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Graphicacy and spatial thinking

“An important set of competencies for examining the world around us. These skills enable the geographer to visualise and analyse spatial relationships between objects, such as location, distance, direction, shape and pattern.”

The Association of the American Geographer, 2008

Topics on this page:

  • What is graphicacy?
  • Diagrams
  • What is spatial thinking?
  • Developing students’ graphicacy and spatial thinking
  • Digital mapping
  • Developing students’ critical literacy in maps
  • Reading

What is graphicacy?

A geographically informed person uses maps and other geographic representations, such as globes, diagrams and aerial images, to acquire, understand and communicate spatial information. 

The ability to read and understand a map and the accompanying symbols is known in geography as graphicacy. More generally, graphicacy is the ability to understand and present information in the form of graphic images.

Graphicacy has been described in geography as a fourth basic skill, alongside oracy, literacy and numeracy. Without this important skill it is difficult to read maps, which is an essential component of the geography curriculum. 

Graphicacy is rarely taught explicitly (unlike literacy) except in geography classrooms, yet a certain level of graphicacy is assumed of adults; for example, maps and graphics are used widely in the media.



Graphical information can be directly representative of what we see, as in aerial photographs, or it can be more abstract as in maps and plans. Diagrams drawn by students, as shown, are particularly useful for helping students to articulate their understanding of geographical process through text and imagery.

Source: Alistair Hamill, Twitter

The preparation and drawing of a diagram helps students to explain complex ideas. It means that they must think deeply about their own subject knowledge. It also helps them to identify gaps in their own understanding.

Geography teachers often use diagrams to help their students see the spatial relationships between different elements and consolidate their understanding of scale and interrelationships. Powell (2023) explains how drawing a diagram, while verbally explaining it, can be an effective teaching strategy. The teacher can build up a diagram step by step on the whiteboard, or reveal it in stages on a PowerPoint slide, for example, when explaining how longshore drift moves a pebble along a beach.

Research (Purnell et al, 1991) supported the use of diagrams in the teaching of geography to students from year 8 to year 10 and concluded that students perform at a higher level when taught with labelled diagrams as opposed to separated diagrams and text. Diagrams with explanatory labels saw the greatest effect on student performance.

What is spatial thinking?

Geography’s unique way of understanding the world is through spatial patterns and relationships. Every time a student uses a map, they are thinking spatially. 

Geographers study the locations of things, the conditions at different places, and the connections between places. Spatial thinking enables a person to visualise and analyse spatial relationships between objects – using the concepts of location, distance, direction, shape and pattern.

It allows students to describe and analyse the spatial patterns and organisation of people, places, and environments. Thinking spatially about something (whether it is a place, a human issue or a physical system) is a fundamental part of geography. 

A comparison between two maps, e.g. to assess similarities and differences, requires an understanding of spatial relationships. Any issue or event can be viewed spatially, such as the spread of disease, earthquake activity, trade or immigration.

Technologies such as a Geographical Information Systems (GIS) are now commonplace in our lives and are a tool for spatial thinking. They give us access to digital maps and related information quickly, accurately and comprehensively. GIS is a very useful resource for developing students’ spatial literacy.

Developing students’ graphicacy and spatial thinking

To develop students’ spatial thinking requires more than teaching locational knowledge and map skills. It is about teaching students to see maps as representations and develop spatial awareness, which David Lambert defines as ‘the ability to recognise, interpret and understand spatial patterns, distributions and relationships’.

Drawing maps and diagrams has a number of benefits in learning geography that are related to dual coding and help students to show their ideas spatially. Fernandes et al. (2018) found that drawing not only helped with the recall of words, but it also worked for remembering more complex things, like concepts and definitions. 

Encourage students to record their geographical ideas in diagrams and maps. Model how they should do this by sketching diagrams and maps as you give explanations. Keep the drawings simple. You may need to provide some outlines or structures, such as partially completed drawings, to support this strategy.

Maps show us what is where. The what is the feature or event and the where is the spatial location and relationships to other features and patterns. It is important to teach students in geography lessons the importance of mapping data in order to see its significance spatially. 

In the media today, a wide range of types of maps and images are used that exploit the power of new technology and students must learn how to interpret and understand what they see.

We discuss below the importance of developing students’ critical literacy in maps. Globes, graphs, diagrams and aerial and satellite images (including remote sensing) also allow us to visualise spatial patterns on Earth. Students should be introduced to all of these and understand what they represent.

Students need to be able to:

  • understand and interpret maps (and other geographic representations) and know what a map can – and cannot – show
  • describe and analyse spatial patterns of people, places and environments
  • collect and display information on maps, graphs and diagrams
  • make maps – from hand-drawn sketch maps to more complex representations using a range of appropriate technologies such as GIS.

In order to think spatially and analyse spatial patterns, students need to understand the concept of scale and be familiar with alternative map projections that show the Earth from different perspectives.

  • Read about ‘Spatial thinking and graphicacy’ in Biddulph et al (2021) pp. 110-2 and study Table 4.3.

Table 4.3 shows eight fundamental spatial skills identified by American geographers. Three of these – comparison, hierarchy and pattern – are frequently found in geography curricula in English schools. 

Biddulph et al suggest that students should be encouraged to use the spatial vocabulary shown in the table to express their geographical thinking, especially when using and interpreting maps and GIS images.

The use of geospatial technologies in schools has encouraged teachers to think more about geospatial data and developing students’ spatial thinking skills. Geospatial data links physical and human attributes of points or places on Earth’s surface (such as roads, other built features and rivers) and can be compiled, organised, stored, manipulated and represented by computer.

Geospatial technologies include Geographical Information Science (GIS), remote sensing (RS) and global positioning systems (GPS), as well as internet-based mapping sites (e.g. Google Maps) and digital globes and geospatial visualisations. 

All of these are available in today’s geography classrooms and allow the analysis and representation of geospatial data in powerful ways. Students need an understanding of these tools and how they can support problem-solving and decision-making in geography.

Parkinson (2021) asks a very important question about what to teach students in relation to geospatial data. ‘Are we content to be little more than users and interpreters of map data, or do we think that even a limited understanding of how the system works is useful?’ His article considers newer technologies, such as GPS and digital mapping, alongside traditional OS maps and raises questions about what should be taught to students in the 2020s – such as What3Words (W3W) and digital co-ordinates.

  • Read Parkinson (2021).

Parkinson is not suggesting that we should no longer teach students how to use an OS map. On the contrary, he gives good justifications for doing so, including quoting a head of geography who pragmatically said: ‘because when you are lost on the hills, out of batteries, out of signal, out of hope, it will save your life (also it still comes up in GCSE questions!)’.

  • Discuss with your geography mentor how the spatial skills of comparisonhierarchy and pattern feature in the geography curriculum in your school. Do the other five feature at all?
  • Is there a progression in the development of these skills in the KS3 curriculum of your school?
  • Do the teachers in your school see an important role for GIS in developing spatial thinking skills?

Digital mapping

Geospatial technologies, such as Google Earth and GIS, are examples of high-tech systems that can help students become spatially literate.

Such technologies enable students to ask five important questions that have been described as ‘spatial querying’:

  • What is at … ?
  • Where is … ?
  • What has changed since … ?
  • What spatial pattern exists?
  • What if … ?

Manipulating digital maps allow you to change them in many different ways. Spatial thinking is taking on new layers of complexity as technology is literally changing the shape of maps as we know them. Professor Danny Dorling comments: ‘On our screens, on our phones, in our textbooks and magazines, our images of the world are changing faster than the world is itself’ (2012).

Dorling has spent over 25 years drawing what he describes as strangely shaped maps such as those created by Worldmapper. This creates equal area cartograms for all kinds of data and allows students to ask questions about spatial patterns, inequalities, relationships and consequences. Find out more about this in the readings shown below.

  • Investigate Worldmapper, which is a collection of world maps with variables from refugees to house prices, where territories are re-sized on each map according to the subject. There are hundreds of maps to explore and they give powerful visual impact to current patterns, especially for indices related to development.
  • See GA resources on Gapminder and Worldmapper.
  • See How to read cartograms.
  • Read the articles by Dorling and Hennig about Worldmapper.

Developing students’ critical literacy in maps

Maps convey complex information for students to interpret. They need to learn how to treat maps as representations rather than accepting them as unquestionable truths, especially when faced with maps in the media. Maps show information simultaneously, e.g. in contrast with written text, where information is presented sequentially.

The ability to ‘read’ maps is part of visual literacy. Students need to understand differences in scale and how distributions and patterns can be manipulated in order to convey a message. Different map projections change perceptions of spatial relationships, e.g. maps to attract business make a place always appear in a central location.

To develop students’ critical understanding of map representations, you should teach students about:

  • The ways that maps can be constructed to transmit meaning
  • Representations at different scales
  • The interpretation of spatial distributions (economic, human, physical)
  • The selection of data and how it is mapped.
  • Search Google Images for ‘world maps’ and you will be presented with a wide-ranging selection of maps that represent the world. Many of these images will have been manipulated for a purpose. Save a collection of these images and use them with your students to help develop their critical map literacy. (Please respect copyright law and do not distribute these images outside your classroom unless permission is expressly given on the websites where you obtained them.)
  • Select two or three of these maps. What questions should you get students to ask about how the information displayed on a map was selected?

GIS allows users to present spatial information in new ways. This can reveal new relationships, patterns and trends, but it can also be used to hide them. 

When students use a GIS to create their own maps, they can begin to understand how different maps can be created from the same data, depending on what is selected to be shown on the map. They might create a map that is very different to that of their peers.

  • Read Roberts (2023) pp. 55-6, which sets out some common issues faced by students when using maps as information sources.


  • Barford, A and Dorling, D. (2006) ‘Worldmapper: The world as you’ve never seen it before’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. Abingdon: Routledge,
  • Dorling, D. (2012) ‘Mapping change and changing mapping’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Dorling, D. and Hennig, B.D. (2015) ‘The UK 2015 General Election’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Hennig, B. (2018) ‘Worldmapper: rediscovering the world’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Parkinson, A. (2021) ‘“I know where I’m going” – teaching map and GIS skills’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Powell, C. (2023) ‘Why drawing a diagram matters: making the link with cognitive science’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, 2nd edition. Sheffield: Geographical Association, pp. 55-6 ‘Maps’.


  • National Research Council (2006) Learning to Think Spatially: GIS as a support system in the K–12 curriculum. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  • Fernandes, M.A, Wammes, J.D. and Meade, M.E. (2018) ‘The Surprisingly Powerful Influence of Drawing on Memory’, Current Directions in Psychological Science, August.
  • Purnell, K.N., Solman, R.T. and Sweller, J. (1991) ‘The effects of technical illustrations on cognitive load’, Instructional Science, 20 (5-6).
  • Purnell, K.N. and Solman, R.T. (1991) ‘The influences of technical illustrations on students’ comprehension in geography’, Reading Research Quarterly.