15 Map Activities for ESL Classes

You've probably used maps before in English classes. Many beginner-level coursebooks include map-based activities for giving directions. But there is much more we can use maps for than simply giving directions. Maps can promote critical thinking skills, such as analyzing and interpreting information. Maps can also be used to teach students about the geography and culture of different countries. This can help students develop a deeper understanding of the world and its diversity. Tasks using maps can encourage collaboration, providing opportunities for students to share and exchange information. Maps also convey detailed information while requiring minimal reading. This makes them ideal for lower-level students who cannot cope with longer written texts.

Activities using maps

In this section, we'll look at activities for using maps in the classroom. These are ordered from simple to challenging. Some are aimed at younger learners, some are aimed at adults. However, most can be adapted to different levels and age groups.

Map dictation

Give students a partially completed map with some blanks. Describe what the students should draw in each of the blanks. This can practice vocabulary for places and shops, (like “school”, “bakery”, “police station”, etc.) along with prepositions of place (like, “There is a school next to the library”). Ask higher-level students to write in the blanks and lower-level students to draw.

Direction dictation

Give learners a completed map. Tell them a starting point, and then give directions from this to somewhere else on the map. The students must follow the directions and decide where they have arrived at. As a follow-on activity, ask students to write and then give directions to their classmates and see who can follow these most accurately. This is useful for practicing directions like straight, turn around, turn left, turn right, go backwards, backtrack, and stop, as well as north, south, east, and west. You can also include language related to public transport (like “Take the subway two stops.”)

Map the school

Maps of towns and cities might seem rather abstract for younger learners. A more age-appropriate starting place can be to ask your students to make a map of your school. You could ask students to first do this from memory. They can compare their maps with their classmates before finally checking what they have drawn by doing a whole-class walk-through of the school. For younger students who need more scaffolding, give them a template to draw on. This activity involves minimal grammar, making it ideal for beginners. It also encourages conceptual thinking.

Create your own town

Map activities can also be creative. Start with a blank town map and give learners a list of places they need to include in their towns. This could include a department store, restaurant, gas station, school, shopping mall, library, hospital, and any other relevant vocabulary. The learners can then draw what they like. Students could then write directions based on their maps and ask their classmates to follow these and see where they arrive at. To extend the activity, ask students to name their town and create a travel brochure to introducing it and explain why people should visit it.

Map jigsaw

Create two versions of a map. Each version should have different locations missing from it. One has a blank where the other has a school. The other has a blank where the first has a hospital. Put students in pairs. Ask them to fill in the blanks on the map without looking at each other’s maps. The learners will need to describe where things are, then write the correct location based on their partner’s description. Alter the complexity of the maps based on the level of the students. The maps could be of real cities, leading students to learn facts about places in other countries. Or they could simply be a simple made-up map from your coursebook. Learn more about jigsaw, or information gap activities here.

Day out itinerary

This can be done either as an opinion or as a reasoning gap task. Start by giving students a map of a city. Ask them to create an itinerary for where they would like to go and what they would like to see. You could ask students to include what transport (bus, subway, walking) they will take between different sights and why. Students will have to negotiate with each other depending on their interests. This activity can encourage learners to find out more about cities in other countries and each other.

You can also turn this into a reasoning gap task. Give students some requirements for the day out. For example, list the interests and requests of the person they are creating the itinerary for. Maybe they are interested in art but not being able to walk very far. Alternatively, ask them to plan a class trip and think about the interests of the whole class.

Jigsaw map gap fill

Take a map of a city and cut it into two halves. Put students in pairs and give each student one of the halves. The students shouldn’t show these to each other. Tell students they must complete a gap fill with statements about the city. For example:

It has _____ hospitals.

It has ______ subway lines.

The longest road is called ______.

The biggest stadium is called ______.

This activity encourages learners to listen to each other carefully while using an authentic text (the map of the city). Again, by using a map of a city in another country teachers can encourage students to gain some useful cultural knowledge.

Class trip destination

Take some tourist maps of great cities from around the wall. Stick these on the walls around the classroom. Ask the students to do a gallery walk in small groups. As the students to look at the maps, they must decide which city they would most like for a class trip. This opinion gap activity gets students talking but requires less reading than a text describing the cities.

Map spot the difference

For this activity you’ll need two similar maps of the same area with a few differences. Put students in pairs and ask them to describe their maps to each other and write a list of differences between the two. For younger or lower-level students, you could take a map or a made-up town, change a few buildings or road names and give these to students. For older or higher-level students, find two maps of the same town or city from different time periods. Ask the students to create a list of differences. Alternatively, ask students to make a list of similarities between their city now and the same place 100 or 500 years ago. To challenge higher-level learners, make sure each student can only see one map. For lower-level learners, let learners compare the two maps side by side.

Using historical maps can lead to some more interesting grammar practice (like “There used to be a…”). This can also help students learn about the history of their town or city, or about the history of great cities from around the world.

Label your town

This activity is a great way to activate students’ local knowledge. Get a map of the town/city your students live in. Cover up some of the landmarks (city hall, areas concert halls, art galleries, museums, stadiums, police, fire and train stations). Ask the students to fill in the blanks in groups using their knowledge of where they live. This encourages communication between students because different learners will know about different landmarks.

Map Gap

Again, you’ll need two similar maps of the same area with a few differences. One map should have some roads and buildings missing. The other, complete map, should include these along with some places on the map labelled A, B, C, and D. The student with the complete map should tell the student with the incomplete map where to draw A, B, C, and D. on their map. The students must do this without looking at each other’s maps. This activity can lead to a lot of discussion, communication and collaboration, as learners gradually notice the inconsistencies between the maps and try to overcome these.

Fastest route home

In this activity, students work in pairs with each learner looking at a map of the same place. However, each map should contain slightly different information. For example, one student’s map shows where there are traffic jams. The other student’s map shows where there are roadworks. The students then need to work together to find the fastest route between two points, say “work” and “home”. As the students describe which route they would take they will notice that their partner has different information. The students will need to work closely together to solve this problem. Some possibilities for information to incorporate on the two maps include:

  • One way streets
  • Traffic jams 
  • Road words
  • Road closures
  • Times when streets are closed to traffic

Preparing the maps doesn’t need to take long. Simply take a map and draw some one way arrows, color in some streets red (to show traffic jams) and draw lines through some roads to show closures or road works).

City planning

This task is a reasoning gap. Give students a map of a city with around ten blank spaces. Tell the learners that they are city planners. They must decide which public building should be built on each blank space. The students should also have a list of requests from engineers and geologists. These will restrict which buildings can be built in each place. For example,

The hospital needs to be close to the center of the city, but near wide roads and within 200m of a subway station.

The stadium should be on the edge of the city but not near a residential district.

The TV tower cannot be built next to the river, as the muddy ground will not support a tall structure.

The students must work together to decide where different resources should go. Later, students can present their decisions to the rest of the class. The more restrictions you give learners, the more challenging the activity will be.

Transport information gap

Prepare different maps of the same city. One should be a subway map, one a bus map, and the last a tourist map. Give students an itinerary for a day or weekend, visiting different tourist attractions. The students must work together to decide the best way to travel between the different attractions. Of course, they must do this without looking at each other's maps. This activity encourages collaboration as well as communication.

Who's map?

This activity works well for more advanced learners and encourages critical thinking. Start by finding some historical maps (for examples see knowledgesnacks.com). You can either stick these historical maps on the walls of the classroom or give different maps to different groups of learners. Ask students to first describe the map. What features do they notice? Then students should try to interpret the map and guess when it was made and where the mapmaker came from. Students can then discuss what is wrong with the map by using their geographical knowledge. Teachers can localize this activity by choosing maps of the students’ countries. This encourages learners to draw on their knowledge of history and geography as well as critical thinking skills. As an extension, ask each student to choose one map and write about changes over time using the compare/contrast essay format.

Dos and Don’ts for using Maps in Class

Reading maps can be easier for some students than others, so use these activities sparingly. When you do use them, bear in mind some of these concepts.

Avoid overloading your students. Try to keep the maps simple. You don’t want students to be overwhelmed trying to make sense of giant maps with unnecessary details. This is especially important when working with young learners.

Match the map to the task. If you do a cognitively complex task (like Fastest route home) then use a simple map. If you do a cognitively simple task (like a Day out itinerary) you can use a more complex map.

Focus on the tasks rather than the maps themselves. Reading a map requires relatively little language. You could probably understand a map of the place where you live in a language you don’t understand using contextual clues, rivers, and icons. It’s important to use maps as a way to get students to communicate rather than teaching students how to read maps.

Maps can be a great way to encourage students to learn about other cities and other cultures. Many of the activities here could be adapted to help students remember important facts about places they may be studying in other subjects or as part of class projects.

Local maps and activities are also useful. Learning is about mapping new knowledge onto old. Using maps of areas students are familiar with will help make new tasks feel less challenging.


Using maps can be a fun and engaging way to promote critical thinking skills, cultural understanding, and language development. The activities outlined in this blog post range from simple to challenging and can be adapted for different levels and age groups. For young learners and adults, maps provide a visual and interactive way for students to learn and practice new vocabulary and grammar. Additionally, maps can provide opportunities for class discussion, group collaboration, and information sharing. Incorporating maps into EFL activities can be an effective tool for language learning and cultural awareness.

About the Author

Ross Thorburn

Ross Thorburn is a teacher trainer, materials writer and consultant based in Shanghai. Ross started his career in language teaching in 2006. He holds a Trinity DipTESOL, a Trinity FTCL TESOL, an IDLTM from the University of Queensland and a Master’s Degree in Language Education from NILE. Ross is also a keen researcher and has published research articles on teacher training, teacher motivation, task-based learning and young learners. In 2020, Ross published his first book, Inside Online Language Teaching. He also is the host of the TEFL Training Institute podcast.

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