Teaching the Five Themes of Geography - Location

Location is of course where something is. However, there is more than one way to specify location.

The first is absolute or exact location. In geography, this is most often done by using latitude and longitude.

The second way to specify location is relative location. This is location based on references to other places or things. For example, I might say my house is near the corner of Oak and Pine. Or, I might say my house is 2 miles west of Interstate-80. These are both relative locations.

Teaching Location and Latitude/Longitude

My experience has been that most students are very familiar with and capable of using relative location; it's what they're most used to. Latitude and longitude or absolute location, however, is another story.

I use direct instruction to teach students how to use latitude and longitude, starting with vocabulary...

Latitude and Longitude Vocabulary

latitude - distance north or south of the equator

Latitude lines are the horizontal lines on the global grid, are the same distance apart, and they never meet. Thinking about the rungs on a ladder can help a student remember that latitude lines are horizontal.

paralells - another term for lines of latitude

longitude - distance east or west of the Prime Meridian

Longitude lines run north and south on the global grid (vertical), are farthest apart near the equator and meet at the poles.

meridians - another term for lines of longitude

degrees - a unit of measure for angles, including latitude and longitude

hemisphere - half of the Earth

equator - the "main" line of latitude, it seperates the Earth into northern and southern hemispheres and is the starting point for latitude (0-degrees of latitude)

Prime Meridian - the "main" line of longitude, it seperates the Earth into eastern and western hemispheres and is the starting point for longitude (0-degrees of longitude)

I find it helpful to have the students draw a simple picture for each word in their notes to help the words "stick" in their mind. For instance, with latitude, I have them draw a circle with equidistant horizontal lines on it. Most textbooks have diagrams to aid the students in coming up with pictures to sketch for these words.

Simple and Cartesian Grids

Before getting the students into plotting latitude and longitude, I like to have them work with simple grids. First, I ask for examples of simple grids. Common responses are graph paper, scorecards, etc. Then I draw a bingo card on the board and demonstrate how it works as a simple grid. Battleship is another game that uses a simple grid system. Generally, I then have the students use a simple grid overlaid on a map. I happen to have worksheets with my textbook materials that help students practice using a simple grid on simple maps.

It also might be helpful to have students call on their math skills (Cartesian grid) to help them understand the concept of using quadrants with a grid. I generally draw a Cartesian grid on the board, plot a few points, and have students give the coordinates. Then, turn the axes into an equator and Prime Meridian to form hemispheres and have students use N, E, S, W instead of + and - numbers to indicate coordinate direction. Finally, I draw imaginary islands on our modified Cartesian grid and plot imaginary cities on them. The students can then figure out the points where the cities lie on the modified grid.

Naturally, the more time I have, the easier this all becomes. Students with no exposure to Cartesian grids or latitude/longitude will often find the concept difficult to grasp. The more practice, the better.

World Map

Eventually, I move the students to plotting points/finding coordinates on a map of the world. The biggest challenge here is getting them to understand that the axes are not always straight given that the Earth is not flat. It takes practice to get them to follow the curvature of the lines to get their lat/long readings. Again, practice, practice, practice...

Fun Activities

I've found several activities that help make latitude and longitude a little more entertaining.

Mystery Cities of the Day

If I have several days to work on the concept, I will put several coordinants of mystery cities on the board to start class. The students use their atlases to find the mystery cities. This helps them learn to figure out which maps, using N, E, S, W on the lat/long coordinates to find the hemisphere, have the cities on them.

Crack the Code

National Geographic has a pretty fun activity for students to do to assess their development on the concept of latitude and longitude. It's called Crack the Code. By finding mystery cities in an atlas, the students can decode a city name where geography bandits are located.

Tracking a Hurricane

Since I started teaching, there have been no shortage of hurricanes to track early during the school year. I use coordinates from NOAA hurricane or tropical storm reports and their tracking charts (click the link and scroll down to find 3 tracking chart PDF links). Each day, as the hurricane moves, I write coordinates on the board. The students copy the coordinates on a chart on the back of their tracking chart and then plot the points on the map. This year, apparently (and thankfully) being a slow year for hurricanes, I may use a previous year's hurricane to provide points for this activity.

This is a great way to include science in the social studies curriculum. I usually do a 1/2 period intro on hurricanes, how they work, and their history to spark the students' interest on the subject.

Around the World

The geography text I use has an interesting lesson plan that requires the students have to plot a course around the world using latitude and longitude. I have not had a chance to try it in class yet, but it seems like a great idea.


My school does not have the money to provide GPS units, but obviously, latitude and longitude would be a great time to introduce the use of GPS as a way to teach and reinforce the concept.

(Update 8/15/16) - I just put up a new post on the 5 Themes with lots of pictures, an infographic, and a discussion of how the themes apply to ancient history.  Check it out!

Thanks for reading!  I hope this was helpful!

Mr. West

No comments:

Post a Comment