When learning a new language, many students start with numbers.
From there, the natural progression is to tell the time.
That’s where things get more difficult.
It can also be where students switch off.
Keeping students engaged in grammar lessons is one of the main challenges of being an ESL teacher.
That’s why you have to make it immersive and interesting. Sometimes it’s okay to ditch the ESL textbooks and use some fun, interactive lessons.
Thanks to the five engaging ESL activities below, your students will learn to tell and express time in English.
They’ll be pros… in no time.
Why Time Is a Tricky Subject for ESL Students
Telling time in a second language can be difficult. That’s certainly the case in English since there are so many different ways to do it.
First of all, there are analog and digital clocks.
Then, there’s twenty-four hour time, which can be challenging even for some native speakers.
Once students know how to actually tell the time, they’ll have to memorize the time windows for the morning, afternoon, evening and night, as well as the corresponding prepositions. After all, why do we say “in the morning” but “at night”?
The trickiest part of all is learning the differences between the American and British styles of telling time. While American style is the easiest, it’s worth teaching the British way, too.
Now that you know some of the potential pitfalls, you’re almost ready to dive into the actual teaching. But before you do, make sure you can back up your teaching with authentic resources. Use the many videos on FluentU to help your students hear numbers and time being used in action.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
5 ESL Activities for Teaching English Time
No matter what age group or skill level you’re teaching, you’re bound to come across some students who struggle to tell the time. Use these activities to give them some practice.
1. What’s the Time, Mr. Wolf?
This is an active game for kindergarten students and young learners, similar to Tag. It gets them moving around the classroom and having fun, as well as using the target language for telling time.
To start, get all your students to stand in a line at one end of the classroom or playground, with their backs against a wall. Choose one student to play the role of Mr. Wolf.
That student moves to the other end, turning around with their back to the other students.
Together, the group at the back of the class shouts: “What’s the time, Mr. Wolf?” Mr. Wolf calls out a time, and the others advance towards the Wolf that amount of steps.
For example, if Mr. Wolf says: “It’s three o’clock,” the rest of the class will take three steps forward.
At any point in the game, they can choose to shout “It’s lunchtime,” instead. When they do, they turn around and chase the other students. The first one they catch has to switch places with them.
2. What Time Is It?
This simple activity is a great starting point for students who don’t know how to tell time at all. It’s slow-paced, so they’ll be able to get comfortable with the language and drill it in a controlled way.
Start by eliciting how to ask what the time is. You can do this simply by pointing at your watch or writing the word “time” on the board, followed by a question mark. From there, you can prompt them to give you the answer to that question.
After that, write several different times on the board and guide your students through how to say them correctly. Keep it simple, with short sentences like “It’s five o’clock” or “it’s seven forty-five.” Run through this as many times as you need to, making sure your students understand the basics.
For the next step, you’ll need a set of ESL flashcards with different times on them. If you don’t have much time to prepare, you can simply cut up small pieces of paper and write various times on them before your class starts. Put your students in pairs, then distribute the cards evenly between them.
Demonstrate by asking a student, “What time is it?” and gesturing to the set of cards. They should pick one, and respond to you with the correct time. After that, they can continue this in their pairs, asking and answering back and forth.
If this is too easy for your students, you can make it more challenging by asking them to make longer sentences, such as: “It’s four thirty in the afternoon.” That way, they’ll have to think about how to use morning, afternoon, evening and night correctly, instead of always using am and pm.
3. Describing Daily Routines
Once your students get the hang of telling time, you can get them to use it in context. The easiest way to do this is to get them talking about their daily routines.
All you need to prepare for this activity is a worksheet with a blank schedule for one week. After handing the sheets out, ask your students to fill in the time slots with activities they normally do each day. After that, you can elicit the following questions:
- What do you do on (day) at (time)?
- What time do you (verb)?
A great way to do this is by drawing your own schedule on the board and leaving certain parts blank. For example, You can write “wake up,” but leave the box for time blank. Then, you can ask your students what question they’ll need to ask in order to fill that box.
Next, you can turn it over to your students. In pairs or small groups, have them ask each other questions about their daily routines using the structure and the worksheet you’ve provided. If they’re able to do that comfortably, you can move on to third person questions, like “what time does he wake up?” and “what does she do on Monday evenings?”
4. Drawing Clocks
This activity is ideal for young students, but it can be used for any age group. Adults who are struggling to tell the time in English can benefit, too. It’s an easy dictation activity, in which students will have to fill in the blanks.
Provide your students with a blank clock. You can do this by printing it on a worksheet or having your students draw it on the board. Then, call out an example time to the class. In response, your students will have to draw that time correctly on their clock.
After the first try, check everyone’s answers as a class. After that, you can reel off some more and have them check together at the end.
Make sure to use a mixture of analog and digital clocks, so students can get enough practice with each format. Many tend to struggle with one more than the other.
5. Making Appointments
The last activity on our list is a conversation lesson, which puts everything together. Here, students can practice using everything they’ve learned without guidance. That means they won’t have to follow the strict boundaries of drilling, so they’ll have more freedom with the language. They’ll also have to rely on the knowledge they’ve picked up, as well as their memories, instead of reading from a worksheet.
The first step is to elicit ways to make and respond to invitations. This can include the following sentences:
- Are you free at 8:00 tomorrow?
- Would you like to watch a movie with me?
- When are you available?
- Shall we go shopping?
- I’m busy, can we reschedule?
- How about tomorrow afternoon?
For context, you can either have your students use the same schedule from the Daily Routines activity or give them pre-filled ones. Then, your students can use those to invite each other to different activities and make appointments together. They’ll have to keep proposing different times until they find one that matches when their partner is free.
When you’re teaching about how to tell the time, it’s important to pay attention to detail. Even advanced students sometimes forget how to do it correctly. This is because they can take shortcuts by answering in the easiest possible way.
During your classes, make sure your students are speaking in long sentences where possible, as well as using the correct forms, structures and prepositions. It will make them better English speakers in the long run!
Emma Thomas is an ESL teacher in Bangkok with more than five years of experience in teaching students of all ages. You can read more about her experiences as a teacher in Thailand at Under the Ropes.