Using Maps in Class

Wall Maps Kinney Brothers Publishing banner

When I began learning Japanese in the early 80s, it was imperative that I learn how to ask for directions from the get-go – especially in Tokyo. Not only did I have to deal with my lacking sense of direction, I was also functionally illiterate as I didn’t know any Japanese when I first arrived. A guide book and a paper train map were always in my bag. I also remember the huge city map on the kitchen wall in the foreigner’s house where I lived; an invaluable reference for fresh-off-the-boat travelers like me. To whatever train station I might be going, I regularly stopped at the local police box to ask directions – even if I already knew where I was going. Why? It was excellent language practice and I milked it.


Looking back, I was lucky. I was in the real world, immersed in a new language, and learning daily. Because we teach in a box, we have to find inventive ways to bring meaningful, real-world language into the classroom. Maps offer a visual opportunity for building language skills.


In my own book publications, I created maps and activities that are included in the Phonics & Spelling series, Q&A worksheets, and referenced for nearly every story in the Stories For Young Readers textbooks. I wanted my kids to know where they are in the world, learn about someplace new, and not be afraid to ask for directions or offer help to someone in need.


Stories For Young Readers Kinney Brothers Publishing


Consider all the language used when dealing with maps:

  • geographical vocabulary – rivers, lakes, mountains
  • community places, cities, capitals, countries
  • prepositions of place – in, on, in front of, behind
  • directionals – north, south, right, left, forward, back, around
  • ordinal numbers
  • grammar tenses – past, present, and future
  • map vocabulary – legends, icons, scales


Community Places Donald's English Classroom


Starting early…


As my kids get older and catch on to the fact that I don’t really swim from the U.S. to Japan every day, we start learning community places, easy country names, and playing games with flags. Flags are already familiar to many sports-minded kids and there’s no reason to be ignorant about your favorite team’s home turf. In preparation for the Jidou Eiken tests, community place names and geographic vocabulary are a regular part of my flash card activities. Keep in mind, these kinds of exercises can be just as informative and entertaining in your adult ESL classes!


Worksheets Kinney Brothers Publishing


When students begin moving about in their community and become aware that some people come from other places, like me, we start working with maps. Map activities pull together a variety of language skills — language you’ve probably been teaching your kids since they were little! It begins with prepositions of place and sight words like at, in, on, next to, and in front of. Interrogatives like where, what, and how come early on when asking the most rudimentary questions.


Town Map Donald's English Classroom


Once students develop informational reading skills, we look at town maps and tackle exercises in asking for and giving directions. We start with simple commands like Turn right! Turn left! and Go straight! Similar to community flash card exercises in the past, students express where they are or want to go on the maps, e.g., I want to go to the station, or I’m at the library. Especially with large classes, big wall maps are essential for leading students through these types of activities.


Map making…


I went out in search of maps for my classroom many times and in many places around Tokyo. I could never find what I was looking for! Available maps were the wrong language, too expensive, too complicated, too big, too small, and so on. Yes, I’m picky, and I’m not going to have something in my classroom simply for decoration. What I wanted were easy-to-read and colorful wall maps appropriate for upper-elementary ESL kids in English. Simple to find, right? Nope.


Wall Maps Donald's English Classroom


So, I started creating my own. Because I don’t have a poster-size printer, I resized digital images and created wall maps out of regular sheets of paper. The students and I glued them together as a class activity, and viola! I have wall maps of each continent, a town map for practicing directions, and a U.S. map so I can talk about where I came from. Each map is dedicated to the class that helped put it together with a picture of the students and the date.


Wall Maps 2 Donald's English Classroom


I also wanted the maps to be an interactive resource in my lesson plans. So, along with the wall maps, I created charts, worksheets, plus blank and numbered maps for classroom activities and handouts for students’ interactive notebooks. These are items not normally sold with maps you buy at a bookstore. Importantly, all the student materials are congruent with the wall maps and I’m not hobbling together different resources to create a series of lessons.


I’m pleased to say, these maps are now available in my online store. Click on the images to learn more. I hope you find these maps useful in your own classes.


Worksheets Town Map Donald's English Classroom


Playing with maps…


Here are some map activities I’ve found particularly useful in class. If you have some activities you especially enjoy, help a teacher out and let us know in the comments below!


  • Create your own town! With a blank town map and a list of community places, allow students to create their own towns! Then have students ask and give directions based on their created maps. Let students visit each other’s town or vote on their favorite town!
  • Give students a numbered or blank map. Beginning with a labeled place, like a station, dictate directions and have students label the place of arrival on their own maps. This works well as an assessment of lessons taught.
  • Ask students to imagine a country they’d like to travel to for vacation. Create an outline of topics you would like them to research: weather, geography, food, history, etc. This is great grammar practice for future conditionals. With the online tools available for research, the possibilities are endless!

Stories For Young Readers Book 2 Kinney Brothers Publishing


  • For practice with past tense, display a historical map next to a current map. This activity gets your students really scanning a map closely to discover the differences.
  • Teachers who teach from their home country are more likely to have students from a variety of places. A map can be a wonderful springboard for enjoyable and informative language practice. Pin the countries where students are from or have travelled to on a world map. Students love to talk about what they know best: their home country and all its unique cultural differences!


I hope this post encourages you to consider using maps more often in your ESL lessons. I’ll finish with a favorite quote:


I was completely drawn to other lands. I discovered with time that it’s a thirst for other people, for otherness, for something fascinating and mysterious. Robert Lepage


If you’re interested in downloading a free set of World Maps that you’re sure to find useful in class, click here or on the image below. You’ll get 20+ maps and stay up to date with Kinney Brothers Publishing!


Free Map Download Kinney Brothers Publishing


As always, best of luck in your classes!
Donald Kinney

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