Everything children need to be able to do when learning to read a clock
Learning how to read a clock is a difficult skill and it takes a long time (pun intended) to learn how to read an analogue clock. There are a lot of different mathematical skills needed to read a clock. Therefore the process of learning to tell the time needs to be broken down into many smaller parts. This is just a very basic summary of the skills required to tell the time on a clock as the concept of time is a complex construct.
Basic maths and time Skills to begin to read a clock
When learning how to read a clock the first and most obvious skill is the ability to be able to count and recognise numbers up to 12. Second, is an understanding of time- having a basic understanding of the length of time for a second, minute, hour or day to pass for example and an understanding of when events happen during the day (e.g. wake up, breakfast, lunch, supper, bedtime). This is quite an abstract concept and takes a while to learn. This is understandable given that time is a social construct which people learn through socialisation.
For my first grade / year 1 students (as an example) I ask them to try to guess how long a minute is by having them close their eyes and stand up when they think a minute is up. This is just one quick and easy way to get them thinking about the duration of one measurement of time. It is also important to speak to children about time so that they can learn all the language and vocabulary associated with time.
Children also need to have an understanding of turns – e.g. what a whole turn, half turn and quarter turn is (and eventually even smaller increments such as 5’s and 1’s). This way they can understand how the hands move around the clock and understand what this means in terms of quarter past, half past and quarter to the hour.
Advanced skills to be able to read a clock
Finally, children also need to be able to read an ‘unlabeled scale’ and count in 5’s. I’ve grouped these together because we need to be able to do these two scales simultaneously in order to be able to read the minutes on the clock. It takes 60 minutes for the minute hand to turn around the clock once but none of these are labelled. Children need to know that for each number (for numbers 1-12 on the clock face) counts as 5 minutes, hence needing to be able to count in 5’s.
Phew! We often take for granted just how complicated reading a clock is because we do it all the time 😉 but when you’re learning it, there is a lot to have to be able to do all at once.
What you need
When children draw their own clocks you may need to guide them a bit. After drawing a large circle, ask them to think about (or look to see) where the 12 is and 6 is. Then get them to draw them onto the clock face. After this get them to think about (or look) to see where the 3 and 9 are on the face and then write these on. After this children can think about filling in the missing numbers around the clock face. Doing it like this helps children to think about the placement of numbers on the clock face. It also prevents all the numbers from being all written together in one big clump.
Children can then use two different sized sticks to represent the minute and hour hands. You can then get children to show different times on their clock by moving their sticks.
Questions to ask
- Where do you find number 12, 6, etc. on the clock?
- Where on the clock does the minute hand show half past, quarter past, quarter to?
- Can you show me 5:00? What about quarter past 5? Half past? (For older more experienced children you can then go onto intervals of 5 minutes such as 5:05, 5:25, etc.)
- What time do you… eat breakfast/ go to school / have lunch / go to bed? Can you show me on the clock?
- Which is the hour hand, which is the minute hand?
What they get from it
This is a fun way to help children continue to learn about telling time. The process of creating their own clock helps them learn where the numbers are positioned on the clock face and moving the clock hands can give them the physical experience of understanding how the hour and minute hands rotate around the clock.
Take it further
There are two main concepts associated with time that children need to learn – the first is ‘recorded time’ the time that something happens (this is what we primarily focused on with this activity) and the other is ‘time interval’ the duration over which something takes place. Haylock Cockburn (2017) note that many teachers tend to focus primarily on teaching children how to read a clock. It is also essential for children to learn about the concept of time interval and how to apply this to real life situations.
In order to help children develop an understanding of time interval you could use stopwatches to see how long it takes to run from one point to another, walk to school, bicycle one block, etc. Alternatively, you could time 1 minute and have your children see how many times they can hop, clap, cartwheel, etc. during that time period.
Haylock, D., & Cockburn, A. (2017). Understanding mathematics for young children (5th ed.). London: Sage Publications.