The fifteen stages of teaching numbers

The teaching of numbers in English is something that can start in the first class with two year olds and come up against their own development in maths and confusions with L1 all the way through school, and even then still be a challenge for an Advanced Financial English class to use fluently. Below are […]

The teaching of numbers in English is something that can start in the first class with two year olds and come up against their own development in maths and confusions with L1 all the way through school, and even then still be a challenge for an Advanced Financial English class to use fluently. Below are some tips of how to start numbers early, have a next stage to move onto once they’ve got it, and to make sure students remember the numbers forever at every stage. Game ideas and typical problems are included. The stages are arranged in approximate order of how they should be introduced in terms of difficulty and usefulness for both adult and children’s classes.

1. Count up
This can start from the first lesson of a beginners class at any age. With littleuns you will need to make sure you use your fingers so they actually know what it means, and you can then use a louder and louder voice to reinforce the meaning of bigger and bigger numbers and to add some fun. Starting crouched in a little ball and then growing until you have your arms stretched out as high as you can when you reach ten has the same effect. With older groups you can play “Fizz Buzz”, where all multiples of three are replaced with the word “fizz” and when they have got the hang of that all the multiples of five are replaced with “buzz”. This adds some fun to the endless drilling that can be needed, and helps students count automatically in English without needing to translate.

2. Count down
The “Growing Numbers” game from Count Up above can also be used when students are ready in maths and language terms to count down. In this case they start standing tall and move down and get quieter until they are totally curled up in a ball as they say “one”. You can also count down to show a time limit for any games and activities, and move onto getting the students to count down as quickly as they can while the other team is making an attempt at whatever game you are playing.

3. Big numbers/ count in steps
The next stage is to count in steps of (in approximate order of difficulty) ten, five, two, a hundred, three, a thousand etc. This helps students move towards being able to use numbers in English without counting from “one” every time and without translating. Possible problems at this stage include the difference in pronunciation between 15 and 50, the positioning and meaning of commas with big numbers, and the use of “and” in “a hundred and five” in British English. The simplest game for counting in stages is just to challenge each other to count quickly without making a mistake, with a ball to throw adding fun and speeding things up. If you don’t use a ball you can add gestures that students use to say the person next to them should give the next number in the sequence, the next person should be skipped, the direction of the counting should change etc, similar to drinking games.

4. Random numbers
Students should now be ready to shout out numbers in English with no delay. They can compete to be the first person to shout out the number that the teacher holds up (and so get that number of points), the first person to write the number that the teacher says, or the first person to choose the bigger of two numbers that are flashed up.

5. Number word recognition
If you have students who have a different alphabet to English or who haven’t learnt to read and write in their own language, as you teach steps 1 to 4 above you should also work on them being able to recognize and then write the number words. Fun practice includes choosing the biggest number on the table to score the most points, shouting “Stop” as the teacher shuffles through a pack of cards to get the biggest number, putting mixed up number word flashcards back into number order, and spelling out number words from magnetic letters to get that number of points.

6. Basic maths
Like Number Word Recognition, adding and subtracting numbers is something that could be gradually introduced over earlier stages to add a bit of variety and logical brain work to numbers practice. A fun way of doing it is to make students challenge each other, e.g. making a longer and longer string of additions and subtractions going around the room until someone says “equals” and the next person has to give the total.

7. First second third
You can also introduce ordinal numbers earlier at least for understanding by saying which team or student is first, second etc in every classroom activity. When you introduce it properly later as something for students to produce, you can do it with a flashcard memory game (“What is the first card?”) or a trivia quiz (“Who was third in last season’s F1 championship?”). Typical student problems include the pronunciation of the extra syllable in twentieth, thirtieth etc.

8. Telephone and fax numbers
Difficulties with telephone numbers include the use of “double” and “treble”, “oh” for zero in British English , and grouping numbers together with intonation and pauses. Fun games include Find Someone Who (“Hello, is that 123 4545?” “I’m sorry, you have a wrong number. This is 123 5445.”) and teams where each person has one number card between zero and nine rushing to stand in order to make the telephone number that the teacher calls out before the other team(s).

9. Addresses
The seemingly simple question “Where do you live?” can be a can of worms with problems like explaining the strange British postcode system, the order of how addresses are written in Britain and the USA by successively larger areas (first write the house number, then the street name, neighbourhood name etc), and deciding if students should convert their own addresses from how they usually write it in their own language or not (if it is even possible) when speaking English. The easiest way of avoiding these problems is just to have them answer with just one line, e.g. “I live at number 42” or “I live in Park Avenue”

10. Days, months and dates
You can practice months or days with the same flashcard memory game as in First Second Third above (“What do I wear in January?” meaning what item of clothing is on the first card etc). A fun one for day/month or day/month/year is for the students to add all the numbers for the date you say together and race to shout out the total (e.g. “Twelve!” for “the first of January 2008” from 1+1+2+0+0+8). Problems with this point include the differences in how the British and Americans write and say dates, and confusion over whether Sunday or Monday is the first day of the week.

11. Decimals
Difficulties students have with decimals in English include having to say “point two oh” rather than “point twenty” as in many languages, and mixing up commas and decimals points.

12. Times
This can actually be introduced much earlier if you stick to the “twelve thirty five a.m.” method of telling times. More difficult things you can tackle at this later stage include “past/to” (in some languages “half” is “half to” instead of “half past”), “quarter” and “half”, “five past” but “three minutes past” etc. You can play the same number adding race and memory game (but with the 12 flashcards face down in a circle) as with Days, Months and Dates above.

13. Fractions
Fractions lead on quite nicely from time or ordinal numbers as some are the same (“half” and “quarter” are the same as for times and “third”, “fifth”, “sixth” etc as the same as ordinals). You can revise percentages and decimals at the same time as introducing fractions by getting students to convert between them or by putting them all into a trivia numbers quiz.

14. Sports scores
Difficulties for this point include “love” and “nil” for zero and “all” and “deuce” for draws. You can get them used to this language before you introduce it by giving points during classroom games as if they were sports, e.g. Football Debate (students can pass, shoot or save if they come up with an counter argument to what the other team says). Other practice includes guessing the context of sentences they hear from what the numbers are, type of word used for zero (love, nil, zero, nought) and other context clues

15. Number idioms
You can practice these by students adding the number to each idiom, e.g. “It’s ________ of one and half a dozen of the other” or pairing them up by idioms that use the same number (which will hopefully make them form connections between them and so remember them more easily).

Written by Alex Case for May 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

One Comment

  • sani says:


Leave a comment : ESL Lesson Plans : Classroom Ideas : Teaching : The fifteen stages of teaching numbers