How to teach months
Summary: Games and other classroom activities to help students memorise and be able to use months from January to December
Months is a fun thing for students to learn which has lots of great games, books and songs, and ties in well with all kinds of other language such as days of the week and dates (covered by other articles on this site) and almost any vocabulary. This article covers how to teach the point in a fun and effective way that brings in lots of other useful language, after some explanation of the trickier parts of teaching this point.
What students need to know about months
As well as knowing the names of the months and being able to match them to the actual months on the calendar (something not guaranteed by just lots of drilling), students might need to be able to recognise and maybe write the short (“Jan”, “Feb”, etc) and full forms of the months words, including the use of capital letters.
Typical student problems with months
Most problems with months are shared with young native English speakers, namely:
- Needing to go through the whole list from January each time to remember which month they are talking about
- Mixing up similar sounding months (especially “June” and “July” plus maybe “January”, and sometimes “August” and “October”)
- Missing off the capital letters when writing the months
There may also be months names in L1 which sound similar to different English months to confuse EFL learners further, and even when the months are based on the same names of Roman gods etc the pronunciation, including the word stress, can be very different. Many EFL learners learn the names of the months mainly from the written form, and so can tend to copy the spelling when pronouncing the words, saying things like “aepril” (like “apple”) instead of “eipril” for “April”. There are also some difficult sounds for some learners such as schwa, the “dj” in “July” and the “v” in “November”.
Typical pronunciation problems for each month include:
- “yanuary” for “January”
- “fevruary” for “February”
- “merch” for “March”
- “aepril” (with the short vowel from “cat”) for “April”
- “yoon” or “jun” (with a short vowel sound) for “June”
- “Julie” or “yuly” for “July”
- “owgust” (like “now”) or “augast” for “August”
- “nobember” for “November”
- “dekember” (with a hard “k” sound) for “December”
Some young learners may also still be learning months in L1, meaning that the concept will take more time to become natural. More commonly, too much context-free practice of months words often mean that students know the order, spelling etc of the words perfectly, but can’t actually link them to this month, next month, the month that Xmas is in, etc in real communication.
How to present months in English
The most important thing is to make sure that students can relate months to their actual lives. Therefore the best start is probably to take an English calendar into class, ask students to find the present month on the calendar (by counting pages from the front, looking at the photos, looking for public holidays, etc), then name it if they can. You can then go back to the beginning of the calendar and elicit and drill from “January”, perhaps getting students to react every time you get back to the present month in the way explained in the drilling section below.
As with native speakers, the natural next step seems to be to learn the months in order, perhaps with the drilling games, songs and/ or books below. When they know the whole list well, you should move on as quickly as you can to testing them in random order so they don’t get too dependent on listing the months each time. With some of the games below you could also have intermediate steps such as reciting the months backwards and reciting every other month (“February”, “April”, etc), although you should quickly abandon this if it just confuses students further.
How to practise months
How to drill months
Students are usually quite happy to chant the months in order. This can be more fun and memorable with a tune of some kind, something which will mean you can hum the tune later to help them recall what month they want. There are many suitable songs and tuneful chants on YouTube. The next step is probably then to drill from different points, e.g. carrying on from March if the last game stopped on February. There are also some activities below which mean you can drill the months backwards from December, but I wouldn’t do this otherwise as there is a chance of getting the students more confused. Instead, the next stage should be to get students to shout out the next month, e.g. “October” if they hear or see “September”. They should then be ready to shout out the right name of the month from other prompts such as pictures, numbers, seasonal hints like “cherry blossom”, and calculations like “two months before July”.
Months drilling games
Months ball drilling games
The simplest way of making drilling months more fun is getting students to bounce or throw and catch a ball as they say each month. This can be done in pairs or groups, in which case students can go from drilling months in order to testing each other on the next month (“June” “July”, “February” “March” etc) as a kind of months tennis/ months volleyball. You could also get one student to bounce the ball up and down as he or she says the months and see how far they can get without dropping the ball or making a mistake with the months. One student could also throw and catch the ball silently, stop, and see if the other students can spot which month they stopped on (counting one month for each catch, going back to January from 13 catches).
Months stacking games
Stacking is natural for this point, as twelve is a great number for stacking blocks up to (although students can go back to January and so past 12 blocks if they can stack them well enough). As with the ball games, students can take turns drilling them in order, one person can stack as high as they can as they recite them, or one person can stack and test the other people on what month the last block represents. The third of those is probably too easy and time consuming to spend much time on, but it does lead nicely onto a version of the calculations game mentioned above, in which one student adds or takes away one or more blocks and the other students race to shout out which month the present top block represents (e.g. “August” if there are now eight blocks).
Flashcards can be made with the full names of the months, the short versions of the names (“Aug” etc), even shorter written hints (“S” for “September”, etc), and/ or numbers (“6” for “June”, etc) on them. You may also be able to make picture flashcards, but pictures that the students will be able to match to each month are very culturally specific. Here are some suggestions, but you’ll need to change all or most of these for your students:
- January: Singing Auld Lang Syne while linking hands, ringing the bells in the temple to welcome the New Year, queuing for the January sales and taking down Xmas decorations
- February: Valentine’s Day, Chinese New year, snowmen, Super Bowl, Mardi Gras/ Carnival, or very early spring flowers such as snowdrops and plum blossom
- March: White Day, Pi Day (3/14, to represent 3.14), Oscar Night, St Patrick’s Day, Mother’s Day/ Mothering Sunday
- April: April Fool’s Day, lambs, cherry blossom, April showers, or starting school
- May: Cinco de Mayo, Mother’s Day, May Day celebrations or demonstrations, May Day holiday traffic jams, or May Day fairs with maypole dancing etc
- June: Studying for exams, Father’s Day, and the rainy season/ monsoon
- July: American Independence Day, end of year exams/ university entrance tests, cicadas, and the last day of school
- August: Sunflowers, the beach, watermelon, barbecues or fireworks
- September: Starting school, the sound of crickets, or typhoons
- October: Halloween and pumpkins
- November: All Saint’s Day/ Day of the Dead, autumn leaves, pine cones, horse chestnuts/ conkers, acorns, Bonfire Night/ Guy Fawkes Night, Thanksgiving, Black Friday, picking mushrooms, or Diwali
- December: Winter solstice, Xmas (decorations, Santa, etc), Boxing Day/ Kwanza, poinsettias, tangerines, or Hanukkah
Especially if you have mixed nationality classes, you could always get students to make their own sets of flashcards to use in activities later. Alternatively, if you have been using a calendar to elicit and practise the months, you could use the pictures from that same calendar as prompts for drilling, games, etc.
Whichever set of flashcards you choose or make, you can do almost any flashcard activities with them, for example:
- Slowly revealing the card and seeing who can shout out the right month
- Flashing up the card very briefly and seeing who can shout out the right month
- Holding a card so that students can’t see it and giving hints until someone guesses what it is
- Mixing up the months and seeing if students can put them back into order (best with short or long written prompts, and obviously no good with cards with numbers on), maybe starting with just a few months and finishing by mixing up all twelve
Months memory games
You can also use the topic of months to revise or introduce the vocabulary from almost any other set of word and/ or picture flashcards. It’s good if these are ones which naturally match the topic and questions they can ask each other. For example, if you have you cards with different animals and flowers or festivals on them, that matches nicely with “When can you see…?” and “Is… in August?”. However, this game also works with any set of 12 flashcards that you want to present or revise.
Lay the cards out in a line of 12 cards. Drill the names of the cards and the 12 months that they represent, then turn the cards face down. The teacher or a student then tests the class on which cards are where with questions like “When do you ski?”, “What do you do in April?” and “Do you ski in July?”
Months TPR games
Students do an action as they chant or sing the months, then perhaps do the same thing backwards and then in random order. If you have enough room and the students will enjoy moving around, this is best done with students taking 12 steps along the classroom floor as they chant the months. Then maybe after doing it backwards while walking backwards and/ or taking double steps as they chant alternate months, they can race to stand in (approximately) the right place as someone shouts out random months like “July” (which will be slightly past the middle of the room).
If you don’t want to get students up and walking around, they can do the same thing on their desks with the index finger and middle finger of one hand representing their legs. They could also try to do it going upwards, by just raising and lowering one hand, raising and lowering their whole body, or by stacking their hands like the game/ song “One Potato Two Potato”.
Months silent drilling
As well as helping memorise the words, this activity is great for awareness of how the words are pronounced. The teacher or a student mouths the names of months and the class race to shout out what was being silently said. It is probably best to start doing so from January each time and students shouting out just the last month to be mouthed, e.g. silently mouthing “January, February, March, April” and the class just shouting out “April” when you stop. You can then do the same starting from other months, e.g. miming saying “May June July” and students working it out just from your mouth shape and racing to shout out “July”. Students should then be ready to guess single months from the mouth shape.
Names of months songs
As mentioned above, there are many months chants and songs available for free online, some of them with accompanying animation and/ or lyrics on the screen. In general, the choice tends to be between quite boring songs that have simple lyrics (often just the names of the months in order) and more interesting songs that have other words which your students might not understand. As well as singing along to the song, you can hum the song or mouth it out silently and see if students can see which month you stop on and/ or use the song as accompaniment to the TPR games above.
Names of months stories/ picture books
There are also YouTube read-throughs, online reviews etc of at least 10 books specific to the months of the year, including:
- Twelve Hats for Lena by Karen Katz
- How Do I Say it Today, Jess Bear?
- The Turning of the Year by Bill Martin Jr
- Lighting our World, a Year of Celebrations by Catherine Rondina
- Chicken Soup with Rice by Maurice Sendak
- A Busy Year by Leo Leonni
- January Rides the Wind, a Book of Months
- Around the Year by Elsa Beskow
There are also many other books on festivals and celebrations which could be suitable for this topic. However, all of the suitable books that I have found are too difficult as they are for the kinds of low level students that usually study months for the first time. Ways of simplifying them include ignoring the text and just using the pictures and maybe highlighted words to elicit the months, and reading out the text but only getting students to join in when you get to the actual months words (best with rhyming books with short verses).
The fact that months are often spelled in a shorter way (“Jan”, “Feb”, etc) instantly made me think of dominoes when I first taught this point, and I still use variations on it now. Make cards that look like dominoes with the beginning of one word on the right half and the ending of the previous word on the left half of each card, e.g. “-ruary/ Mar” on one card then “ch/ Apr” on the next card. Note that the traditional way of splitting the words means that some cards won’t have only one match, e.g. “ember” going with both “Nov” and “Dec”. This doesn’t matter too much if you tell students that the finished circle of dominoes has to be in the usual months order, but it is possible to make different splits to make only one match for each and/ or to make the activity more challenging.
After working together to put all the dominoes in order, the students can play an actual game of dominoes (perhaps with two sets of cards mixed together), but I more commonly get them to mix the cards up for their partner to put back in order as quickly as possible, test each other on the spellings on the two halves of the cards (“Nov” “E,M,B,E,R” etc) or cut the cards in half to make a kind of jigsaw.
Another good way of using abbreviations of the names of months and their endings is as a kind of jigsaw, perhaps with the months words split into three parts (“Ja + nu +ary” etc) if your focus is on teaching the spelling. To make this easier and more like a real jigsaw, you could keep some of the parts together when you cut it up, e.g. the “-ch” from March and the “-il” from April still connected as one card.
Names of months communicative activities
Students studying months often have too little language to be able to do too many communicative activities, but there are a few nice ones.
Months pick and draw
Students choose and arrange cards on the table to make sentences like “I ski in February” and “The cat wears suntan lotion in March” in order to be able to draw that thing on spaces representing each month (on their own paper, on a shared piece of paper or on the whiteboard). Alternatively, they can make other people such as the teacher or a classmate draw things by making sentences for them. It more entertaining if the sentences are silly and so I usually allow things that are probably not true. As an extension, you can also let them say and/ or write their own things to be drawn in the months spaces. When you finish, you can then get them to describe the picture with similar language.
Students give hints about which month they are thinking about (probably with a mixed list of suggested hints to help) until their partners guess which one they are speaking about. Only one guess is allowed per hint. To make the activity easier and also practise spelling, this can be played as a more communicative version of hangman, with students guessing letters in the month word after each hint. This doesn’t really work the normal way with a gap for each letter with months like “May” (as it is the only month with three letters), so I would get them to put a single long line on the board (_________________________) to represent the months word and then to write the correct letters in approximately the right place on that long line.
This game is more commonly used to practise days and times, usually with a school timetable. However, there is a variation which works for months.
Give students a page with two blank tables with 12 boxes in each representing the twelve months. Then give them a list of activities that are often seasonal in some way such as skating, having a picnic and singing special songs. Ask students to choose just four activities from the list and put them anywhere they like on the top calendar, but with each activity put on exactly three months and always with those three months in a row, e.g. with “rowing” on March, April and May. When they have finished, they should have zero, one, two or three activities in each month of their year. It doesn’t matter if their choices aren’t true or aren’t realistic, but the number and them being in a row on the calendar are important in order to make the game work. Students then ask each other “Do you… in…?” questions like “Do you eat ice cream in December?” until they think they have written the whole of their partner’s year in the blank table at the bottom of their worksheet. Whenever they think that they can guess everything, they can show the one they have filled in to their partner to check. If they are correct, they win the game. However, they shouldn’t guess until they are (reasonably) sure, because if they are wrong they automatically lose and the game ends there.
Months make me say Yes
Students ask each other “Do you (usually)… in…?” questions like “Do you usually go to the beach in August?” and get one point for each time their partner says “Yes”, but no points if they say “No”. Whenever students work out that they are guaranteed points by asking questions like “Do you sleep in September?” and “Do you breathe in January?”, add the additional rule that getting the response “Yes I do, but I do that every month” means no points. Particularly at this point, you might want to give them suggested questions or at least key words to give them ideas of what they can ask each other. They can then play the same game but asking about other people such as family members. They can also play the opposite game of getting one point for “No” (but no point for “No, but I never do”) answers, or they can get one point for “I don’t know” answers.
As suggested above for flashcards, it can be useful and fun for students to think of or find out things specific to each month. This can be made into projects where they then draw, present on and/ or write about that information, perhaps with each team researching a different month. Things that they can mention:
- Plants which appear, produce fruit, drop their leaves, flower, etc then
- Migrating birds which arrive or leave then
- Animals which hibernate or come out of hibernation then
- Animals which are born then
- Other natural phenomena such as changing the colour of their fur and building nests
- Festivals and celebrations
- School events (graduation, the school year starting, sports day, etc)
- National holidays
- Historical commemorations
They will probably also find information about people’s birthdays and historical events, but I’d avoid these as they don’t really make the months more memorable.