How to teach telling the time in English

Summary: Teaching tips and classroom games/ activities for "seven o'clock", "nine p.m.", "sixteen hundred hours", etc.

By: | Audience: Teachers | Category: Teaching English

Perhaps because of how difficult it is to talk about the past, future and even present without it, the time is often taught to even very young and/ or low level students. This can make it the most complicated thing that students have had to deal with in their early English studies, and even years later they can have difficulty understanding what times are being discussed in rapid speech. Luckily, though, there are clear and easily teachable patterns in how times are said, and there are also numerous fun games and other classroom activities, all of which are explained below.

 

What students need to know about telling the time in English

In English there are basically three ways of telling the time, which are rarely mixed up together. They are explained in detail one by one below in order of how commonly native speakers use them.

 

Way of telling the time 1: “Ten past seven in the morning” etc

The most common way of telling the time in normal speech is also the longest and most complicated. It starts with the hours between one and twelve, with “o’clock” if it is exactly on the hour, as in “Twelve o’clock” for “12:00”. 

If the time doesn’t finish with “:00”, then the time before or after the hour is given with “past/ after” or “to/ before”. “:30” is “half past…”, and “:15” and “:45” are “(a) quarter past…” and “(a) quarter to…” Note that “a” is optional with “quarter” and that “a half past…” is not standard in modern English. Times which match the other five-minute intervals (corresponding to the big hand pointing at the hours on a traditional clock) are usually given with just a number, as in “Five past seven” and “Twenty five to ten”. Other numbers usually take the word “minutes”, as in “Seven minutes past ten” and “Thirteen minutes to eleven”. However, it is more common to just round up or down to the nearest five minute interval with expressions like “Just before ten to twelve”, “Just after quarter to nine” and “About ten to seven”.

If it isn’t clear from the context, you then need to add the part of the day that the time is in with “morning”, “afternoon”, “evening” or “night”, as in “Seven o’clock in the morning”, “Ten past two in the afternoon”, “Half past five in the evening”, and “Quarter to eleven at night”. There are variations on what time people transition from “afternoon” to “evening” and then to “night”, but evening usually starts when people have dinner and/ or when it starts to get dark, meaning about half past five in the UK. “Evening” can then be used up until midnight in expressions like “Eleven o’clock in the evening”, but from about eight p.m. you also have the option of “at night”, as in “Eleven o’clock at night”, with sometimes slight differences in meaning or connotation as in “My husband came home at eleven o’clock in the evening” and “My husband didn’t come home until eleven o’clock at night”.

Note that “01:00” is usually called “One o’clock in the morning”, as it is “One a.m.”, although you may hear “Half past twelve at night” for times that are just after midnight. “Three o’clock at night” is very rare, presumably because it is well into the next day, and so is usually “Three o’clock in the morning”.

Students who come back to this topic later in their studies might benefit from being told that “Let’s meet at seven” means “Seven o’clock” and “Let’s meet at twenty five past” means that many minutes past the present hour or the hour which you were just talking about.

 

Way of telling the time 2: “Seven thirty five p.m.” etc

This is the easiest way of telling the time. It simply consists of saying the numbers in the twelve hour clock and then adding “a.m.” and “p.m.”, as in “Seven twenty AM” for “07:20”, “Eleven fifty five A.M.” for “11:55” and “Two forty six pm” for “14:46”. Writing “am” and “pm” with no punctuation is probably the most common way nowadays, but with EFL learners I still tend to put points in “a.m.” and “p.m.” to avoid confusion with the “am” in “I am…” However, I accept any of the different forms in students writing, and ditto with colons and periods in written times (“7:00” and “7.00”).

Perhaps the only tricky point about telling the time this way is the use of “oh” to mean zero in “Seven oh nine a.m.” for “07:09”. The only other thing that students need to be told is that this way of telling the time can seem unfriendly or even comical if used in informal situations like “Let’s go for a drink. Shall we meet at six forty five p.m?” where a native speaker would definitely say “Let’s go for a drink. Shall we meet at (a) quarter to seven?”

 

Ways of telling the time 3: “Sixteen twenty” etc

The third way of telling the time is to simply say the number in the twenty four hour clock, as in “(Oh) seven twenty” for “07:20”, “Thirteen fifty five” for “13:55”, “Nineteen oh nine” for “19:09” and “Twenty one hundred hours” for “21:00”. Note the use of “oh” for “0” and “…hundred hours” for “…:00” times (making it equivalent to “o’clock”). Even more than with the form above, the main thing students will need to know about this way of telling the time is that it is only really used in radio broadcasts and war movies, so they can sound silly if they say “So, let’s start the party at nineteen hundred hours” (although it is sometimes used for comic effect in this way). If you want to be precise about times and avoid confusion, it is more normal to say “seven o’clock on the dot”, “seven o’clock sharp” or “exactly seven o’clock”.

 

Other telling the time expressions

The other ways of telling the time that people are most likely to come across are “at midnight” and “at midday/ at noon”. These can be very useful for students who get confused between “12 a.m.” and “12 p.m.” (a problem they share with many native speakers). The exact meaning might need to be pointed out for students who confuse “at midnight” with “in the middle of the night” and/ or “at midday” with “in the middle of the day”. This is a good chance to point out how important using “at” with times is, something that should be corrected throughout this topic to avoid problems later when they start to use months with “in” etc.

 

Typical problems with telling the time in English

This topic is taught to very young learners, including some who haven’t properly learnt the time in their own language yet. This is most likely to be a problem when trying to use the 24 hour clock to elicit other ways of saying the time. For example, the reason students might not be able to say “Two o’clock in the afternoon” when you hold up a card saying “14:00” might be that they haven’t got used to taking off 12 yet.

With older students, perhaps the most common mistake is using a form that sounds too formal for the situation, perhaps because the “Sixteen fifty seven” form is more common in their own language than it is in English. They can also tend to mix the three different forms up. Some mixes are so rare in English as to be basically wrong, as in “Half past sixteen” X and “Sixteen minutes to oh nine” X. Others mixes such as “Seven fifteen in the morning” are sometimes used by native speakers, but in my experience students find it easier if you make a clear distinction between the three forms above and never mix them up in class.

The most common problem my students have with the first form above is overusing “o’clock” and “minutes”, making mistakes like “Twenty past seven o’clock in the morning” X and using rare and unnecessarily long and complicated phrases like “Five minutes past seven o’clock in the morning” X. These are often due to translation from L1. The former can easily be explained by saying that “o’clock” basically means “:00” (despite its original meaning of “of the clock”). The latter can be explained by looking at the clear markings of the five minute intervals on a clock and made natural by practising “Five past seven” much earlier and/ or much more than “Four minutes past seven”.

Other problems caused by confusion with L1 include the wrong forms “Half to ten” for “9:30” and “Seven (o’clock) ten minutes after” for “7:10”. Students may also not be sure when afternoon becomes evening and evening becomes night in English. Saying “in the night” for “at night” is more likely to be just overgeneralisation from “in the morning/ afternoon/ evening”, but is sometimes due to L1 interference.

The second way of telling the time above is too simple to produce many mistakes, but it does introduce the common problem of distinguishing between 15 and 50 in times like “Nine fifteen” and “Nine fifty” (something that the first way of telling the time avoids). Language learners are just as likely to get mixed up between “twelve a.m.” and “twelve p.m.” as native speakers are, but this can be easily remembered if you think that “00:00” is already the beginning of the next day. However, students can also have problems with this, because the written form in some other languages goes up to “24:00”, or even “26:00” to mean a bar closing at two o’clock the next morning. These are incorrect in English and possibly very confusing too!

The other problem is missing out expressions meaning “0”. It can cause miscomprehension if students say “Nine five” instead of “Nine oh five”, as it makes it sound more like a football score. This is even worse with the third way above, as saying “Sixteen” doesn’t sound much like “Sixteen hundred hours” at all.

 

How to present telling the time in English

The first thing to decide about presenting the time is when to do it. Some courses start drilling “One o’clock”, “Two o’clock” etc very early in the course, long before students know the necessary language to take part in actual communication using times. Although it is certainly teachable in this way, I think it increases the danger of students overusing “o’clock” in mistakes like “Five past seven o’clock” later on if they get too used to this, so it’s usually better to wait until students are ready to move onto times more generally. To do so, they will need to be very used to moving up numbers in fives (“Five, ten, fifteen” etc). To do communicative practice on the topic of the time, they will need to already know some actions that happen at particular times such as “Brush my teeth”. It would also be good if they already knew “in the morning” etc, although it is difficult to think of a suitable context for teaching those expressions that doesn’t include at least simple times.

Before you start presenting the time, you will also need to decide which of the three forms above you want to present in class. Given the choice, I almost always start straightway with the first form above (“Ten o’clock”, “Ten past seven in the evening”, etc). This is because:

  • It’s the most common and natural in the kinds of conversations that students are likely to have about the time in class
  • It is this form which students have most problems understanding but are most likely to hear, so you might as well get started with it early
  • The “seven twenty five p.m.” form is too easy to need much practising, and can be very quickly taught later if you need to
  • If you use the teaching ideas below, the “Twenty five to six in the evening” form is more teachable than you might think, and there are actually more suitable books, songs and activities available for that form

Having said all that, there is an argument for the common textbook approach of very quickly teaching “Nine ten am” so students can use the form to talk about routines etc, especially if something else such as Present Simple is the main focus of the class rather than actually telling the time.

If you are going to teach “Ten to seven” etc, then you will need to decide if you will use “to” and “past” or other possible forms like “before” and “after”, and if you will teach “a quarter” or just “quarter”.

The same presentation tasks can be used whichever form you choose to present. With adults and older kids I usually use these stages:

  • Get students to choose from a limited number of options as they listen to some times, with the other options being obviously wrong, e.g. a clock showing “07:00” and a clock showing “08:00” when they hear “Seven o’clock” or a clock showing “07:30” and a clock showing “07:25” when they hear “Half past seven”
  • Students match the times written out as words to the things that they chose before, e.g. matching “Quarter to eleven” to the clock which says “10:45”, using what they remember hearing in the previous stage and other hints such as “10:45” being the only clock which has a time which is near eleven clock
  • After checking their answers, students combine parts of those written out times to pronounce other times which weren’t in the previous stages, e.g. combining the “Half past” from “Half past seven” and the “Eleven” from “Quarter to eleven” to write out the time for “11:30” as words

The initial listening stage can include basic conversations to give context, particularly if you want to use questions like “Do you have the time?” and “What time do you go to bed?” in later communicative activities. However, I try not to overuse the rather rude question “What time is it?” and try to avoid unrealistic textbook questions like “What time do you watch television?”

For young learners, I usually start with games drilling “one o’clock”, “two o’clock”, “three o’clock” with one of the games below, using a real or plastic clock to show the meaning of the first few of these when I start the game, usually just after revising numbers (including in fives), days and/ or months with the same game.

 

How to practise telling the time in class 

Telling the time drilling games

Despite the danger in over-drilling mentioned above, I still tend to start with drilling “One o’clock”, “Two o’clock, “Three o’clock” etc, quickly moving on whenever they have got the hang of it (which tends to be quite quickly). The next step could be adding “in the morning” etc as they go around the 24 hours of the clock, but I tend to leave this for later. Instead, I would then drill “One o’clock”, “Half past one”, “Two o’clock”, etc then “One o’clock”, “Quarter past one”, “Half past one” etc, and finally “One o’clock”, “Five past one”, “Ten past one”, “Quarter past one”, etc.

Only classes who have studied all of that in previous years might benefit from drilling “One o’clock”, “One minute past one”, “Two minutes past one”, “Three minutes past one”, “Four minutes past one”, “Five past one”, etc. Instead, I tend to move onto other ways of drilling such as letting them go up as much as they like each time (“One o’clock”, “Five past two”, “Ten past two”, “Ten to three”, etc), losing if they accidentally go down instead of up or going past the limit if you have set one. Students are then probably ready to respond to and set each other calculation puzzles like those explained below. Any of these games can be made more fun with a ball or blocks, and flashcards can also help make the meaning and context clearer.

 

Telling the time ball games

As students say the times like “One o’clock”, “Five past one”, etc, they can throw and catch, roll or bounce a ball. As well as being more fun, this helps speed them up. As well as sending it back and forth between them, you can also give the ball to one person to bounce up and down as they drill the times as far as they can, with play passing to the next person when they say something wrong, pause too long or drop the ball.

 

Telling the time blocks games

The back and forth and individual challenge games mentioned with a ball above can also be done while stacking blocks in a tower, something that works particularly well for this topic as towers tend to fall down when they are around 12 blocks tall. You can also play other games such as students racing to build four towers to represent the time that you shout out, e.g. towers of one block, four blocks, three blocks and five blocks to represent “14:35”.

 

Telling the time flashcard games

This is one of my favourite activities to do from a very early stage, first of all with just “One o’clock”, “Two o’clock”, etc. Choose 12 flashcards that you want to present or revise. It’s best if these are cards such as daily actions which match the topic and have realistic accompanying questions like “What do you do at seven o’clock?”, but it is possible with any group of 12 cards. Drill the vocabulary on the cards as you lay them face up on the table in a clock shape, making sure that the sixth card is right at the bottom, the 12th card is right at the top, etc. There is no need to worry about which card goes where, as it is impossible to make all 12 make sense and sentences like “I go to school at 11 o’clock” tend to amuse students.

Drill the times “One o’clock” etc as you point at the cards, then drill both the times and the vocabulary as you turn the cards face down, perhaps in sentences like “I go to bed at one o’clock”. Then the teacher and students test each other with questions like “What do you do at seven o’clock?”, “What time do you have breakfast?” and “Do you have dinner at three o’clock?”

Exactly the same game can be played for minutes in an hour by drilling the times “Five past one” when you point at the first card in the clock shape, “Ten past one” when you point at the second card, etc, and having these as the answers in the memory game.

You can also use this flashcard memory game to drill other times such as “One o’clock”, “”Quarter past one”, etc, but in these cases the clock shape would just be confusing, so the cards should just be laid out in a line. Particularly with these kinds of graduations, the other possibility is to flash the cards past the students as you drill the times without laying them on the table, then test their memory with questions like “What do I do at seven o’clock?”

 

Telling the time calculation games

Time calculation games are particularly popular with students who like maths, but all students tend to enjoy them.

 

Telling the time reverse pyramids game

The easiest calculation game is for the teacher or a student to shout out a time and the people listening to add up the figures in it until they get down to a single figure between 1 and 9, which they should shout out to show that they understood the time. For example, if one student shouts out “Five to ten in the evening”, the other students should write down “21:55”, add those figures together (“2 + 1 + 5 + 5 = 13”), then add the two figures in that number (“1 + 3”) to make the number four, which they should then shout out (“Four!”) As in this example, this is a great game for showing understanding of times with “in the afternoon” and “in the evening”.

 

Telling the time plus and minus calculation game

The teacher or a student tests the class with questions like “Five to eleven in the morning plus fifty five minutes” and “Quarter past seven in the morning minus two hours” and sees who can shout out the correct answer quickest. To avoid impossible challenges, I tend to take points of the person who set the question if they can’t work it out themselves. You could also have them say “before” and “after” instead of “minus” and “plus”. I often play this game as an extension of the ball and blocks games above, in which case it is also possible for them to make longer and longer calculations for each other like “One o’clock” “Plus” “Forty five minutes” “Plus” “Five minutes” “Minus” “One hour ten minutes” “Equals”, with the person who said “Equals” losing points if they can’t do the calculation that they set the next person.

 

Rounding up or down game

I’m not quite sure that this counts as a game, but it is a nice way of practising “Three minutes past seven” while also emphasising that “Just before five past seven” is more common and teaching useful phrases like “about” and “just after”. The teacher or a student says a precise time like “Three minutes to ten” or “Five oh nine a.m.” and the other students race to shout out a suitably rounded up or rounded down time like “Just after five to ten” or “About five ten a.m.”

 

Telling the time TPR games

Telling the time is a perfect topic for bringing some movement into class, and there are some variations which can work even with adult classes such as having plastic clocks or homemade cardboard clocks which students can quickly change to match what they hear (by moving the hands or by winding the key on the back of the clock). As long as it is clear where the top of the clock is (e.g. by having a base at the bottom or a piece of string at the top), students with their eyes closed can also feel a clock and try to say what the time is without looking at it.

The liveliest TPR game for telling the time is to get pairs of students lying down on the floor pretending to be the two hands of the clock as the teacher or a student shouts out times like “Quarter past ten”, with the taller of the two students as the long hand in each group.

If you have enough room, you can also do the same thing standing up. Split the class into two teams and then split each team into the minute hand and hour hand of their clock, with at least one extra student in the minute hand group each time (to make it longer). For example, if you have thirty students, then each team will have eight students in their minute hand and seven students in their hour hand. Ask students who are in the same hand of the same clock to link hands to make a line. Then ask them to run together into the right place as you or another student shouts out “Half past seven” etc, making sure that they know which direction the top of the clock is, perhaps by sticking a big number 12 on the wall in that direction. Tell them that they aren’t allowed to let go of their hands, so if the hour hand and minute hand need to be on the other side of each other, they need to run all the way round the other way.

Individual students can do something similar by moving their arms to be the minutes and legs to be the hour as they lie on the floor. Something similar also works standing up, but obviously with just one leg for the hour and “Eleven o’clock” being impossible for all but the most physically flexible students! Instead, you can ask them to put their two arms in the position of the arms of a clock as you shout out “Twenty to twelve”. However, students can get confused about which arm is which, so I would get them to hold a pencil or ruler in one hand to represent the longer minute hand.

A calmer way of doing the same thing consists of using just long straight things like pencils, pens and rulers to make a clock (laid flat) on their desks. Make sure that the thing representing the hours is clearly shorter than the thing representing the minutes and that they know that the top of the clock is the side of their desk that faces the front of the classroom. Students listen to times and race to put the hands of their “clock” into the right position. Alternatively, to practise just “o’clock”, one pencil can also be spun round on the table for students to shout out the time of when it stops, like a kind of spinning bottle game.

It is also possible to do TPR games with a kind of digital clock. For example, if students have enough and short enough pencils and enough space on their desks or the floor, they can arrange 13 pencils into figures representing 5, 2 and 5 for “Twenty past five”. You could also possibly get whole teams to do the same thing with their bodies on the floor. However, my favourite with this is to give teams of about five students two or three number cards each and get them to run into the right place and hold their cards up to make times like “17:50” for “Ten to six in the evening”, without swapping cards with other people on their team. This also works with number cards flat on the table, but isn’t especially fun that way.

The final TPR game idea is for the length of the room to represent the 12 or 24 hours of the clock (depending on how big your classroom is). Students drill the times forwards and then backwards as they stride forward and backwards across the room, perhaps with half strides for “half past”, tiny steps back for “five to”, etc. They then race to stand in the right place as the teacher shouts out “Two o’clock in the afternoon” etc. This can also be used to make the calculation games above more concrete, for example students striding twice backwards when you say “One o’clock in the afternoon minus two hours” and then shouting out “Eleven o’clock in the morning”.

This striding back and forth game can be good preparation for the well-known kids’ game What’s the Time Mr Wolf? Students love this game, but I’m not sure it’s good for learning the time, not least because in the original game when “It’s one o’clock” and then “It’s three o’clock” students take three steps forwards, which doesn’t make sense mathematically! I would just use the story book that is mentioned below and avoid the game, but you could do it straight after striding with the variation that the students stand in the position of the time that is said rather than taking that many (additional) steps forward.

Two more games which just about count as actions are winding a clock forward and silently mouthing times in order and the people watching racing to shout out the time that you stop on.

 

Communicative practice for the time of day

Times guessing games

The simplest way of organising this is for the teacher or a student to ask “What time do I go to bed (on Sundays)?” etc and the students to take turns guessing, with the person who is closest to the real time getting a point. This is nice, especially if students work out the tactic of going just slightly above or below what other people said and so need to listen to what other people say, but some classes can become disappointed by never actually guessing correctly and it doesn’t work well this way in small groups. I therefore more commonly play it as a Warmer Cooler Game, with one or two people guessing and then the person who asked the question giving hints like “No, it’s much earlier” and “No, it’s a little later” until their partners guess exactly the time.

With a map, a bit more language and some more cultural knowledge or research, students could also give hints like “It’s seven minutes past seven now” and “People have lunch about two p.m.” for their partner to guess which country they are talking about.

 

Times competitions games

Students ask each other “What time do you…?” questions and get points if their time is earlier than their partner’s (with no points if they ask questions like “What time do you read comics?” that their partner can’t answer). They can then do a second round with points for finding times which are later for them than for others, perhaps in different groups. This can also be played as a kind of mingling game, with students trying to find one thing that they do earlier than everyone else in class and then being able to sit down.

 

Times things in common games

Students get one point for each thing that they find that they do at exactly the same time as someone else, perhaps with bonus points for a time that they share with their partner and other groups don’t share or didn’t think of.

 

All the times game

One student is interviewed by one or two other students who try to find out everything that they do in their typical day and put them as segments on a big circle representing the 24 hours of days, e.g. two tiny slices representing the three minutes plus three minutes that they brush their teeth every day. After they have asked that person as many “What time do you (start/ stop)…?” questions as they can think of, the person being interviewed tells them other things they do that they didn’t think to ask about, maybe with one point for each additional thing that they mention.

 

Telling the time projects

Students do research in the class or on the internet and make posters about what time people in class and/ or in other countries do things, represented by bar charts, etc. They can then vote on which poster (apart from their own) has the most interesting information. Note that to make this good practise of telling the time in English they will need to write the times out as words.

 

Telling the time songs and chants

The famous rock’n’roll song Rock Around the Clock would need to have its lyrics simplified to be suitable for EFL classes and Hickory Dickory Dock doesn’t have the actual time in it, but luckily there are already lots of other songs specifically for learning the time on YouTube, ranging from just chanting the hours to calculations with minutes and even seconds.

 

Telling the time books/ picture books

Unlike the situation with songs, with picture books the most famous are exactly the most suitable, with The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle and the finger puppet version of What’s the Time Mr Wolf? being simple enough for EFL classes and having satisfying endings. There are several webpages online with other suggested stories for teaching the time, but most are unsuitable for EFL learners unless they are simplified quite a lot.

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Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com