Teaching map-reading skills

Updated November 21, 2016

Map reading is an essential skill for use in the classroom and the real world. Students need to be able to read and understand maps to study social studies and geography; maps can also be useful tools in literature and history classes. In addition, if students want to navigate their way around the world in the future, they will eventually need to read a map (GPS devices don't exist everywhere). Use these lesson plan ideas to help your students learn and practice map-reading skills.

Building the Vocabulary

To read a map, there are several vocabulary terms that the students will need to learn and understand. Make sure you teach these terms as part of the introduction to any map-reading unit. If you are working with older students, you may only need to review the terms to make sure they remember them from previous courses:

Directional Terminology. Students need to know cardinal directions. At a young age, they can learn that north will always point up. As they get older, they can learn to find north on the map in any direction (along with the other three cardinal directions).

Types of Maps. Students need to be able to understand the differences between political, weather, physical, historical, and navigational maps, among others. Show students lots of examples and let them explore the similarities and differences between the various types of maps available.

Scales and Distances. The scale on the map shows how many miles (or other units of length) are represented by every inch (or centimetre, etc) on the map. Students should practice measuring and calculating distances using a variety of mapping scales.

Legends. The map will also usually contain a legend, explaining the symbols used. Students need to learn to visit this section of the map first to interpret its contents.

Games to Play

Let younger students practice with a map of a fun place, such as a playground or a park. Have them take cut-outs of people or animals and place them in various places on the map (put the girl in the sandbox, etc) to help them practice finding locations. Then ask them if the sandbox is north or south, or if the swing set is east or west, etc.

For older kids, give them a map of important places on display in the front of the class. Pass out the names of these locations on index cards, with tape affixed to the back. Read clues about the locations, and the students who have the index cards for those places should come to the front and attach their cards to the map when their clues are read.

You can also play "mystery chair" for a variation on that activity. Write a series of clues about a location on a sheet of paper, and attach that paper to the underside of a student chair or desk. Repeat this several times, all before students enter the class. When they come into the room, have them find their mystery papers under their chairs and ask them to read their clues out loud. Then the rest of the class has to identify the location described in the clues, and the student who read the clues can choose a classmate to find the location on a classroom map.


Students can go on a school-wide scavenger hunt. Give them a list of directions and have them navigate their way around the school, picking up clues that you have posted along the way.

Have students draw a map of their neighbourhoods and include their own legend and scale. They can bring them in to display them for the rest of the class.

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