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How To Teach Ordinal Numbers

What Students Need To Know About Ordinal Numbers

Obviously, the first things students need to know are the forms “first”, “second”, “third”, etc. In the rare cases when they already know some fractions, in can be useful to tell them that the ordinal numbers are almost the same (e.g. fifth/a fifth). They might also be aware of the use of ordinal numbers in dates without ever making the mental connection to other uses, or have seen the forms 1st, 2nd, etc without ever having thought about how to pronounce them.

Students who have no problem with “first” and “second” sometimes still say “twenty oneth” and “twenty twoth” for “twenty first” and “twenty second”, so it’s worth going up to at least 40th to show them the regular patterns and to cover everything they will need to understand dates. Other students might pronounce them correctly but try writing short forms like 31th and 42th.

When ordinal numbers are and aren’t used can be an issue, with the English use of ordinals in the names of kings and queens (e.g. Henry the Fifth) and dates not being true in many languages.

Ordinal numbers often take “the”. This ties in with the general meaning of “the”, as there is only one “the first person on Mars” and only one “the third time I went there”. “The” also helps distinguish the fraction “a fifth” from the position/date “the fifth”.

The most challenging thing about ordinal numbers is their pronunciation. Minimal pairs that could cause problems include:

  • first/fast
  • third/turd
  • fourth/force
  • sixth/six/sixes
  • eighth/eight/eights
  • tenth/tense

Many students (and native-speaker kids) also get first and third confused.

Students also often have problems with the extra syllable in twentieth, thirtieth, fortieth, etc. These three examples are all three-syllable words, in contrast to the two-syllable words twenty, thirty and forty. All other ordinal numbers keep the same number of syllables when they are transformed from cardinal numbers, e.g. seven/seventh. This can actually help make thirteenth/thirtieth much easier to distinguish than thirteen/thirty, which comes are a relief to students once it is pointed out!

How To Present Ordinal Numbers

Books for low-level students often have a unit on ordinal numbers a couple of weeks after presenting cardinal numbers. One way to make the presentation easier is to give them the short forms 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc and let them work out the pronunciation themselves.

Students who are higher than Elementary also often need ordinal numbers revised and extended, e.g. adding the pronunciation points mentioned above. The most obvious times to do so include when doing dates or fractions, or as part of a general review of numbers in English. In all those cases it usually best to start by testing their comprehension, as they can usually work out when “the twenty-second of January” is even if they have only heard the form “January twenty-two” before. They can then try to remember and analyse the language that they heard.

It would also be possible to write a text using lots of ordinal numbers by including topics such as why it isn’t good to be the second person on the moon or the next person up Everest, but it is good to be the millionth customer and the first person on Everest who is over 100. Alternatively, this could be set up as a quiz with questions like “Was Neil Armstrong the first, second or third man on the moon?”

How To Practise Ordinal Numbers

Guess Your Position
Tell the students you are going to ask them to line up in order, e.g. by birthday, height, number of siblings, or how long they have spent abroad. Ask each student to guess where they will be in that line, e.g. “I think I will be third”. They then ask each other questions, line up in that order, and get points if they are in the position they predicted.

Awareness Of Rank
Ask students to guess the positions of things in world rankings, e.g. “What place do you think the Thames has in Europe’s longest rivers?” This can also be done with more serious topics like their country’s position in rankings for corruption or equality for women, and you could ask students to do research and write similar questions to test each other. You can also do something similar with students guessing which country is being described from its position in different kinds of ranking, e.g. “It has the twelfth highest per capita income in the world but only the thirtieth highest level of high school graduation.”

Which Time?
The teacher or a student does the same thing many times, with one time being subtly different. The other students then say which time they think was different, e.g. “The tenth time was ‘sheet’ instead of ‘seat’”, or “The sixth time you said ‘Can I help you?’ your tone of voice wasn’t polite”. As in the first example, this is a good game for minimal pairs.

Ordinal Flashcards
Deal a pack of about ten flashcards (words or pictures) face-up on a table in front of the students. When you have dealt out the whole pack, test them on the cards that they have just seen with questions like “Which card is the opposite of ‘patient’?” (“The fifth one”), “Which card was a picture of a demo?” and “What is the seventh card?”

Ordinals Buzz Fizz
Buzz fizz is a popular numbers game that even native speakers play, and it is easily adaptable to ordinal numbers. Students take turns counting up one number at a time, but instead of any multiple of 3 they have to say “buzz”, making it “first” “second” “buzz” “fourth” “fifth” “buzz” “seventh” etc. Once they have got the hang of that, you can also add “fizz” for all multiples of 5, making it “first” “second” “buzz” “fourth” “fizz” “buzz” “seventh” etc. Multiples of 3 and 5 (fifteen etc) are “buzz fizz”!

All Kinds Of Counting
An easier counting game is to get students to count up in different steps, starting with just “first” “second” “third” etc and then counting in steps of 2, 3, 5, 10 etc.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net August 2011
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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