How to teach ordinal numbers to EFL learners
Summary: Teaching tips, games and other classroom practice for first, second, third, etc.
Although students who study ordinal numbers like “first” and “twenty third” for the first time at Elementary level could probably live without them at that point, the topic is good preparation for dates, fractions, listing points in essays etc later on, as well as a good chance to get them used to putting “the” together with unique things. Ordinal numbers are also easy to teach and fun if you follow the tips below. There are also many ideas for how to combine ordinal numbers with months and years in the article How to Teach Dates in English on this site.
What students need to know about ordinal numbers
To state the obvious, firstly students need to be able to quickly produce and (more often) understand ordinal numbers in dates, rankings, etc. More specifically, they need to be able to convert ordinal numbers to and from short forms (“1st = first”, etc) and cardinal numbers (“1 = first”, etc). If they can’t work it out for themselves, they will need to be told that numbers with 1, 2 and 3 add “-st”, “-nd” and “-rd” rather than the usual “-th”, and that this includes numbers bigger than 20 (“42nd”, etc). It can also be very useful to point out that ones ending in “-y” add another syllable when they become “-iest”. This luckily makes the two-syllable word “thirteenth” and the three-syllable word “thirtieth” much easier to distinguish than the two-syllable words “thirteen” and “thirty”, and ditto with “fourteenth” and “fortieth”, etc.
Once they know how to (quickly) make ordinal numbers, students will need practice in using them in the right situations. In general, ordinal numbers are used to show a position in a limited number of options, such as places in a race (“He came first”) and days in a schedule (“On the third day, we have several important meetings”). Ordinal numbers are also used in some ways of saying months, including the most common British English form (“The seventh of January”, etc). Although this is likely to come up much later than initial practice of ordinal numbers, they are also often used with superlative adjectives in sentences like “He is the second tallest in the class” and in likes and dislikes to say “My second favourite…”
Typical student problems with ordinal numbers
Once you have shown students the handy way to distinguish “thirteenth” from “thirtieth” etc, the main problem students can have with comprehending ordinal numbers is mixing up “first” and “third” (despite their many differences in pronunciation!) There are also actual minimal pairs that could potentially cause confusion, including:
- first/ fast
- fourth/ force
- fifth/ fifths
- sixth/ six/ sixths
- seventh/ sevens
- eighth/ eighths
- tenth/ tens
However, these minimal pairs are rarely problems in real life because students can usually tell from the context if the person meant to say “first” or “fast” etc.
Most nationalities have lots of problems pronouncing “-th”. This topic is a good chance to get them putting their tongue between their teeth if you want to do some practice of this, even if the most we can hope for is that they recognise it when listening and can pronounce it when they are really trying hard (“-th” becoming part of their normal fluent speech being a bit ambitious for most students).
The other pronunciation problem that many nationalities share is with consonant clusters. Specifically, many EFL learners add another syllable to consonant clusters when none is needed, making “fifth” two syllables (“fifuth”), etc. This is another tricky thing for students to get their heads and mouths round, but building the word up backwards from the last sound ("th", "fth", "ifth", "fifth", etc) is useful and there are some teaching tips below if you want to use this opportunity to at least get them to realise that “twelfth” is just one syllable.
To summarise, typical pronunciation mistakes with basic ordinal numbers include:
- “thard”/ “sird”
- “fours” (like “force”)
- “fifs”/ “fifuth”
- “sikuth”/ “six”
- “tens” (like “tense”)
Students may also make written mistakes like:
- “forth” “nineth”
Although this hasn’t been a problem very often in my experience, some languages use cardinal numbers in some situations where English uses ordinal numbers (“Henry the Eighth” in English vs “Henry Eight” in some other languages, etc), and vice versa.
How to present ordinal numbers
Although students will mainly need lots of drilling practice of ordinal numbers, before and after that you will need to make sure that they know what they actually mean and how they differ from cardinal numbers in meaning and use. In monolingual classes it is often easiest to just very briefly translate the first few numbers, or at least allow students to check their own translations with you if you don’t want to ruin your mystique by speaking their L1 in class. To avoid that or lead up to that point, the typical textbook technique of showing runners in a race and/ or winner’s podium is still probably the best way to show what ordinal numbers mean and how they are used. After some controlled practice, you can then make sure students don’t forget the actual meanings by using the communicative activities below.
Another possibility is to leave the topic of ordinal numbers until you teach dates, perhaps after teaching a simpler form such as “January ten”. However, “The tenth of January” and “January ten” mean the same, so this doesn't help students get a feeling for what ordinal numbers actually mean.
How to practise ordinal numbers
Ordinal numbers drilling games
I find that it is usually best to start by simply drilling the ordinal numbers in order. You can then move onto converting from cardinal numbers to ordinal numbers (“One”/ “First”, “Twenty two”/ “Twenty second”, etc) or skipping some numbers in the list of ordinal numbers (“Second”, “Fourth”, etc). Skipping numbers can do done by counting in particular intervals (e.g. every three ordinal numbers), jumping as much ahead as they like every time (and making sure that they don’t go backwards with their next number and maybe that they don’t go past a limit that you set) or setting each other maths problems (“Thirty second plus two” “Thirty fourth”, etc). Counting downwards (“Eleventh. Tenth” etc) might also be a nice challenge. Any of these can be made more fun with the games below.
Ordinal numbers ball games
Students throw and catch, bounce or roll a ball as they count up the list of ordinal numbers, convert from cardinal numbers, set each other maths problems, etc. Some of these can be done with one student going up as far as they can on their own until they make a mistake, pause for too long or drop the ball. However, most are best done with the ball going back and forth between two students or two teams of students.
Ordinal numbers block games
A slower but almost as fun option is for students to make a tower out of blocks as they count up, go up as much as they like without reaching the limit, set each other calculations, etc. This could be one students or team making as tall a tower as they can, or students taking turns adding blocks to the tower as they count up, challenge each other with puzzles, etc.
Once the tower is made, students can also test each other with questions like “What colour is the seventh block?”, “Is the tenth block red?” and “Which block has a (picture of a) cat on it?”, which is also useful for adding a more realistic context for using the numbers.
Ordinal numbers memory games
As mentioned above, you can test students on what they remember about the blocks in the tower when playing stacking games. Something similar can be done by simply placing objects in a line and getting students to test each other with “What was the second thing?”, “What number was the banana?”/ “What position was the banana in?” and “Is the apple third?” with their eyes closed or after the objects are hidden. The flashcard game and the extension of the drawing game below are also memory games.
Ordinal numbers flashcards game
Choose or make ten to fifteen flashcards which you want to revise or introduce, e.g. written names of twelve different toys or fifteen pictures of different forms of transport. Drill the vocabulary as you place the cards in a line one by one face up, then drill the ordinal numbers as you point at the cards in the same order. Drill both the ordinal numbers and the vocabulary as you turn the cards face down, perhaps in sentences like “The first toy is a teddy bear” or “The car is the tenth card”. The teacher and students can then test each other with questions like “What is the first toy/ form of transport/ card/…?”, “Which card is a doll?” and “Is the fifth card a toy car?”
If you want to practise ordinal numbers above fifteenth, the best way of doing this is to place a card with an ordinal number before the first vocabulary card and start the memory game from the following number. For example, if you put a card saying “A hundredth” on the desk before the first vocab flashcard, then the game can be played with the numbers “A hundred and first”, “A hundred and second”, etc as the answers to the questions.
A livelier way of playing this game is to flash at least six cards up as you drill them one by one and test the students on what they saw with questions like “What was the third card?” and “Which card was a tomato?”
Ordinal numbers drawing games
Students take cards from the table and arrange them to make sentences like “The + sixth + monster + is + tall”, “The + second + house + is + tiny” and “The + eleventh + flower + is + happy” in order to be able to draw that thing. You can also play the opposite activity of students picking and arranging cards to make their partner draw that thing. There are two slightly different ways of organising the drawing. One consists of choosing one noun and putting spots on the whiteboard where up to ten of those things can go, and each person drawing them one at a time. The other way of playing the game is for people to draw a line of things each time with just the one that the sentence is about in the way that the sentence says, e.g. ten monsters with just one scary one if the first sentence is “The third monster is scary” and then seven flowers with just one tall one if the second sentence is “The sixth flower is tall”. The second variation can also be done as a drawing race. After you finish the drawing games, you can then get students to describe the pictures, perhaps from memory as a kind of memory game.
Ordinal numbers simplest responses games
Students listen to some numbers and respond by holding up one of the two cards that they have been given to show their understanding of what they have heard. Possibilities for the two categories include “(Cardinal) number” and “Ordinal number”, “(Should take) -th” and “(Should take) -st, -nd or -rd”, “One syllable” and “Two or more syllables", and “Correct” or “Wrong”. For example, if the teacher says “Neil Armstrong was the second man on the moon” students race to hold up the “Wrong” card and if they hear “July is the seventh month” they race to hold up the “Correct” card. This can also be made more active with young learners by getting them to run and touch two walls (Ordinal Numbers Stations), throw things such as paper aeroplanes at two targets, do two actions, etc instead of just holding up two cards. For endings and syllables, you could also have them aiming at more than two walls, e.g. one wall each for “-st”, “-nd”,“-rd” and “th”.
Spotting with ordinal numbers
Students listen to several things and try to spot which one matches the question that they heard before. For example, if students are asked “Which one is most polite?” and hear “Can you…?”, “Would you…?”, “Please…”, “Could you…?” and “Could you possibly…?”, they should say “(The) fifth (one is (the most polite))”. This can also work for sentence stress and intonation (“Which one is the most surprised?”, “Which one is the strongest opinion?”, “Which one is the most uncertain?”, etc), minimal pairs (“Which word has different pronunciation?”, “Which one doesn’t have the sound ‘sh’?”, etc), number of syllables, word stress, Janglish/ Konglish/ Spanglish/ Chinglish/ Franglais etc (“Which one is not English?”), vocabulary (“Which one is not a toy?”, etc) and grammar (“Which one is uncountable?”, etc). Note that for most of these the language that they are listening to is far higher level than ordinal numbers, so unless you just do the vocabulary or pronunciation ones with simple words or design the others very carefully it is only suitable for revision of ordinal numbers with higher level classes.
Communicative ordinal number games
Ordinal numbers are often taught to very young and/ or low level students, in which case students won’t be able to take part in very sophisticated communication and might be limited to the racing games or the more communicative games above. There are also many communicative activities in the How to Teach Dates in English article that is also on this site.
Ordinal numbers racing games
Students race to do something such as touch the whiteboard and throw a paper aeroplane at the board and then say who was “first”, “second”, etc. Note that for this and the games below you might need to teach “Joint second” and then you’ll need to decide if the next person is “Third” (because the previous people were second) or “Fourth” (because there were two people who were second), with the first probably being easier for students to understand but the second being more of a challenge for students and more common in the real world.
Ordinal number competitions
Students choose from a list of topics on the board or worksheet, guess what their position will be in their group or class, and get points if their guess is correct. For example, if they choose the topic “Birthday” and say “Second” because their birthday is at the end of January as so they think that only one person in the group has a birthday before them in a calendar year, they get one point if that is true. Other good topics include age, height, time of getting up, time of going to bed, and number of books in their bedroom. For the checking stage, it can be good to get students to ask each other questions like “When is your birthday?” to line up in order.
Ordinal numbers comparisons
If students learnt the time before ordinal numbers, you can get them to ask each other what time they do stuff such as get up and have breakfast and then label each other as “First”, “Second”, “Third” etc depending on what time they do so. For example, if they ask “What time do you brush your teeth in the morning?”, after listening to the times they can decide that “Juan in first. Jorge is second” etc.
If they have done dates, doing the same with the first person, second person, third person etc to do things in their lives such as go abroad and go in a plane can be a good way of combining two uses of ordinal numbers.
Ordinal numbers warmer cooler guessing game
Students think of something that they have done at least once and write a gapped sentence describing the last time that they did that thing such as “I went to Disneyland in August. It was the ________________ time (in my life/ since I was five)” and “I drunk water ten minutes ago. It was my _______________ time today”. The other people guess what the missing ordinal number is, listen to a hint about how wrong they are (“No, it’s much higher”, “No, it’s a little lower”, etc), and guess again. When they finally guess exactly the right number, they switch roles and so the same.
Ordinal numbers quizzes
Students try to guess the answers to quiz questions like “The _____ river is the second longest in the world”, “The Kyoto subway was the _________________ in the world”, etc, perhaps with multiple choice options.
You can also do something similar with students guessing which country is being described from its position in different kinds of ranking, e.g. “It has the twelfth highest per capita income in the world but only the thirtieth highest level of high school graduation”.
Ordinal numbers stories and songs
Although they are often too simple to be interesting or need to be simplified quite a lot, there are quite a few suitable songs and books that are read through on YouTube, including Ten Little Caterpillars by Bill Martin, Ten Little Ducks by Eric Carle and On the Twelve Days of Xmas. You can also replace cardinal number and days of the week with ordinal numbers as you read books like The Long Long Line and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It should also be fairly easy to make up your own stories, chants or even songs with fixed structures like “The first prince…”, “On the first day we…” and “In the maths test John was tenth. In the sprint he was ninth. In…”
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