Wednesday, 24 March 2010

What time is it, please?

Teaching how to tell the time is always interesting as it always highlights how, for some students, time is a phenomenon outside of their experience!

I find it incredible that some of my students have got to the age of 17 or 18 and they have never learnt how to read an analogue watch face. However when I consider that they were born in the early 1990's I realise that digital clock faces were well established internationally by this time. As a child of the 70's I remember digital watches (first seen in the late 1960's) being highly desirable.

The fact that my students are from a digital generation also creates considerable problems when students are listening to people saying time using expressions containing 'past' or 'to'. Most students seem comfortable with saying "It's six thirty" - and I have heard students say "It's six thirty o'clock" or "It's six hours and thirty minutes" - but when you introduce 'past' or 'to' students get incredibly confused.

I use a simple PowerPoint (which you can see here) to elicit the time from students. I tend to drill the time in the simplest form, i.e. reading the numbers - 6:40 = "It's six forty" or 4:05 = "It's four o'five" I then ask students if they know any other way to say the time and try to establish the rules for 'past' and 'to'. I also discuss the idea of a 24 hour clock and assess if students' basic numeracy skills need attention. I also highlight the fact that a 24 clock is often used in timetables and at train stations, bus stations, airports and cinemas.

I've found that even quite high level students find it difficult to tell the time when the clock is in the later half of the hour. I have a few activities to practice this and one of my favourites is if I have 12 (or more likely 24) students in the class. I give each student a piece of paper with an hour on one side and the corresponding minutes on the other side (1 = 5, 5 = 25, 11 = 55). The students are then asked to hold up their paper when the tutor or another student says the time. Expressions like "20 to 9" (8:40) cause lots of problems as the student with 9 holds up their paper. Eventually the student with 8 realises that they have both numbers on their paper!

Simple A and B activities where students need to ask each other for the missing information and then draw the hands onto their clocks really helps them to realise the importance of longer and shorter 'hands'.

I've also got a couple of "CODE" activities which require the students to read clocks and find the corresponding letters of the alphabet from a table. This is a great way for students to consolidate their learning and helps them to internalise the expressions. You can find one of the "CODE" activities here 

Do you have any interesting ways to teach telling the time and have you experienced similar problems?


  1. great resource, thanks

  2. Military English dictates a different rule to telling the time. It is an interesting article and thank you for your contribution. I know there is some great material to help young learners create there own clock and then you say a time and they set their clocks to it. I will try to get some material uploaded on my own blog to help as a demonstration.


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