Telling the time

Thanks to Deputy Head, Nick Hart, for the latest maths blog where he looks into learning how to tell the time and the crucual bits of knowledge children need to know from the beginning!

When Ruby asked me what the time was, I pointed to the clock above the door.  Her gaze furtively swept from there to the digital clock on the PC desktop and she squinted away, forcing her eyes to focus on the tiny display.

We take for granted the ease with which many children learn to tell the time but with a sound idea of the conceptual development from the early years onwards, time should not be a topic where any child struggles. There are some crucial bits of knowledge that children need to have explained to them early on and that need to be returned to regularly.  The first is the idea that time can be split up into increments of 1 hour. This means nothing of course to young children so the concept needs to be linked to something that is more concrete – their day-to-day experiences.  Children have a much better idea of what time of day it is based on what they do so starting with daily routines and assigning an hour of the day to it is a solid starting point:

The next piece of crucial knowledge is that time is continuous and can be represented on a number line with one arrow showing what hour it is, has just gone past or is close to.  Children in the first instance can read the time by saying what hour the arrow is pointing to and they can also show the time by drawing an arrow pointing to the appropriate hour on a number line:

When children are comfortable with this, they can be encouraged to make the link between a horizontal number line and the curved number line that clocks use to represent time:

Children could be encouraged to think and talk about the similarities and differences between the two representations, as well as listen to a clear explanation, and see some modelling, of what happens after 12 o’clock.  Of course manipulating the hour hand on an actual clock is important, showing a given time.

The next stage of development is to understand that time does not jump from one hour to the next but marches on continuously at the same rate.  Teachers should model moving the arrow from left to right to show this.  Here is a good place to explore what happens in between full hours and half way is the place to start:

Children can go back to their concrete experience time lines that now increase by half hour increments and think about what they do at half past hours during the day.  To achieve fluency in telling the time, counting in multiples of half an hour using the number line and a pointer will help them to internalise the pattern of half past / o’clock.  Then they’ll need plenty of practice reading the time from given arrows and drawing arrows to show the given time, all the while reinforcing the language of ‘half past’.  The link between the horizontal number line and the clock face can be made again with similar questioning to before: what’s the same?  What’s different?

Secure in the knowledge that hours can be split into smaller half hour sections; children can be shown further splitting of the hour into quarters of an hour, repeating the same experiential and pictorial support:

This is the time for more work on counting: quarter past three, half past three, quarter to four, four o’clock, quarter past four etc.  Children should continue to read the time and plot the time using only an hour hand until they are ready to make the link again with the clock face:

Confident in telling the time to the quarter or half hour, children can be shown a yet further division of the hour into twelve 5 minute segments.  The progression should be clear – children are gradually seeing that an hour can be split into more and more equal parts and that each time this happens, it enables us to tell the time more accurately:

Again, children count in multiples of 5 but here they are beginning to learn different ways of saying the time.  The colour coding can help children to see that the first half of an hour requires the language of the number of minutes past the hour and the second half of the hour requires the language of the number of minutes to the next hour:

By this stage, children should have a secure understanding that the hour hand is sufficient to tell the time and they should be given plenty of practice to estimate the time and explain their reasoning using pictures like this:

It is only at this stage that the minute hand is needed to tell the time with greater accuracy on a clock.  The need for precision after the work on estimation can be achieved by combining the hour hand with the minute hand and because of the work that has gone on so far, children should be well equipped to avoid the mistake of switching the hands. Children can then progress, using a similar pattern of work, to telling the time to the nearest minute on ever detailed clocks. Many children will need continued practice of reading the time, drawing hands on clocks and converting between analogue and digital times but for those children who have grasped the concept quickly, there is much that can be done to deepen their understanding. One way is to remove the most of the numbers, like so:

Here, children will practice knowing which interval relates to which hour and the number of minutes past or to the hour. A further task to deepen understanding is to remove all numbers and change the orientation of the clock face, so that 12 is no longer at the top:

Here children will need to reason to figure out what time is represented. The hour hand is exactly half way between two hours so the time must be half past something. If so, the minute hand will be pointing towards the 6. With that in mind, the rest of the clock can be annotated and therefore the time is half past four. That’s a relatively easy question because of the position of the hour hand but it can be made more difficult by avoiding the common intervals between hours.

For Ruby, perhaps a clock face with numbers around the outside that correspond only to one of two hands was too much to take in. It seems absurd to talk about subject and pedagogical  knowledge when it come to telling the time, but teachers who understand the knowledge and the thinking that is required for children to tell the time can present much more effective explanations alongside clear modelling so that no child gets left behind.

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