How to teach dates in English

Summary: Classroom games and teaching tips for "The first of December two thousand and one", "January twenty second nineteen seventy", etc.

By: | Audience: Teachers | Category: Teaching English

This article gives teaching tips and fun communicative classroom activities to teach students how to say and (more importantly) understand expressions like “January thirteen” and “The first of December two thousand and three”, something that is vital to talk about the past, the present and the future. There also are or will soon be articles on this site on teaching times, days, months, ordinal numbers, past time expressions, present time expressions, past time expressions, and future time expressions.

What students need to know about English dates

Although students only really need to know how to pronounce and write dates in one way, they will need to be aware of all the different ways of saying and writing dates in order to be able to understand what they are told. 

The most confusing thing about dates is that Brits and Americans write them the opposite way round. For example, “the 20th of February 2020” is written “20/2//2020” in British English and “2/20/2020” in American English. This gets really confusing in days that are lower than the 13th, because “3/6/2020” could be “the 3rd of June 2020” if a British person wrote it or “March 6th 2020” if an American wrote it. I therefore always tell my students to write dates out with the month as letters in emails etc, e.g. “3 June 2020” or “March 6, 2020” rather than “3/6/2020”. You will notice that “st”, “nd”, “rd” and “th” aren’t traditionally put in the written form, even in British English where they are usually said, and that the American written form has a comma, but I save this explanation for the rare times when students ask me about it.

The way that British and American people say dates is related to the difference in how it is written, with “The seventeenth of March” being standard in the UK and “March seventeenth” and “March seventeen” being standard in the US. The last of those is obviously the easiest one for students to say in their own speaking. However, as “March one” is not really standard even in that form and as the other forms have ordinal numbers all the way through, students will at least be able to recognise “first”, “second”, “third”, “fourth”, etc. Ordinal numbers are also more common in dates where the month is already known and therefore not said such as “See you on the second”.

Advanced classes, some Business English classes, and classes which need to take listening exams may benefit from learning about the alternative pronunciation including just the numbers such as “The first of the seventh” for “The first of July”. This is used fairly often when reading dates from a page, especially when on the phone, and sometimes comes up in language exams like IELTS, but is rarely taught in textbooks.

There are also several ways of saying years in English, especially ones near the beginning of the 21st century. For example, the year 2010 was often pronounced “two thousand (and) ten” at the time, but is also pronounced “twenty ten”. This is increasingly true as we talk more about years where this form is more natural like “twenty twenty five”, which is rarely pronounced “two thousand (and) twenty five”. Some people are also retroactively taking this back to the beginning of the century, with the pronunciation “twenty oh nine” also possible for what is still more commonly pronounced “two thousand (and) nine”, perhaps to match years like “nineteen oh nine” which are always said that way. Note the option “and” in “two thousand (and) eight” etc, which matches the more general pattern of UK English speakers often using “and” between the hundreds and tens in large numbers.

Especially when taking part in communicative activities, students are likely to come across prepositions of time such as “on the 25th of February”, “in February”, “in 2017” and “– tomorrow”. This is probably worth a whole other lesson later on, perhaps after also teaching times with “at” etc, but the general rule is “on” with days and dates, “in” with longer periods such as months and years, and no preposition (“–”) with things including or meaning “this”, “next” or “last”.


Typical student problems with English dates

Students can have problems saying and writing ordinal numbers, especially with pronouncing the “th” sound, remembering that the first three have different endings (“-st”, “-nd” and “-rd”), pronouncing consonant clusters without adding another syllable, and adding another syllable when adding the “-ieth” ending.

This can make for pronunciation mistakes like:

  • “farst”
  • “thard”
  • “fours” (like “force”)
  • “fifs”/ “fifuth”
  • “sikuth”
  • “tense”
  • “twelufuth”
  • “twentith”
  • “thirtith”


Students may also make written mistakes like:

  • “1th”
  • “2th”
  • “3th”
  • “forth” “nineth”
  • “twelveth”
  • “forteenth”
  • “fiveteenth”
  • “twentyth”
  • “21th”
  • “22th”
  • “23th”
  • “thirtyth”


This and the many variations in saying dates can make it difficult for students to pick out dates when making arrangements, doing IELTS listening tests, etc, and I tend to do some spoken practice of the different forms just to make sure that they can quickly understand all of them. In addition, there are some things they say which could cause comprehension problems in the people listening such as missing out the “oh” in “eighteen oh five” (“eighteen five” sounding more like a rugby score) and missing the extra syllable in “thirtieth” (“thirtith” sounding halfway between that word and “thirteenth”).

Particularly younger students and those lacking a simple mnemonic in their language (like the English “Thirty days has September, April, June and November. All the rest have 31, except for February alone,…”) might make mistakes with trying to make arrangements on days that don’t exist like “June thirty first”, or even “October 33rd” if they aren’t thinking carefully about the meaning of what they are saying.


How to present dates in English

Before presenting dates, you will need to decide what forms you are going to teach and if you will insist on those forms in production or allow any form which is correct. I tend to choose doing the British style as it is good practice of ordinal numbers and day/ month/ year seems to make more sense than month/ day/ year (or perhaps just because I’m British!) I tend to insist on always using those forms in production in the first lesson or two on dates in order to save students confusing each other with different forms, with the exception of “and” in years, which is too trivial to waste time correcting. After the first lesson or two of intensive practice, I allow any correct form. 

Especially with young learners, I tend to teach dates a few lessons after first learning days and months. I usually do this simply by getting students to ask each other the question “When is your birthday?”, perhaps as part of a review of everyday questions like “What’s your name?” and “Where do you live?” Students who don’t know how to say it can point at a calendar and then practise saying the date that the teacher tells them. Alternatively, I sometimes start straight from drilling ordinal numbers and then dates, just after revising days and months, usually with a ball game or blocks game like those described below.

Adults can also start from personal questions (perhaps “When did you come to England?” and “How was your holiday?” instead of “When was your birthday?”), or you can start with simpler controlled practice tasks such as matching short forms of dates with longer forms (“1 Jan” to “The first of January”, etc) with beginner level classes. 

Higher level classes who know something about how to pronounce and write dates but still need more practice of recognising them in quick speech and avoiding mistakes should be able to start straightaway with a game from below such as “The same or different”.


Fun practice activities for dates

Dates drilling games

I tend to use drilling games more to practise days, months and ordinal numbers (in that order) in earlier lessons, but revision of those can be combined with actual dates. You should probably start by drilling “the first of January”, “the second of January” etc from the beginning of months. This can be made more fun by bouncing a ball or stacking blocks while drilling, but it should quickly become too easy. You should then move onto starting near the end of a month so that students have to think more carefully about what they are saying during the transition, such as drilling “The 29th of September”, “The 30th of September” and then “The first of October”. You should then move onto games where students can move on as much as they like each time as long as they don’t go backwards, e.g. stacking blocks as students say “March 3rd 2007”, “March 5th 2007”, “January 2nd 2008”, etc. This can be made more challenging by telling them to only move on a maximum of 29 days per turn and/ or telling them not to reach an upper limit (e.g. “Don’t reach December 31, 2000”). The next stage should probably then be maths games such as students racing to work out the answer to “April 20th plus two months” and “Two days before December 30th 2000” (probably while looking at a calendar).


Calendar race dates practice game

Give out English-language calendars. The class race to find the answers to things that can be found on the calendar like “What is the date of the day after tomorrow?”, “What is the date of the last Friday in March?” and “What day of the week was the 5th of March?”


Dates memory game

This game can be played with any group of 10 to 15 cards but makes most sense with cards with pictures or names of things that tend to be on particular dates such as “fireworks”, “national holiday”, “visit our ancestors’ graves” and “a big family dinner”. Drill the things that the cards represent as you lay them face up on the table, then drill some consecutive dates (“January first”, “January second”, etc) as you point at each card. Then drill the cards and the dates as you turn the cards face down, perhaps as sentences like “I see fireworks on January third” or “I’m going to have a picnic on January seventh”. Students then test each other on where each card is with questions like “When do you see fireworks?”, “What do you do on January third?” and “Are you going to have a picnic on January second?” For practice of more dates you will probably want to move onto starting with the first card representing dates other than the first, but in that case students will probably forget what the first day is. You can remind them by writing the date of the first card on the board, or it’s probably better if you make a pack of cards with dates on for students to pick from and put before the first flashcard to show what date the cards represent.


Dates TPR games

Students listen to dates and move something to represent that date as quickly as they can. Possibilities include:

  • Putting number cards in order (to make “1” “2” “1” to match “The first of January”, etc)
  • Running into the right place to make the right number with the cards that they are each holding (not being allowed to swap cards with each other to make sure that they move)
  • Putting pencils into shapes to represent the figures in a dates (four pencils in a square to mean “0” etc)
  • Putting playdoh, plasticine or Blutack into shapes to represent the different figures in the date
  • Stacking blocks to heights to represent each figure in the date (one block then four blocks then five blocks to represent “The 14th of January”, etc)


Dates jigsaws and dominoes

Particularly with classes which have problems with spelling of months and ordinal numbers, it can be good to make cards which have some dates split into halves like “The 1” “st of March” and “The second of Aug” “ust”. The cards should be split in ways which mean they can only be put together in one way, and be in date order on the worksheet. If you make them in a simple two-column table, the two columns can be cut up and students can put it back into a rectangle shape as a kind of jigsaw. Alternatively, you can make dominoes by putting the left side of each split date on the right of each card, e.g. “ust/ The 1” on one card.

After students work together to put the dominoes in a circle to make dates in order with the right spelling, they can mix them up in front of their partner for their partner to put back in order.


Put the months in order games

The putting written dates in order activity suggested for dominoes above can also be done as a game in its own right, something that is especially useful as reading practice for young learners. Make a pack of cards with dates spread throughout the year or over several years written out in full as words, as in “The twelfth of May” and “The thirtieth of June two thousand”. After students work together to put the cards in order by date, one student mixes up the dates in front of their partner and sees how quickly they can put them back in order. You can then test them on the pronunciation of the same dates from their number form, e.g. seeing if they can remember that “30/6/2000” can be pronounced “The thirtieth of June two thousand”.


Dates simplest responses games

The students listen to the teacher read out two or three dates and raise one of the two cards that they have been given depending on what they think about the meaning of the dates. I most often do this with cards that say “The same” and “Different”, with pairs like “The twenty fifth of January”/ “January twenty five”, “Twenty one”/ “Two thousand and one”, “The day after tomorrow”/ “The seventh of March”, and “Xmas Eve”/ “The 24th of December”. After marking the same phrases with “S” for “The same” or “D” for “Different” on their worksheets, students can then test each other in the same way, see if they can remember different pronunciations for dates, etc.

A similar game can also be played with cards saying “True” and “False” and statements like “Tomorrow is the 23rd of July” and “The 31st is the last day of October”. Students can then make up similar questions to test each other with. Alternatively, if you give them “A” and “B” cards, then they can raise the one that they think is later in pairs of dates like “A: June first” “B: May 31st”, perhaps keeping both cards down if they hear dates which are the same like “The second of the fifth” and “May second”.


Dates maths games

As mentioned above, a nice extension to drilling is to ask students to set each other dates puzzles like “A month after today minus one day” to shout out the answers for. There is also one more maths game you can play. The teacher or a student shouts out a date such as “The twenty seventh of December twenty eleven”. Students write down the date, add the figures together and add the figures in that total together (if needed) until they get down to a number between one and nine, and then race to shout out that number. For example, if someone says “The twenty seventh of December twenty eleven”, the total would be “27 + 12 + 20 + 11 = 70”, but this is over 9, so you need to add the seven and zero in 70 together to get “7 + 0 = 7” and shout out “Seven!”


Communicative activities for dates practice

Students who are studying dates for the first time and unlikely to get much beyond the brainstorming game below, but as dates is something that needs plenty of extra practice in higher levels, exam classes etc there are also other possible activities like finding things in common. The projects ideas below are also fairly communicative.


Dates brainstorming

Put “The first of January” at the top of the board and “The 31st of December” at the bottom and write down ideas from students of things that happen at particular times during the year such as Xmas and the first day of school in the right place on the list. If there is some variation from year to year (for things like Chinese New Year and Easter Sunday), they can just choose the date from any particular year that they know about and write a question mark next to it. After students exhaust their own ideas, they could research more ideas from different websites, different books, calendars from different countries, etc.


Dates guessing games

The teacher or one student chooses a date but doesn’t say what it is. They give hints like “This year it is a Monday”, “It’s at the end of the year” and “There is no school” until their partners guess (exactly) what date it is, with just one guess per hint. After each guess they tell them how right or wrong they are with a sentence like “No, it’s much later” and “Close, but it’s slightly earlier”. This is quite tricky in terms of both coming up with hints and guessing exactly the right date, so you should probably give them a list of possible hints and use one of the two variations below to make it both more fun and more manageable.


Dates hangman guessing game

When the teacher or student chooses a date, they write a series of blanks on the board to represent that date written out in full, e.g. 29 gaps (“_ _ _” etc) for “The second of June nineteen seventy”. After each hint (“It’s usually rainy in this country” etc), the people listening guess a letter to go in the gaps. The same continues until they have the whole date written up or they have made too many wrong guesses. This is obviously good for spelling of months, ordinal numbers, etc.


Dates things in common

Students try to make as many true sentences as they can from gapped sentences like “We both _____________________________ on the twenty fifth of December”, “We both ate rice on __________________________ of June”, “We both have to go for meetings on ____________________” and “Both of our birthdays are in _________________________”. You can then see if they have found anything in common which no one else in the class shares.


Making arrangements dates practice

Students will need to be at least Pre-Intermediate level to have enough other language to be able to focus on dates while doing so, but getting students to fix meetings, drinks, cinema trips together can be good practice of “The second of December”, etc. This can be done with times they are really free to do stuff, or with Student A and Student B worksheets that have some times when one of them is busy and others when they are both free. In the former case, you might want to ask them to make one new arrangement per month if they have problems with mixing up “June” and “July” etc.


Calendars spot the difference pairwork

Give students two versions of a calendar stretching across at least three months, with about 30 events written on each version. Possible events include parties, holidays and deadlines. About 10 of the events should be different between the two versions, and students should ask and answer questions in pairs like “What are you doing on the twenty-fifth of April?” and “When is the deadline for your thesis?” to find the differences as quickly as possible, obviously without showing their worksheet to their partner.


Projects to practise dates

The idea above of getting students to write things that happen all year also works well as a project, perhaps later voting on the best poster and/ or the most original events that others hadn’t thought of. Unlike normal school projects on traditional festivals around the world, for intensive dates practice you really want students to fit as many different things into one page as they can. To make sure that they are practising the actual pronunciation of the dates, you will also need to ask them to write the dates out in full as words and/ or present their ideas to other students.

Another possibility is to get students to design a schedule for something to present to the other students as a poster and/ or oral presentation. Things that they could design include a school year, national holidays, a community centre, and the social programme for a language school. Note that if students only know or you want to practise Present Simple, then they will need to imagine that their schedule will be used every year (as just next year would probably be a future form).

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Written by Alex Case for