8 Fun Ways to Use Google Maps for Content Based ESL Instruction

Maps are intriguing documents.

Google Maps takes this to a whole other level.

You can get lost staring at Google Maps, exploring new places from a bird’s eye or first-person view.

Each time you play with Google Maps you’re learning about something new: a city, a border, a river’s winding path.

But can these colors, shapes and lines help teach English to our ESL students?

Of course!

8 Fun Ways to Use Google Maps for Content Based ESL Instruction

Why Teach ESL Students with Google Maps?

With Google Maps we can make map work not only about reading but also about creating language. So, why do you want this lesson to be learned through maps in your classroom?

  • It’s more fun. Learning academic English requires a certain amount of repetitive tasks, but doing the same activities with maps adds variety.
  • You can educate about geography, culture and history. It’s no secret that many people are unfamiliar with these aspects of their own home countries, let alone foreign countries. Learning language through these subjects will teach them not only English skills, but also relevant information about the world that will be useful in their future studies and interactions. If you teach younger students, you may want to also consider checking out the “Early Explorers” subscription from Little Passports. It includes monthly, geography-themed packages for educational adventures.
  • You create authentic contexts for writing and research. Writing practice sentences with only a grammatical purpose can feel meaningless. Giving students particular contexts to demonstrate their knowledge can be highly motivating and can engage a broader range of developing English skills.
  • You can make real texts approachable. ESL-oriented texts are fantastic for beginners, but students should be exposed to texts that they’ll encounter outside of the ESL classroom.
  • You can make reading, writing and research more interactive. Maps connect us to the world at large. Students can feel that these activities are actually part of a dialogue with their peers and the community around them.
  • You can inspire curiosity about the world outside of their home country. This curiosity will motivate students to actually want to have conversations in English, read about different cultures and so on. Curiosity also generally leads to critical thinking and questioning.
  • You can make writing and reading practice more eco-friendly through paperless assignments. Why not save a few trees if we can do the same amount of practice?
  • You can provoke empathy and compassion. I hope I’m not the only teacher who is in this profession to make the world a better place. As teachers, we can provide a context for students to think more deeply and openly about people in other parts of the world — or even in their own country.
  • You can provide an opportunity for students to share their ideas with each other and the world. Many teachers have found that giving students a place to publish their final copies of something raises the quality of student work as well as their sense of accomplishment. Let’s raise their self-esteem and make them feel empowered with their English.
  • You can appeal to the diverse types of intelligence your students possess. These activities allow students who might not normally have success in language study to shine in their particular skill area, such as spatial understanding or geographic knowledge.
  • You can familiarize students with emerging technology. Students who are proficient in technology will be better prepared for most international job markets and universities.

Google Map Basics for the Technologically Challenged

Creating maps through Google Maps is an excellent way for students to practice English, and the process can be mastered by following a few basic steps. You don’t have to be a tech wizard to learn to navigate this tool!

I generally have students create their own accounts and maps, but students or classes could also create a group account and share a password.

Here is what your students should do. Why not try it first yourself and see just how easy it is?

Learning English with Google Maps in 9 Steps

Step 1: Create a Google account (if you do not already have one).

Step 2: Sign into your Google account.

Step 3: Go to the Google Maps page and click on the map search bar. A window will drop down that says “My Maps.” Click on “Create.”

Step 4: Click on “Untitled Map” to type in a name and description.

Step 5: Search places in the map search bar. When you find what you’re looking for, click on the icon that looks like a balloon to add a marker. Put your cursor over the location and click to add the marker.

Step 6: A screen will appear where you can title the marker, add a description and links. By clicking on the camera icon you can add videos or photos.

Step 7: Be sure to save changes.

Step 8: Continue to search and add locations. There are also tools that can be used to draw lines and measure distances. Add different layers if your map becomes too cluttered.

Step 9: Make the map public or send the link to your teacher. You can keep adding to your map as an ongoing project.

8 Classroom Activity Ideas Using Google Maps

These are just a few ideas of how you might adopt Google Maps into your classroom, and all of them can be adjusted to suit your class size, ability and interests. Most activities can be done individually, in pairs or as a group. If you have access to computers at your school it could be classwork. If not, assign some of these things as homework or long-term projects.

Newspaper Maps

Reading the newspaper is a common activity, but students often do not have enough background information about the context to fully comprehend the article. To develop a deeper understanding of the topic they’ve read about, students can create maps about the news articles they read.

These maps can include summaries as well as other information about the place: relevant history, demographics, famous food, photos of nature, music clips or anything the students find helpful or interesting. Advanced students can compare two articles on the same topic and answer questions related to tone and inference to prepare for the TOEFL Reading section. 

I usually do this as an ongoing reading activity, and my students add new entries each week with requirements appropriate for their levels. They can feel a real sense of accomplishment at the end of the term, looking back on all the things they’ve read and learned. With time, they realize reading is not just what is on the page but also the knowledge we actively accumulate.

Dream Vacation Maps

Even advanced ESL students often struggle to construct logical and grammatically correct sentences, particularly when they’re working with more complex structures. One entertaining way to practice sentences is to have students make dream vacation maps describing their perfect trip around the world or a road trip around a country. This activity fosters the relationship between grammar and imagination which, in my opinion, is what makes a good student transform into an awesome student.

With beginners I often give basic sentence stems, but you can fine-tune this to assess and perfect any grammar you’re working with in class. I’ve even accomplished this with my most grammarless classes using phrases like, “I want to _______” and “I’d like to ___________.” As with most writing assignments, I give students a clear rubric. I sometimes even include unique challenges, like spelling out an English word with the countries/cities they visit, figuring out how to travel with a certain amount of money or how to give back to a community they visit.

Listening Log Maps

Many teachers require listening logs. Not only does this waste lot of paper, it also doesn’t encourage much interaction. Instead, students can make ongoing listening maps in which they find the setting of the news or film and write summaries there.

I have them write reflection questions for each entry along with the summary and link. They then select questions that interest them from other students’ maps to write short responses or have small group discussions, making the listening practice more interactive and meaningful.

Street View Descriptions

Street view can create an excellent stimulus for students to practice descriptive writing because it gives students a frozen moment in time instead of a picture-perfect postcard.

I often have them choose three places anywhere in the world that they’ve never been to but are interested in learning about. Doing this activity after students have already learned about similes, metaphors and sensory details will give them some rich descriptive tools to work with and make them feel more confident. This activity can also function really well as a class project and can encourage students to research a variety of intriguing places stretching around the globe. 

Literary Analysis Maps

Reading a novel as a non-native speaker can be very overwhelming and many students, understandably, give up.

One way to add life to the text is to have them map out the characters’ actions or the author’s life, or both. Students could research the history that is relevant to the novel, marking particular historical events that relate to that period of time. Making maps will help them to remember and understand events, motivations, messages and settings.

This activity is also an excellent way to introduce MLA citation in a way that’s more approachable than a full literary analysis essay, but can certainly be a stepping stone towards writing one.

Interactive Encyclopedia Maps

You don’t have to look to far-off destinations. Instead, students can make an online encyclopedia about their local area. They can make audio tours, record short films, take photos, record local music or festivals or anything they feel is important about the place they live.

My students have collectively made an encyclopedia about the city they live in by visiting different places to take pictures and do research. Not only is it more exciting for the students to write paragraphs, it also encourages them to learn more about their own culture and history.

Speech Maps

While using PowerPoint for presentations tends to be the norm, you can mix things up a bit by having students do a speech or presentation about a place which includes information they’ve got on their map. This works well for presentations on a country, history, food, music, literature, culture, anthropology, politics or, well, just about anything.

The best part is that learners can have a look at the key points the night before the presentation for their homework and prepare questions or learn unfamiliar vocabulary.

Peer Editing Maps

All of the above assignments will need some refining, and for this I use focused peer editing because it’s a fantastic way for them to learn how to correct mistakes in their own compositions and improve their scores on the TOEFL Structure section. With Google Maps you do not have to worry about wasting paper, and students can even do it as homework. I don’t know about you, but I never feel that I have enough time in my writing classes to get everything done.

I email students a rubric when they receive the writing assignment, clearly outlining what they’ll be graded on, and they post their writing on Google maps. When they peer edit, they use the same rubric to respond. They asses their fellow student’s work and email their suggestions to both me and the peer. The students respond to the feedback they received and finalize their entry before I read and grade it.

I hope those ideas can get you started and that your students enjoy your tech-savvy, cutting-edge lesson style.

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