching concepts like scale and latitude and longitude. Instead, I want to focus on visual literacy skills and higher-order thinking — what you can do with maps once your students can decode them, and the skills they’ll need to read and comprehend maps in the real world.

  1. First, we’ll take a broad look at what a map is, and include some mathematical perspectives.
  2. Next, we’ll consider what skills students need to read and comprehend maps, and how teachers can most appropriately integrate maps into other classroom activities.
  3. To understand how maps are made and how they can distort geographical features, we’ll learn about map projections and consider what various projections are good (and not so good) for.
  4. Moving beyond geography, we’ll explore the ways maps are used to convey science and social-science data, how maps can distort data, and how smart map readers can avoid being fooled.
  5. Finally, we’ll consider how technology can or cannot help us teach higher-level map skills.