One of the fun things about teaching at Language ETC is meeting students from all over the world. We learn about their countries while they learn about the United States, and they learn about each other’s countries, too.
Students almost always enjoy talking about their countries, and it’s an easy step from there to various map and geography activities. The possibilities are limitless, but the ideas below provide a starting point. Wall maps, tape and markers are available in the volunteer lounge.
1. Where are you from?
Tape a world map, the biggest you can find, to the chalkboard. Each student comes up to the board and points out his or her country. Many classes do something like this near the beginning of the term as part of icebreaker activities. There are various ways to expand on this, depending on the level of the class:
- With beginner classes, you can turn it into a counting exercise. “How many students are from Guatemala? Let’s count them.” “One, two.” “How many are from El Salvador?” “One, two, three, four, five!”
- Students in intermediate classes can ask each other questions about their countries. Teachers can model a few questions such as “Where is your country?” (“It’s in Latin America.”) “What is the climate like in your country?” (“It’s often cold in Russia.”) Then students take it from there, asking their own questions of their peers.
- Students in advanced classes can point out their country on the map and talk about it for one to two minutes, then take questions from the other students. In Advanced Plus, we’ve had students prepare five-minute oral presentations on their countries, to present on a date of their choosing. Several have even made PowerPoints to illustrate their talks.
2. Where have you been?
You can do this with either a world map or a US map, depending on which geography your students are learning. Tape the map to the chalkboard and have each student point out a country, state, or city that he or she has visited. Classmates can ask questions such as “When did you go?” “How did you get there?” “What did you do there?”
3. Where would you like to go?
The same exercise can be adapted by asking students to point out a country, state, or city where they would like to go — if they could go anywhere — and say why. A fun activity for intermediate to advanced classes is Plan Your Dream Vacation (allow an hour and a half to two hours).
4. Map skills: beginning to low intermediate levels
Print out a simple map that shows a few streets and landmarks. There are a number of them on the Web; here’s a sample map from the website EnglishExercises.org. It uses a few British terms such as “car park,” but you could replace this with “parking lot” before you photocopy the map.
Give each student a copy of the map. Working in pairs or groups, students can then practice asking and answering questions that use directions such as next to, across from, and around the corner. For example:
— Excuse me. Where’s the school?
— It’s on Lane Street.
— Thanks. I also need to go to the bank. Where is it?
— It’s next to the Korean restaurant, on Palm Street.
— That’s great! I love Korean food. Is there a parking lot nearby?
— Yes, there’s one at the corner of Palm Street and Queen Avenue.
. . . and so on.
5. Mapping an imaginary neighborhood
This activity for a low intermediate group works well as a follow-up to a map-reading exercise such as number 4 above. Start by having the class brainstorm the names of places that one might find in a town or neighborhood, such as houses, supermarket, restaurant, bank, movie theater, church, park, and so on. List these places on the board.
Divide students into pairs or threes, and give each group colored markers and a sheet of newsprint or poster board. Each group will draw a map of an invented or real neighborhood, showing at least six of the places from the list on the board. Each place should be labeled appropriately. Finally, each group presents their map to the class.
6. Map skills: high intermediate to advanced levels
Map reading is a great activity to do in Language Lab. Students at advanced levels tend to be computer users, and some will already be familiar with GoogleMaps or other online mapping programs. You can prepare a one-page sheet of questions for students to answer, using GoogleMaps. It’s fun if you write questions that use your own students’ names and countries. Examples of questions I wrote for our class:
- Elvia, Claudia, and Jorge are homesick for Colombia, so they fly to Bogota. They have to change planes in ________, a city at the southern tip of Florida. During the flight from Florida to Colombia, they look out the plane window and see below them a large body of water, the _____________.
- Aldrich has always wanted to see Niagara Falls, on the border between _______ and _______. He drives in his shiny new BMW, starting in Washington, DC, and following the most direct route, which takes him through three states: _________, _________, and ________.
- The Advanced Plus class wants to take a class trip to the White House. They start at Language ETC, 2200 California St. NW. How do you think they should get to the White House? Consider walking, bus, Metro, or private helicopter.
Start the activity by helping students navigate to GoogleMaps, then zoom in and out on specific points on the map, until they get the hang of it. They can then work individually to answer the questions. When we did this exercise with an Advanced class, about half the class completed the page of questions in a matter of minutes, while others took the better part of an hour and needed help. The difference didn’t seem to reflect English proficiency, but rather familiarity with GoogleMaps and general map-reading skills.
7. Name the states
First, have students list on paper as many US states as they can think of. They can work individually or with partners. Once students have made their lists, tape a large map of the United States to the chalkboard. Students then take turns announcing the name of a state from their list, writing it on the board, and finding its location on the map. Continue until all 50 states have been named. This is a good time to discuss the difference between states and cities, as places like “Boston” will almost certainly pop up in students’ lists of states.
For higher-level classes, you can take the discussion in various directions. For example, you can talk about how almost all countries have internal divisions of some kind, but some have states (e.g., United States, Mexico), others departments (e.g., El Salvador), and still others provinces (e.g., Canada, Congo). Students may be interested in discussing the special status of places like the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
8. Puzzle map competition
Puzzle maps are inexpensive and widely available online and in stores. If you have a puzzle map of the United States, or the world, teams of students can assemble it on the teacher’s desk. You can either time each team and see who completes the whole puzzle fastest, or give teams a fixed amount of time (such as three minutes) and see how much of the puzzle each team completes. When we did this with a 3B class, they loved it.
9. Wall map competition
Before class, print an outline map of the US in segments. I used the one at Owl & Mouse. I chose “USA outline” and “3 x 3 – 9 pages.” This prints out the entire country in nine letter-size pages that assemble to form a 3 x 3 grid. Make several photocopies of the pages, enough so that you can divide your class into teams (of two, three, or four students) and give each team a complete set.
Working in teams, students first assemble their pages and tape them together to form the map of the United States. They can assemble the maps on the chalkboard or on the floor. For my Advanced class, this turned out to be more of a challenge than I expected (first time I’ve ever seen Texas upside down).
Each team then labels as many states as they can. This was even more challenging, and all the teams got into raucous debates about which state went where. Most did more or less well with the coasts but were confounded by all the square states in the middle. When everybody seemed sort of stuck, each team was allowed to send a “spy” to look at the other teams’ maps for one minute and bring back ideas.
Finally, put up a big wall map of the United States. Students can gather round the map and take turns pointing out the states one by one. As each state is located, the teams circle or check off the states they placed correctly on their maps. In our class, the winning team had only 24! To be honest, I’m not sure how well most Americans would do on this exercise.
10. Online map games
Students can play online geography and map games in Language Lab. Owl & Mouse has free interactive map puzzles for learning continents, countries, states, and capitals. Quizzes, too. Many other websites also have map games and puzzles. What’s your favorite?