Mapping Monday: Maps are for Reading

In his 2012 book Why Geography Matters More Than Ever, geographer Harm de Blij tells us how he uses maps in the university classroom:

        “As I suggest to my students, please scrutinize a full-page map for at least as long as it would take you to read a page of the book of which it is part. Try to summarize what it tells you, information you have not learned from the text.”

So as his students are encountering maps in a book or on the web, he’s instructing them to spend as much time reading it as they would a passage of text of the same length–at last, a map visualization and written words on the same playing field! Whether it is a map from a road atlas, a thematic map showing population density in the United States, or a historic map documenting World War II, a map can be rich with information that one must read to fully take in and process. Take for example a map recently published in National Geographic magazine to complement an article on Doggerland, an area including Great Britain and the North Sea that was once completely uncovered by ocean at a time when the global sea level was much lower. By taking the map fully in–reading it–you can learn about this Doggerland landscape as it changed between 16,000 B.C. and today and how the western European geography looked much different at points in between. There is a wealth of information you can glean, just by reading and interpreting the map. The map is on the National Geographic Education website, here.

Map of Doggerland, a region of Europe exposed when sea levels were lower in the past.
A map showing Doggerland, a region of northwest Europe home to Mesolithic people before sea level rose to inundate this area and create the Europe we are familiar with today. Map courtesy National Geographic magazine.

Interconnections is a new guide from National Geographic Education and partners that aligns the newly updated U.S. National Geography Standards with the Common Core State Standards. It does a great job of pointing out to educators where they can insert geography learning into their teaching when trying to meet the Common Core Standards. As of early 2013, 45 states and 3 territories across the United States have adopted the Common Core Standards, which emphasize teaching literacy skills in and through history, social studies, science, and technical content areas. The final guide will be made available on the National Geographic Education website next month.

Let’s use the Doggerland map as an example of a “text” we can use as part of this. In the Common Core grade 6 English language arts standards we find that when reading informational texts, students should be able to determine a central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details and provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments.

And the Geography Standard 4: The Physical and Human Characteristics of a Place tells us that by the 8th grade, students should know that physical and human characteristics of places change and therefore should be able to explain the ways in which islands and coastal places may change as a result of sea level rise.

The Doggerland map is perfectly positioned to achieve both of these standards. Having students read the map and then write a summary about it that focuses on the physical characteristics of the place is a great exercise to encourage map reading and hit on an important geography standard. To go further, the full text of the National Geographic magazine article it accompanies can also be read on the Internet, or from the print or digital issues of the magazine. Find the map and a link to the full text on our website.

This is just one example to give you an idea of where maps can fit into teaching in the United States today. There are countless other examples of where maps can fit into teaching in the United States and in countries around the world. I invite you to give us a good example from your work!

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