Numbers are vital for communicating, tricky to get right, and potentially disastrous if you get them wrong. Apart from the under fives doing counting songs it is surprisingly rare, however, for them to take up a large part of any class, even Business English and Technical English ones. This article aims to summarise all the things that students need to know to understand and use numbers properly in English, and other articles will follow on how to teach them those things.
Numbers one to ten
Very young learners are often still struggling with numbers in their own language while they are attempting to learn the English ones. For this reason and to give them the language in a manageable way, it is best to start them with just counting up from one, stopping whenever they start to struggle and expanding the list each time. When they have got used to counting down as well, they are probably ready to start producing the numbers at random, often at the same time as they start to learn to count up beyond ten. There are loads of counting songs and books for children which are easily adaptable for EFL learners, e.g. There Were Ten in the Bed for counting down.
There are far fewer activities that are suitable for teens and adults, but luckily they tend to pick this point up quickly. Students can get confused between numbers that start with the same letters, e.g. four and five. There may also be numbers in their language which sound similar to different numbers in English. If it is not clear from the context, they might also get some of the numbers mixed up with other words that sound similar, e.g.
Numbers eleven to a hundred
The easiest way of introducing slightly higher numbers is to first extend the numbers up to 12. This may also help students later avoid the typical confusion between twelve and twenty.
Perhaps the most common confusion in all English numbers is between pairs like 13 and 30, especially recognising their spoken forms. These can be easier to distinguish when the next word is one which starts with a vowel sound such as “and”, making them sound like the quite different pair “thirtee nand” and “thirtee yand”. Unfortunately, many other sounds in the next word make the final “n” virtually impossible to hear, so that even native speakers often use the very useful expression “Is that one three or three zero?”. It is very common to teach the different stress patterns of THIRty and thirTEEN to help with this, and native speakers often use exaggerated stress as another way of making themselves very clear. Unfortunately, context can also make this distinction difficult or impossible to hear in combinations like “thirty four” and “thirteen hundred”. Perhaps the most useful tactic is for students to guess from the context which number is more likely, e.g. because “thirteen four” and “thirty hundred” are very rare combinations.
Numbers 100 to 1000
After the difficulties with the previous section, students often find hundreds a pleasant relief. Perhaps the only common mistake is using an S in expressions like “three hundreds”. It can be enough to tell students not to use S with numbers, and it is worth correcting at this stage as the same error is common in expressions like “seven thousands” and “ten millions”. An S is of course possible with expressions like “hundreds of people” and “I have seen hundreds and hundreds of films”. I tend to tell students that there is no need for S in “two hundred” because the “two” makes it clear that it is over 100, whereas it is needed in “hundreds of people” because “hundred of people” would sound more like one hundred.
Another thing worth presenting at this point in order to avoid later problems is “and”, because the zeros in years like “two thousand and one” can confuse students about where exactly the “and” goes and they can tend to associate “and” with the comma in large numbers. In fact, “and” goes between the hundreds and tens. Even though it is always optional, it can be worth teaching at least comprehension of “and” in numbers, as it can actually make listening comprehension easier.
The most useful tip with bigger numbers is to pay attention to the commas, as they indicate where you switch from hundreds to thousands, thousands to millions, etc. This can particularly useful for some nationalities like the Japanese and Koreans whose large number system is based around divisions of 10,000, 10,000 x 10,000 etc.
In some languages, such as Spanish, commas and dots have the opposite meanings to English, with 1,000 meaning 1 and 1.000 meaning a thousand.
Students might have heard that a British billion is a million million but this is rarely used nowadays. You do hear “a thousand million” to make the meaning clear, however, especially when the other numbers being dealt with are hundreds of millions. Another common form in business news that students have rarely studied is the use of decimals such as 1.4 billion for 1,400,000,000. Engineers and scientists might also need expressions like “ten to the power of 12”.
Again, students can really gain from being taught things native speakers say to clear up potential misunderstandings such as “Twenty four thousand four hundred and eleven, so that’s two four four one one”, “Ten billion, so one with ten noughts” and “It’s a seven digit number”.