Assigning students to label maps or doing geography projects are great hands-on ways to instill geography skills. But don't jump in too soon! Before making assignments (or "Geo-trekking"), it's vital to: Instruct students in the use of geography reference tools!

Choose appropriate reference material. Consider:

  • Lay-out and design. Busy and detailed maps that may appeal to a high school student may easily frustrate a fifth grader.
  • Content. Look for atlases containing material complementary to your lesson plans. While studying American history, you'll be pleased to have a USA atlas on hand. (These too, come in a variety of levels.) Some atlases are almost strictly maps, while others include a wealth of other information: flags, planet and earth statistics, and cultural information.
  • Typeface. Look carefully at the font style and size. If it's too small for the student to read clearly, it will cause frustration. Younger students need bigger, clearer fonts.
  • Atlas age. Is your only household atlas a ponderous volume from college days? It may be useful for some projects, but its political maps will be hopelessly out of date.
  • Variety. No single atlas is going to answer every question asked. One atlas may be strong in political maps, while another is a great atlas for thematic maps, and another has exciting, eye-catching cartography.
  • Wall Maps. Look for:
    1. Is Africa in the center so that Asia isn't split? (Many American-made maps use a projection with the USA centered on the world map. These projections make the USA look bigger than it really is and have the added disadvantage of splitting Asia in two. It's hard to explain to younger students why one continent appears on opposite sides of a map!!)
    2. Politically up-to-date
    3. Pleasing to look at and read
    4. Enough labeling to be helpful, but not cluttered

Teach students which reference to use and when:

  • Road Map - for specific driving directions.
  • Wall Map - countries and continents at a glance. Excellent for current events and the "big picture." Not well suited for detailed map work.
  • Globe - countries and continents in relationship with one another. Excellent for physical geography/science topics such as: latitude, longitude, hemisphere, rotation, eclipses, seasons, day and night, time zones, etc. Not well suited for most "find this place" type activities.
  • Atlas - for finding specific places, political and physical features, and thematic information such as climate maps, population maps, etc. Not well suited for the "big picture" of physical relationship of continents/countries around the world.
  • Almanac - concise information in one easy source on a huge variety of topics. Typically updated yearly. (Think of it as the "highlights" of an encyclopedia.) Not well suited for in-depth studies.
  • Encyclopedia - in-depth information on countries, peoples, places, events, etc. Not well suited to current events - only as current as its publishing date.
  • Dictionary - concise definition, pronunciation, and spelling of geographic terms. What is a "butte" and how do you say that?!

Don't let this overwhelm you! The important thing to remember is to teach the use of reference tools so that students are comfortable using them and know which ones to use and when. Happy Geo-Trekking!

Maggie Hogan is the co-author of The Ultimate Geography and Timeline Guide, Gifted Children at Home, Young Scholar's Guide to Classical Composers and other resource books. She is the founder of Bright Ideas Press: or FB me @MaggieSHogan.

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