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Ordnance Survey maps

Give me a map to look at, and I am content. Give me a map of country I know, and I am comforted: I live my travels over again; step by step, I recall the journeys I have made. Old maps are old friends, understood only by the man with whom they have travelled the miles.”

Alfred Wainwright

Topics on this page:

  • The importance of OS maps and map-work skills
  • Teaching map skills
  • Digimap
  • Anticipate challenges
  • Resources and ideas for teaching mapwork skills
  • Using maps outside the classroom
  • Using maps and aerial photographs
  • Further reading

The importance of OS maps and map-work skills

People have a fascination with maps – read Mike Parker’s Map Addict. Watch how students react when a teacher hands around OS maps to a class – they cannot resist exploring to see what they can find!

OS maps are an integral part of the geography curriculum and students should be taught how to interpret and use different types of maps in the classroom and in the field. OS map skills should be part of the primary curriculum. 

In the secondary phase, map skills should be taught from year 7 and revisited with students regularly so that by GCSE exams, the skills should be second-nature with students able to use OS maps in a range of contexts, including outside the classroom.

Since pupils are likely to have transferred from several different primary schools, their prior knowledge of map skills is often extremely varied. Therefore, early in key stage 3, students are often taught map-work skills such as scale, measuring distance, map symbols, grid references and contours.

  • Refer to the publication by Owens (no date) for the Ordnance Survey. This indicates what pupils should have covered by the end of key stage 2 and could be used as a basis for writing a diagnostic assessment on entry to secondary school.

It is important that the use of OS maps continues in key stage 3 lessons. The Ofsted Research Review: geography promotes the use of maps as ‘an intrinsic part of learning in geography’. Gardner (2015) believes it is best to integrate map-work into geography topics as a matter of routine so that students build up and enhance their skills progressively to attain fluency and automaticity. 

Once students become familiar with interpreting Ordnance Survey maps, they no longer need to routinely reference the key, which frees up working-memory space to process the information more efficiently.

 Teaching map skills

  • Read these two key references about teaching map skills: Biddulph et al (2021) p. 112 and Gardner (no date) Planning for pupil progress. The latter is a free publication from the Ordnance Survey and provides a very thorough overview of planning, assessing and pedagogy for teaching map skills.
  • Also refer to this Curriculum progression in map work demonstrated in the key stage statements in the National Curriculum (from the GA website).

The four essential aspects of map-work skills to be taught are:

  • plan view (perspective, relief)
  • arrangement (location, direction, orientation)
  • proportion (scale, distance, selection)
  • map language (signs, symbols, words, numbers).

When teaching map skills, you should:

  • focus on one skill at a time before integrating them with other map skills
  • remember that the learning of these skills is seldom linear
  • consider a progression in map skills when you plan.

In order to develop graphicacy capability with respect to maps, students need to understand the conventions that geographers use in map drawing, e.g. symbols and contour lines. They also need to understand different views, e.g. a map as 2D or plan view, cross sections, a landscape in a 3D view.

At GCSE, students should be able to analyse a map and use it to illustrate and evaluate geographic information. They should be able to look at a map and describe the features of a location. In other words, they should have map interpretation skills, which include the ability to:

  • relate various bits of information on the map together
  • use prior knowledge and understanding to help do this
  • identify patterns on the map
  • visualise an area from the mapped information
  • build up a sense of a place from the map.

  • Find out where map skills are taught in your school’s schemes of work. Talk to students of different ages about their understanding of maps.
  • Observe map-work skills being taught in some geography lessons and note how the teacher explains and models the skills for students so that they understand.
  • Identify any aspects students find difficult and struggle with.
  • Identify how the teacher supports them and scaffolds their learning.
  • Carry out Task 4.3 p. 112 in Biddulph et al (2021). This suggests further points to explore when observing students’ responses to teaching of map skills.


Digimap for Schools is an online mapping service providing current and historical Ordnance Survey maps, as well as contemporary aerial photographs. You can add to and annotate maps. 

There is also a library of free Learning Resources that provides numerous ideas for teaching OS map skills to all ages. You should find out if your school has a subscription to give you access to the OS map resources, then you can access:

Anticipate challenges

Students of all abilities can gain a sense of achievement from working with maps. However, some students find using maps a challenge, so it is important that your teaching objectives are appropriate to students’ abilities, build on students’ existing mapping abilities and take account of their self-esteem. At the same time, make full use of the opportunities that maps offer to stretch the more able and develop their map interpretation skills.

Consider the numeracy demands in some map-skills. A teacher writes:

‘Every year I have a feeling of dread when I tell my year 7 students that in our next unit we are going to be studying “map skills” as there are always groans from the class. They know that mapwork – unlike topics such as tectonics or global fashion – inevitably involves complex skills which some perceive to be more closely related to maths than geography. (Hannah Spencer, Teaching Geography, Summer 2016)

  • See Learners’ difficulties with maps for information about problems some learners face in using, drawing and interpreting maps.
  • Refer to Dove (2005), which discusses the problems faced by students when drawing a river valley in cross-section.

When you plan lessons about maps, use Learners’ difficulties with maps to help you to anticipate difficulties that might arise.

Discuss with your mentor the challenges map skills might present to your students; how can you avoid difficulties; what learning activities could you use; how can you scaffold learning of map skills?

Resources and ideas for teaching mapwork skills

  • Geographical Association Ordnance Survey mapping section.
  • See Medley and Snead (2004) for a wide range of activities for using maps in different geography topics.
  • See Slater (1996), which suggests a simple, three-level differentiation of map skills.

Using maps outside the classroom

An important aspect of map skills is the ability to use maps in the field. It is worth noting that many adults can struggle to do this. The skills include being able to locate your own position on the map, identifying your destination, orientating the map, planning an appropriate route and following it, and matching landmarks to the map.

  • Look at the article by Wood and Walker (2007) that describes some ways to use maps outside of the classroom and Conlan (2017) about using geocaching to teach map skills.

Using maps and aerial photographs

Using digital media gives easy access to view maps alongside photographs in several different forms and also display 3D images. Biddulph et al (2021) provide advice of using maps and aerial photos together and give a suggested progress for developing students’ required skills.

For some practical ideas on the use of these resources:

  • Refer to Classroom activities and look at the Map and aerial photographs activity, which is from the GA’s Making my Place in the World project
  • See Why Use Aerial Imagery, which provides background information explaining why aerial imagery is an excellent resource.

Review your teaching

  • Download this checklist to evaluate how well you are teaching graphicacy and spatial thinking in your map-work.


  • 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
  • Conlan, L. (2017) ‘How might geocaching teach map skills?’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Dove, J. (2005) ‘Between the lines’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Gardner, D. (no date) Planning for pupil progress. Southampton: Ordnance Survey.
  • Gardner, D. (2015) ‘Maps as a matter of routine’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Medley, J. and Snead, C. (2004) ‘Using Ordnance Survey maps’, Teaching Geography, October.
  • Owens, P. (no date) Progression in Mapping. Southampton: Ordnance Survey.
  • Parker, M. (2009) Map Addict. Collins.
  • Slater, A. (1996) ‘Differentiating Mapwork’, Teaching Geography, October.
  • Wiegand, P. (2006) Learning and Teaching with Maps. London: Routledge.
  • Wood, Z. and Walker, J. (2007) ‘Learning outside the classroom: what can be done in lesson time?’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.