5 Clever Strategies for Teaching Chinese Numbers to Your Students
What if students could immediately recall Chinese numbers?
As teachers, how can we encourage them to retain the meaning of each number long-term and to be able to count correctly, too?
Research suggests that giving a meaningful context for new vocabulary will help students remember words for a longer time, better than memorizing words from a list.
Let’s explore how to do this through fun class discussions and activities about numbers.
- 1. Teach the Date, Day of the Week and Time
- 2. Bring Up Students’ Birthdays, Ages and Holidays
- 3. Make Connections Between Other Topics and Numbers
- 4. Play Number Games
- 5. Show Fun Videos That Include Numbers
1. Teach the Date, Day of the Week and Time
As we know, Chinese numbers are used to express what year it is. They’re also used to talk about months, dates of the month, days of the week and times of the day.
We can introduce numbers by talking about these topics and asking students related questions.
I learned the idea of using a brief discussion of the date and other topics by starting class with “reports.” This works well, but it’s just one way to get started introducing numbers.
Here’s a possible plan to start a beginner class:
Describe the Date Daily
For the first several days, you can introduce the way to say the date. Slowly write the date in view of the class, pointing to each number as you say it aloud. I recommend writing in numerals, not pinyin or characters yet, to make the meaning clear.
Speak slowly and clearly. The visual support is really important when all those numbers are new. They’ll probably notice that the date comes in a different order than it does in English: year, month, date.
Right before you do this for the first time in class, tell your students that they’ll learn numbers 1-31 in part throughout this activity—not all at once. Let them know the goal is first to listen and understand, then later to be able to say the date, day of the week and time of day themselves.
I prefer to let them speak when they feel ready. Within a few weeks, students can begin to take turns leading this “report” at the beginning of class.
Ask Questions About Today’s Date
Hearing the date only once at the start of class isn’t enough for students to become familiar with the numbers.
You can make this activity more interactive, interesting and comprehensible by asking questions about the date. Just a few simple questions at first, and later a few more surprising ones as students get used to hearing numbers.
Keep pointing at each number and speak slowly and clearly. Ask these questions with a grin so they know you’re playing a game with them.
One question could be:
(xiàn zài shì yī qī qī èr nián ma?)
Is it 1772 today?
Students who understand the question can answer, “不是！(bú shì!) — No!”
(ò, xiàn zài shì yì líng èr èr nián, duì bù duì?)
Oh, it’s 1022 today, right?
This question might get a resounding “不对！(bú duì!) — No!”
(nà shì shén me bú duì ne? èr bù duì ma? ò, èr shì duì duì de! nà líng ne? líng duì bù duì?)
Well, what is incorrect? Is two incorrect? Oh, two is correct. What about zero? Is zero correct?
Bonus tip: Have students listen to the Chinese order for the year, month and date repeatedly to help them get used to it.
After students have heard the date for several class periods, the day of the week can then be added. Questions about the day of the week can be very fun because we can talk about how happy we are on Friday or how sleepy students are on Monday.
After a few classes, the time of day can be added. Likewise, ask questions about the various times of the day, such as asking when class starts, when class finishes, etc.
If your classes meet at different times on different days of the week, this works better! If you have the same class time each day, be sure to include the time of day in other discussions and activities so they hear about the time in different contexts.
2. Bring Up Students’ Birthdays, Ages and Holidays
Once students are more comfortable and begin to say them spontaneously, you can ask about their birthdate. Birthdays are a favorite topic of young students.
Here are some ways to include their birthdate in the classroom:
- Ask them what they do on their birthday.
- Ask students to line up in order by month of birth.
- Create a birthday calendar in class together.
- Guess your students’ birthdates.
- Remember to sing on students’ birthdays! Some of my students introduced me to an entertaining version of “Happy Birthday” in Chinese, which has become a tradition for their classmates’ birthdays:
Young students find their ages intensely interesting.
Elementary and middle school students like to compare their ages. If you’re willing, they also enjoy guessing their teacher’s age and birthdate. In the US, high school students like to talk about the milestones of turning 16 (when they get a driver’s license) and 18 (when they become a legal adult).
Holidays and Special Events
Major holidays observed by your students and special events in their lives and at the school can be other topics of interest. Ask about the date and time of a championship game, a theater performance or the SAT test they’ll take. Once they understand questions about the date, day of the week and time of day, it takes only a little more language to talk about those important celebrations and occasions.
Holidays are also a way to draw Chinese culture into your discussion. You can compare the date of Chinese New Year to the dates of other holidays that your students celebrate.
You can ask them about what they’ll be doing on different dates of the year. For example, will they be at school on July 7? When will they go to sleep on January 1? Keep every question within the limits of their vocabulary or at least make sure they understand what you mean.
3. Make Connections Between Other Topics and Numbers
Numbers fit into all kinds of discussions.
For example, looking at a picture in the textbook, you can ask whether there are two or three people in a photo. Ask for the number of objects that are mentioned in a dialogue using question words like 多少 (duō shǎo) and 几个 (jǐ gè), meaning “how much?” and “how many?” respectively.
How many cups of tea will the people in the conversation drink? How many friends will the people in the conversation invite to their party?
By surrounding the students with repeated exposure to numbers in the context of other discussions, their grasp of those words deepens.
You can also say numbers in Chinese when asking students to read any numbered lines or questions. For example, you might ask one student to read 第二个问题 (dì èr gè wèn tí) or the “second question.”
A useful trick when talking about numbers in that context is to use gestures or hand signs for numbers, which are both fun and have been shown to help increase retention of vocabulary. Using Chinese hand signs for numbers also will help your students develop a fun connection to Chinese culture:
TPR activities lend themselves very well to including numbers. Having students do actions a certain number of times can add another element to your use of TPR.
You can also ask students how many times they should perform an action.
4. Play Number Games
Games in class can be a nice way to break up other activities, as they allow students to be more physically active and provide a change of pace.
After all, games can be a useful way to reinforce those familiar numbers. These are some of my favorite, quick number games:
- Students stand up and toss a ball or stuffed animal, counting each time they catch it. They might count by ones, by twos or by bigger numbers to be more challenging. More advanced students can count down from a higher number. This sounds simple, but it’s one of the most-requested brain breaks by my students. Something about tossing a stuffed animal makes students from elementary through high school feel happier.
- With larger class sizes, the teacher or a student can call out a fairly small number for the class to group themselves into. For example, “三 (sān)” means the class needs to organize into groups of “three.”
- Play “hot and cold.” One student steps out of the room and the whole class hides an object. The student returns and looks for the hidden object. The class uses louder or softer voices, counting from one through any number that they already know, to indicate how near the student is to that object.
5. Show Fun Videos That Include Numbers
Once students are solid with numbers, you can show them some fun videos to reinforce and enjoy them in a new way.
This Chinese number rap by Yoyo Chinese is pretty catchy and creative. It also makes it easier to remember numbers:
The numbers one through seven are featured in the well-known Chinese children’s song, “我的朋友在哪里？(wǒ de péng you zài nǎ li?) — Where is my friend?”
And lastly, here’s a video that presents useful information on cultural understanding of numbers and their symbolism:
In general, you can share short videos as you transition between activities. They’re a very engaging format for students of all ages!
Other than YouTube, another resource with plenty of short videos for Chinese learners is FluentU, which features clips from Chinese TV shows, movies and other popular online videos. The clips cover all levels, including beginner videos that tackle numbers and measure words, complete with interactive subtitles:
There’s also a video dictionary with examples for each word. After watching assigned videos, students can review with quizzes that include listening questions, clip snippets and speaking exercises. As the teacher, you can keep track of their scores and overall progress.
The FluentU Chinese program is available on both web and mobile (iOS or Android).
Numbers aren’t the only topic you can teach with these sorts of activities. In fact, you can teach numbers alongside any other topic!
Just remember to vary up your activities so that your students retain numbers better and enjoy the process!