10 ESL Time Activities to Teach English Time Like Clockwork
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.
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 activities.
Thanks to these 10 engaging ESL activities below, you’ll have lots of new ideas for teaching English time, and your students will learn to tell and express time in English quickly, and above all, accurately.
- 1. What’s the Time, Mr. Wolf?
- 2. What Time Is It?
- 3. Describing Daily Routines
- 4. Drawing Clocks
- 5. Making Appointments
- 6. Time Bingo
- 7. Charades of Time
- 8. Time Line-up
- 9. The Story of a Day
- 10. Travel Journal From Another Era
- Why Time Is a Tricky Subject for ESL Students
1. What’s the Time, Mr. Wolf?
This is an active game for kindergarten students and young learners that’s 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, or you can write “What time is it?” 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. 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.
Here’s an informative video of a similar activity being done:
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?“
You may want to show them an example of a person narrating their daily routine as an example. Here’s a good option for that:
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.
Make the activity more creative by asking students to draw interesting clocks. This video goes over how to draw a fun old school alarm clock:
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.
6. Time Bingo
Prepare a set of bingo cards showcasing a mix of time slots in both digital and analog clock presentations, so you get students used to both kinds of clocks. If you want, depending where you’re teaching, you could also include times in the 24 hour format.
When you begin the game, announce time slots in a random manner (drawing slips from a hat or something similar), and ask students to identify and highlight the matching times on their bingo cards.
The first student to complete a line on their bingo card wins. If you’re feeling adventurous and generous, you could bring candy or other small prizes for this honor. You could also let the winner call the number on the next round of play.
7. Charades of Time
On a set of index cards, jot down an array of everyday activities such as “wake up,” “have lunch” and “go to bed.” Attach specific times to each activity for specificity if you’d like.
Then, do a game of charades where students enact these activities silently, inviting their peers to guess the associated times, or the activity. There’s no need to have them guess super specific times unless there’s something notable about that hour. For example, a football game may start at 9 P.M. each Friday, so that one could be more specific.
Through this well loved game, students can not only amplify their vocabulary pertaining to daily routines but also fortify their grasp of time-related phrases. They’ll also have a lot of fun.
8. Time Line-up
Before class, you’ll need to make cards, each one containing a distinct time written on it, such as 5:32 A.M. or midnight or even “Next Tuesday.”
When you start the activity, randomly distribute individual cards to each student.
Then have your students try to arrange themselves in a sequence, adhering to the accurate chronological order of times, all the while refraining from revealing their assigned times to their peers.
Once the first line-up is formed, let students share their time with the students next to them in line, but make sure they do it with words, not by showing their card. Then they can adjust the line-up if needed.
The hands-on nature of this activity will help students to genuinely grasp the flow of time and its linguistic representation, and they seem to have a lot of fun doing it, too.
9. The Story of a Day
Go over your day (last Saturday, for example), explaining to your students all that happened to you. (You can also make stuff up to make it more interesting.) Perhaps even show them a photo or two to make the day and the story feel more interesting. If you’re not in the mood to do this, show a video like the one below.
Then ask students to do the same. Write a story of a day of their choosing, either real or made up. Then give them time to gather presentation materials and ask them to present their day to the class, being sure to narrate the events in a chronological sequence, using fitting time expressions.
To get their imaginations going before you start this activity, consider showing students a short film about the perfect summer day. Here’s one that covers this very thing in Berlin:
10. Travel Journal From Another Era
This is a more long term activity that could take place over several weeks, all the way up to the entire session, if your students are into it.
This is a great activity because it enlists the power of your students’ imaginations by inviting them to step into the shoes of a time traveler exploring a historical period they’ve always been interested in, or even a time in the future.
If a student is writing about the 1920s in Paris, perhaps they went to a wild party at Ernest Hemingway’s apartment, or if they’re writing about the year 4000, maybe they flew to their mother’s house for a dinner of mice—hey, you never know!
Your students will write a journal entry each day or each week about something that happens in this past or future world. You can decide whether you want students to share these journal entries with other students, or perhaps the entire class.
The more creative the better for this assignment, so encourage students to take artistic risks and use lots of adjectives and metaphors.
You may want to show students a couple videos that explain certain eras, or just to get imaginations going. Here’s a good short video to use for Paris in the 1920s:
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 the American style is the easiest, it’s worth teaching the British way, too.
One handy hack for teaching time in context is showing some of the many videos on FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos made by native speakers for native speakers and turns them into language learning tools. Think movie trailers, news clips, vlog posts and music videos, with interactive subtitles, quizzes, vocabulary lessons and flashcards to use while watching and after.
You can search for terms like “time” to bring up a list of videos where the word occurs.
Read this post to learn how to use FluentU in your classroom.
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.
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!