Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Numeracy Skills (and other skills) Required to Learn to Tell Time

Hello readers!  I know it's summer break so I thought I'd offer you a few insights about learning to tell time as you prepare for the new school year.  Ha! Ha!  This is a long post and I promise the next post will be shorter!

I've seen children whiz through telling time and I've also seen the other end of it where children had difficulty.  One thing that I've learned is that there is often an underlying concept that a child is missing which causes him/her to struggle with learning to tell time.  Here are a few concepts and skills that need to be mastered in order for children to have success with telling time to the hours and half-hours.

Numeral Recognition and Numeral Sequencing

The numerals on an analog clock are from one to twelve.  One of the most basic skills is to recognize numerals from one to twelve.  It is impossible for a first grader to tell time to the hour without being able to recognize these numerals.  Students will also need to be able to sequence numerals from one to twelve.  A daily sequencing activity will build this skill.  Click the photo shown below and grab the set of numeral cards.  Print one page for every three students.  (Printing on card-stock paper will make them more durable for repeated use.)

Start by having the children sequence the numerals from left to right.

Then have the children sequence the numeral cards in a circular, clockwise fashion.

This is a five minute activity and can be done as a warm up at the beginning of a math lesson that is not associated with telling time.  After several days, provide the children with two straws of different lengths to represent the hour hand and the minute hand on an analog clock.  Have a DAILY routine of "Constructing a Clock".  The numeral cards and straws can easily be stored in plastic baggies for repeated use.  

The children can glue the numeral cards on a large paper circle when you begin your unit on telling time.  Use a marker to put a dot in the center of the paper circle.  Redistribute the straws and have the children display various times on their "clocks" by pointing the straws to the appropriate numerals with one end of each straw touching the dot that was made in the center of the paper.

Students glue the numerals on their clocks. The straws (the clock hands) remain unfastened to the clock.  Students show various times on the clock by pointing each "straw" to the numeral to match the time called out by the teacher.

There's more to telling time than meets the eyeRead on to learn what else is required before children can tell time to the hours and half-hours.  Find out what clocks you should avoid using!

Place Value

A digital clock has a colon that separates the hours from the minutes.  Children need to know why the colon is there from the onset.  They need to be able to read the two numerals which signify the hours and the minutes.  If place value has not been taught, your students are not going to know the meaning of the two zeros that come after the colon for times on the hour.  They'll be aware of the presence of the two zeros but they'll have no idea of its meaning.  The two zeros represent place holders for the tens and the ones.  There is a zero for the tens place and a zero for the ones place.  Learning about tens and ones is a first grade standard.  Teaching the tens and ones (or place value) unit before the time unit might help.  

Look at the time below and identify the inconsistency:


Most digital clocks don't use place holders for time at the hours.  First graders have to mentally accommodate for this inconsistency.  When a child reads a digital clock that says 4:30, he/she needs to separate the numeral "4" from the numeral "30".  He/she also needs to know the the "3" in thirty represents the tens place and the "0" is for the ones place.  Without these understandings, "Suzy" (made up student name) may see a "43" and "0".  She might think it's the number "430" instead of the time, "four-thirty".

Symbolic Representations:

One of the first mathematical experiences that young children encounter is to count objects and match with an appropriate numeral.  Each numeral on a clock represents a number for the hours that have passed beginning at noon or at midnight.  Young children typically don't visualize hours in a day as objects that can be counted.  It's not concrete enough for them!  The numerals on a clock are an abstract representation of numbers.  If they don't get this, they're not "getting" time.

Children in ancient times might have seen the decreasing amount of water in a water clock or the sand slipping away in a sand clock.  Time was passing away before their eyes!  Children today don't have that advantage because a face clock does not provide the same realistic representation (time passing) as the ancient clocks.  There are visual timers available through school supply stores that allow children to see the amount of time diminishingBut most of these can only be set for a maximum of one hour.


Exposure to fractions such as learning about halves lends itself to understanding the terms like, "half past seven o'clock".  It might be beneficial to teach a unit on fractions before introducing telling time.

Parts of a Clock

Face, hands, oh my!  We use these terms to describe the parts of our bodies but they also apply to an analog clock.  In this sense, children need to know that some words have more than one meaning such as the "bark" on a tree and the "bark" of a dog.  Speaking of the hands on a clock, they also need experiences with shorter and longer when comparing two objects.  This way, they'll know what you mean when you are describing the differences between a minute hand and an hour hand.

One type of face clock that you should try to avoid are the ones that include a second hand.  Since first graders only need to read times to the hours and half hours, the second hand is not necessaryThe second hand can confuse students.  You might have noticed that I used a clock with a second hand in the first photo in this postDon't use it with your students - unless you are able to remove the second hand.

My next post, I'll also share some practical ways to probe children to determine their level of understanding time.  I'll also share how teaching about time can be broken down into small pieces.                  

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