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Telling Time

Telling time is one of the most difficult things to teach children! Approach the process step by step and with patience!

Start by making sure the student understands time.  The first step in learning to tell time is understanding how time works generally.  For instance:

  • At what time of day do you wake up?
  • At what time of day do you eat dinner?
  • At what time of day do you come home from school?

As a first step, students should be able to tell you what time of day (morning, afternoon, evening, night) that they do specific activities.  Students are not ready to learn about how read clocks and talk about specific times until they understand, generally, that there are different times of day (that happen every day in the same pattern).  (There is a worksheet that helps students practice general time of day below).

Once student understand the general patterns of a day, they are ready to start to talk about hours. Most children learn about hours in the course of their daily lives (as opposed to in a tutoring session). If you are working on time with a student and have a student who does not have good "time sense" make sure to talk to parents. Ask parents to:

  • Talk to students about what time things are happening (What's bed time? What time is it when they leave for school? What time is it when dinner hits the table?).
  • Make sure that there is a digital clock somewhere so that the kids can see what time it is.
  • Ask children, regularly, what time is it?  Have them look at the clock!

How can you tell if a child has time sense? Students who have a notion of time can tell you approximately what time they do regular things:

  • Get up on a school day.
  • Leave for school.
  • Go to recess or lunch.
  • Come home from school.
  • Eat dinner.
  • Go to bed.

If a student can give you general realistic times for these events, then the child has some time sense. If a child can't, you (and the parents) need to work on building time sense. A child should have decent time sense before you start trying to teach time passage or reading an analog clock.  (There is a worksheet to help students practice time of day below.)

Once a child starts to have time sense, you want to start talking about the "chunks" in which we talk about time (this is complicated because neither hours nor minutes are in base 10 -- so a child needs to think about a whole new way to make "wholes").  

  1. Talk about hours.  On a digital clock display, show the hours.  Write out several times: 12:10, 1:30, 4:50, and have the student point out which part is the hour.  Try to have the student, based on hours, match approximate times to activities (so that the student can match hours and time of day).  Although it's a lot to ask a student to be able to read an analog clock at this point, it can be helpful to look at an analog clock, or a model of one, while talking about time so that students can see that each number on the clock represents an hour.  There are worksheets below about telling time to the hour on an analog clock. 
  2. Talking about hours will lead to talking about noon, midnight, am, and pm.  Explain that there are 24 hours in a day and that the 12 hours on a clock start over at noon and midnight (this is when it's helpful to have an analog clock at hand when you teach time.  It's hard to learn to read an analog clock, but it does make it easier to understand why everything starts over again at 12!
  3. Start talking about half hours.  Talk to the student about how there are 60 minutes in an hour and 30 minutes in a half hour.  If looking at an analog clock, talk about how the minute hand moves around the clock once an hour, so when it's halfway through (pointing straight down, at the 6) it's a half hour. There are worksheets about telling time to the half hour below.  Note: when you start talking about analog clocks, talk about how the hour and minute hand move independently, but constantly.  So, on the hour, the hour hand points exactly at the hour number. But, as time continues, and the minute hand makes its way around the clock, the hour hand slowly moves towards the next number, so at 6:30, the hour hand will be pointing between the 6 and the 7.
  4. The next step is talking about quarter hours.  It's helpful to talk about how there are 4 15-minute quarters in an hour.  Show the student where 15, 30 (they should know!), and 45 are on the analog clock.  Try to use various ways of talking about time, so 6:15 is "six-fifteen" and "quarter past 6."
  5. Finally, talk explicitly about how each number on an analog clock represents 5 minutes (60 minutes divided by 12 is 5 minutes).  So, they can count by 5s around the clock to figure out exactly minutes. There are worksheets for telling time in 5 minute increments and 1 minute increments.  There are also worksheets that focus on the later minutes in the hour (like 6:55 when the hour hand is closer to the next hour (7) than the correct hour (6) because these times tend to be hard for children. 

Many children cannot read an analog clock.  Ideally every student should be able to read an analog clock. Even if you do not succeed in fully teaching a student to read an analog clock, working with analog clocks as you teach time will both give the student a foundation for learning to read an analog clock and give the a basis for understanding how time works (base-12 and base-60).

Click on the lesson about Time Passage when your students start to master the concepts of time and have some familiarity with analog clocks.