Ever had students count starting from one, just to remember how to say the number that they needed?
Sometimes that can happen if numbers are taught and memorized in order.
What if students instead could immediately recall the meaning of a number with its Chinese sound? Sprinkling numbers throughout instruction in novel and meaning-based ways, rather than memorizing them in a list, can help this happen.
Plus, sometimes numbers can, after all, be a bit boring if taught all at once.
What are some interesting, engaging ways to introduce Chinese numbers to our students? How can we encourage them to retain the meaning of each number on its own, and to be able to count well, too?
Some research on language acquisition suggests that a meaningful context for new vocabulary will help students remember words for a longer time, better than memorizing words in isolation. And, bonus! The meaningful contexts in which we use numbers can make for very fun class discussions and activities. Even if you have taught your students numbers, these activities can be a nice change of pace in class.
Let’s explore some ways to do all of this.
How to Teach Chinese Numbers as Easy as 1, 2, 3
1. Teaching Numbers Through 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 day. We can introduce numbers through 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” from Terry Waltz, a Chinese teacher and trainer. This works well, but it’s just one way to get started introducing numbers.
Here’s a possible plan to start a level one class.
Make It Daily
For the first several days, the teacher will 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 more 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.
Just before the first time we do this in class, I directly tell students that they’ll learn numbers 1-31 in part through this activity, but over time—not all at once. Let them know the goal is first to hear 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.
When we’re just getting started, only hearing the date once at the start of class isn’t likely to make these words sound comfortably familiar. It’s also unlikely from just one example that they’ll retain the Chinese order of the date: year, month, then date.
We can make this activity more interactive, more interesting and more comprehensible by asking questions about the date we just wrote. 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 pace your voice slowly. Ask these questions with a grin so they know you’re playing a game with them.
Some questions could be:
今天是一七七六年吗？(jīn tiān shì yī qī qī liù nián ma? – Is it 1776 today?)
Students who understand the question will be able to answer “不是!” (bù shì – no).
哦，今天是一零一六年，对不对？(ò, jīn tiān shì yī líng yī liù nián, duì bú duì? – Oh, it’s 1016 today, right?)
This question should also get a resounding “不是!” (bù shì – no).
那，什么不对？六不对吗？哦，六对！零对不对吗？(nà, shén me bú duì? liù bú duì ma? ò, liù duì! líng duì bú duì ma? – Well, what is incorrect? Is six incorrect? Is zero correct?)
Another bonus: students will hear the Chinese order for the year, month and date again and again so that it starts to sound right. We don’t want to bore them, but we also don’t want to move too fast or add too much language at once.
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 first thing on Monday.
After another several days, the time of day can be added. Likewise, use questions and the interest that different times of day have. 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, you’ll also be sure to put time of day into the midst of other discussions and activities so they hear a variety of times of day.
2. Teaching Numbers Through Students’ Birthdays, Ages and Holidays
Once dates are getting comfortable and students are beginning to be able to say them spontaneously, you can ask about their birthdate. Birthdays are a favorite topic of young students. Questions can be a way to use the date repeatedly, yet with attention on an interesting discussion—the language slips in during the process.
Some ways to include their birthdate in questions include:
- Ask them what they do on their birthday.
- Find out whose birthday is in different months of the year by asking students to stand in order by month of birth.
- Create a birthday calendar in class together.
- Guess your students’ birthdates.
- Remember also 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 on 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 or if they earn a driver’s license and becoming a legal adult when they turn 18.
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, for example, to the dates of other holidays that your students celebrate.
You can ask them about what they’ll be doing on different dates of year. For example, on July 7, will they be at school? When will they go to sleep on December 31? Keep every question within the limits of their vocabulary, or make sure they understand what you mean. Homecoming games and dances are often on their minds anyway, and getting to talk about them in Chinese is great!
3. Teaching Numbers Throughout Any Topic
Numbers fit into all kinds of discussions. This is possible if you’re using textbook exercises and photos. For example, looking at a picture in the textbook, you can ask whether there are two or three people in a photo. Ask how many of any object that’s mentioned in a dialogue. How many cups of tea will the people in the conversation drink? How many friends should the people in the conversation invite to their party?
By surrounding the students with repeated exposure to numbers in context of other discussions, their grasp on those words deepens. Another bonus: these questions give students lots of opportunities to hear the question words 多少 (duōshao – how many?) and 几个 (jǐge – how many?). In my experience, it tends to take students plenty of time before they really know these question words without having to think before answering.
Another way to include numbers is always to say numbers in Chinese when talking about any numbered lines of reading or questions. 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. Asking the students for how many times they should do an action is one way to include their ideas in your class activities.
4. Playing Number Games
Games in class can be a nice way to break up other activities, since they allow students to be more physically active and provide a change of pace. After some of the meatier ways of including numbers in discussions, games can be a useful way to reinforce those familiar numbers. Some favorite, brief number games include the following.
- Students stand up and toss a ball or stuffed animal, counting each time they catch it. They might count by ones, by twos, or to be more challenging, by fives or by sevens. 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 into which the students must group themselves. For example, “三!” (sān – three) 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. Fun Videos Including Numbers
Once numbers are getting strong in the students’ minds, there are some fun videos you can show to reinforce and enjoy numbers in a different way. Share one of these videos when you need to transition between other activities.
- This Chinese number rap by YoYo Chinese—it’s also a FluentU Chinese video complete with interactive subtitles and learning exercises!
- Did you know about this Chinese Tang Dynasty poem, which includes the numbers 1 through 10?
- 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 yǒu zài nǎlǐ? – Where is my friend?)
- And lastly, though an English-heavy video, it presents useful information for cultural understanding of numbers and their symbolism: “Most Lucky and Unlucky Numbers for Chinese People.”
Numbers and other sets of words, such as colors, types of clothing, family members, sports and weather, can all benefit from similar activities.
Spread out these topics, and see your students retain numbers better and enjoy the process more!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach Chinese with real-world videos.