THE USE OF GOOGLE EARTH IN THE TEACHING OF
ESOL, FOREIGN AND DUAL LANGUAGES
Gabriel M. Valdes
Department of Multicultural Education
The School District of Palm Beach County
Introduction – What is Google-Earth?
It is known that students prefer to learn from a computer more than from a book. In the case of Google
Earth, it can be said that they prefer computers to maps. Why? Because Google Earth is a computer
program that presents the surface of the earth as seen through a collage of satellite photos. The program
is free and can be downloaded from the school district web site. Just go to the Google toolbar and click
on the Google Earth icon, a world globe that looks like a blue and white beach ball. When the site opens,
it gives you a good description of what the program is all about. It tells you that if “you want to know
more about a specific location – dive right in. Google Earth combines satellite imaginary, maps and the
power of Google Search to put the world’s geographic information at your fingertips.” The program
allows you to “fly from space into your neighborhood; search for schools, parks, restaurants and hotels;
get driving directions; tilt and rotate to view 3D terrain and buildings; and view exotic locals like Maui or
Paris.” Then, the site tells you how to get and download a free version of the program.
How to create instructional activities?
The Google Earth program description fits perfectly into a geography or social studies class. ESOL,
foreign language and dual language teachers deal mostly with languages. However, if the teaching of
languages is considered as the teaching of listening, speaking, reading and writing skills within a cultural
context, it can be said that in order to teach culture in the language class, geography and social studies are
very important components. Google Earth then becomes an instructional tool that can be used for the
teaching of languages. This article will present some sample activities, based on Google Earth, to teach
language skills within this very important cultural context. These activities will require computer skills
that the students will learn if they do not already possess them. These activities will also require a
classroom of the future (already present in many of our schools) where computers, projectors and other
technological equipment are part of the furniture. The sample activities will be divided into three major
areas: ESOL, foreign language, and dual language education.
The Limited English Proficient (LEP) students need visual aids to assist them in the English for Speakers
of Other Languages (ESOL) classes. Google Earth can assist in this. ESOL classes strive to develop
spoken and written skills. It is well known in human behavior that the most important grammatical and
non-grammatical person is “I.” We like to talk more about us than about anything else. This human trait
can be used to stimulate oral and written performances from the students. The following two examples of
activities will clarify these statements.
Where I am from…
LEP students come from many places on earth. Therefore, they are a living geography class. To convert
this geography class into an English language class, assist the students in groups or individually to locate
their country, city, and in certain instances, when the satellite photos are very clear, their neighborhoods
and even their homes. Assist the students to use the LED projector to show and tell the class about where
they are from or, if this technology is not available, use a regular computer. They may speak impromptu
or prepare written essays, or they may be asked to do both. The language level should be flexible,
depending on their LEP status. The students will be pleased to write and speak about their places of
origin. They might not even think that this activity is performed to increase their oral and writing skills.
Teachers may use their creativity and that of their students to develop as many variations of this activity
as they wish.
Let’s walk to school
When a foreign student arrives at our schools, one of the first activities we might want to provide is how
to get directions, so that they will not to be lost in their way to school from home. This is usually done
using a printed map. Google Earth may be very helpful for this activity. We might want the whole class
to be involved in providing such directions. The satellite photos that show major cities in Palm Beach are
very clear. Therefore, they allow for details in buildings that are very good landmarks for giving
directions. Even individual homes can be located using these details. Again, the instructional oral and
writing activities should be developed using the English language level of the students. In some cases, it
may be advisable to allow students to help the newcomers using their native languages for
communication. However, this is a good opportunity to prepare a lesson plan on how to give and receive
directions in English. Using the web site www.maps.google.com facilitates more this activity with the
Foreign language teachers are most fortunate to be able to use the new technologies available for
instruction. The foreign language textbooks are very colorful and contain pictures and maps that assist in
the teaching of culture. However, these textbooks cannot be compared with the Internet sites and with
Google Earth when we want the students to have a visual approach to the countries and cultures that are
native the languages they are learning.
Let’s visit Paris
One of the most typical activity French teachers prepare for their students in a lesson plan or unit is a visit
to Paris. When we search Paris using Google Earth, the flight ends on top of the Museum of the Louvre.
From there, students can fly over Paris at the altitude they want to select, and talk about the city, describe
it in writing, or do any other pertinent activity.
A trip to Cancún
Spanish teachers can do the same activity or activities as French teachers. However, when selecting a
place to visit, they need to be sure that the satellite photos are clear enough. Cancún is one of the places
where it can be noticed that the satellite photos are of different quality. The beach zone is not clear
enough to distinguish the hotels; but if the image is moved to the airport zone, even the aircrafts can be
Havana – So near and so far
Havana is the closest Hispanic city to Florida. It is also very clearly observed with the satellite photos.
However, it shows what the program can do with the satellite photos when there are strategic places that
need to be erased for any reason. Near to the entrance of the port and behind the Morro Castle, there is a
large rectangular white (blank) space. It seems to correspond to the “Combinado del Este”, a large penal
institution. Some other places around the world that may be eliminated as well for several reasons.
including strategic and political concerns. Satellite photos can be shot as close as 10 yards from the floor,
and there is also satellite live television. It is unknown if these very accurate depictions of reality will
ever be available to the general public. However, if this happens in the future, realistic virtual views will
permit visits to the world without moving from the classroom. It is understandable for governments to
ask that strategic places be eliminated for general public observation.
DUAL LANGUAGE PROGRAMS
These programs possess the same characteristics as ESOL and foreign language programs at the
beginning levels. When instructional levels increase and the students acquire proficiency in both
languages, they become regular instructional programs in two languages. The two activities described
below can be performed in any language. They are reading or literature activities using the Google Earth
Where in the world is that happening?
Newspapers bring us the news from all over the world. Usually, they accompany the news from foreign
countries with a small map. However, Google Earth can show the places where news are happening with
more accuracy and clarity. Search Baghdad and see the buildings and roads of an ancient city as
compared to those in the more modern suburbs. The same can be achieved with Cairo, Paris, London,
Madrid or any of the old cities of the world. While doing so, we can also read well-known works of
literature and fly over the places while reading their descriptions. We can see how Balzac described Paris
as he saw it, what Dickens’ London looked like, and how Cervantes’ Don Quixote went over “Castilla”
accompanied by Sancho Panza. Maybe you will be able to locate and see the famous windmill.
Is literature geographically correct? The Da Vinci Code
Writers use what is called a license to write what they feel is most appropriate in their works. These
licenses may include changes in the geographical spaces they are describing to fit their literary purposes.
The Da Vinci Code contains a few examples of this. Although this fictional novel that has sold more than
40 million copies worldwide, it will probably not be included in any school reading lists because of its
controversial religious content. It will be used here to show these geographical literary licenses.
Robert Langdon, the main character of the novel, is staying at the Hotel Ritz in Paris, which is mentioned
at the beginning of chapter one with the sentence “The jacquard bathrobe hanging on his bedpost bore the
monogram: Hotel Ritz Paris.” Again, in the epilogue, almost the same sentence appears: “The bathrobe
besides his bed bore the monogram: Hotel Ritz Paris… Twenty minutes later, Langdon stepped out of the
Hotel Ritz into the Place Vendome.” If we go to Paris in Google Earth, it is very easy to locate the Place
Vendome. It is northwest of the Louvre, and it has an easily distinguishable green obelisk. The Ritz is
the building on the left-hand side of the Place Vendome. Chapter 3 begins with the following description:
“The crisp April air whipped through the open window of the Citroen ZX as it skimmed south past the
Opera House and crossed Place Vendome.” In the police car were Langdon and a police officer that had
just picked him up at the Hotel Ritz. Back in Google Earth we can see that the Opera House is
immediately north of the Place Vendome. It is the big building with a green dome. Then, how can they
pass the Opera House going south, leaving from Place Vendome?
To accompany the next reading of the text, go to layers on the left panel of Google Earth and select roads.
It can be noticed that many layers of information can be overexposed to the satellite photos. Now the
Place Vendome is labeled, but the photo is not so clear. Chapter 3 continues with: “When they reached
the intersection at Rue de Rivoli, the traffic light was red, but the Citroen didn’t slow. The agent gunned
the sedan across the junction and sped onto a wooded section of Rue Castiglione, which served as the
northern entrance to the famed Tuileries Gardens - Paris’s own version of Central Park.” If we take a
look at the Tuileries Gardens, we can notice that it is roughly two by eight blocks in size, not nearly
Central Park. However, if we navigate now at an eye altitude of 12,000 feet, a nice feature of the
navigation pane), and fly west, we can find the famous Bois the Boulogne, which can indeed be
compared in size with Central Park.
The text continues: “The Citroen swerved left now, angling west down the park’s central boulevard.
Curling around a circular pond, the driver cut across a desolate avenue into a wide quadrangle beyond.
Langdon could now see the end of the Tuilleries Gardens, marked by a giant stone archway, the Arc du
Carrousel.” On the satellite photo, at an altitude of 1,500 feet, it can be noticed that the park’s central
boulevard is there for people to walk. They can even be seen walking. Is this a writer’s license? Can it be
taken as a statement of the Paris’s police forces love of running red lights and driving through walking
paths? These questions may elicit good class discussions.
In chapter 16, after a murder has taken place at the Louvre, Langdon together with another main
character, Sophie Neveu, a cryptographer from the Paris’ police force, were hiding in a bathroom of the
museum. The crime occurred in front of the Mona Lisa by Da Vinci. The text reads: “Sophie…walked to
the small plate-glass window at the far end of the bathroom and gazed out in silence through the mesh of
alarm tape embedded in the glass…she raised her eyes and gazed out at Paris’s dazzling landscape. On
her left, across the Seine, the illuminated Eiffel Tower. Straight ahead, the Arc de Triomphe. And to the
right, high atop the sloping rise to Montmartre, the graceful arabesque dome of Sacré-Coeur… Here, at
the westernmost tip of the Denon Wing, the north-south thoroughfare of Place du Carrousel ran almost
flush with the building with only a narrow sidewalk separating it from the Louvre’s outer wall.”
To study this section of the text, in addition Google Earth, we should use the Internet resources and go to
www.paris.org/Musees/Louvre/Plan and find the Louvre’s Denon Wing, which is on the middle of the
building in its south side. We can also find out in this web site that the Mona Lisa is in the first floor of
the wing. Back on Google Earth we can locate this side of the building. In order for Sophie to be able to
see the Arc de Triomphe straight ahead, the bathroom had to be located in the inside of the building and
the window had to be facing west-northwest. Considering that she was on the first floor of a two-story
old building, the view to the west, to be able to see the Eiffel Tower, should had been blocked by the
building. Furthermore, the view of the Sacré-Coeur, north-northeast of the building, cannot be reached
through a window that looks into the west-northwest. Also, is there a narrow sidewalk? What is the
purpose of the author for using this geographical-literary license? Another class discussion is in order.
This last instructional activity can be considered in the realm of high-level thinking. However, if we start
with brief descriptions that appear in short stories or other educational texts and get the students to be
intrigued by the geographical-detective activities, they will be engaged in reading and will be amused
with high-level reading skills.
The sample activities provided have shown how Google Earth can be used in the area of language
instruction. To create activities, as a rule of thumb, it can be said that any linguistic activity that involves
a description of a place or the use of a map, can become a Google Earth activity. It is up to your and your
students’ minds and creativity processes to elaborate such activities. You can build a simple lesson plan
such as dealing with “the school location” or develop a more elaborated unit, such as dealing with “a trip
to Paris,” or even discuss location in literature.