How to Teach Newcomers (ELLs) Numbers

All Newcomers need to learn to hear, say, read and write English numbers. Older English Language Learners probably already know how to count in one or more languages and understand numerical correspondence and math functions.

Begin by teaching 1-12 because each of these numbers have unique names that must be memorized. I use buttons, pennies, dice, dominoes, and objects around the classroom to teach these numbers. Since counting always begins with one, Newcomers often repeat and learn 1-6 very well. To balance their exposure to the higher numbers, I recommend practicing the numbers in reverse order. This enables students to practice 7-12 more often.

I do recommend not using hand gestures or fingers to represent numbers. Hand gestures, like body language, is very culturally based and can be easily misunderstood. In some countries a closed fist means five, while in the U.S. we use an open hand with fingers spread.

The Number Chart above uses alliteration to aid the learning process. (two-tomatoes) Singing songs like 'Ten Shiny Pennies' (Ten little Indians tune) helps students learn numbers. Rhyming also helps students to remember, so you may want to use this revised nursery rhyme:

1, 2, Put on your shoes.
3, 4. Shut the door.
5, 6, Buy the tickets.
7, 8, Don't be late!
9, 10, The game/show begins.

11, 12, All is well. 

When teaching a struggling student, I often use reverse teaching. They become the teacher and I am their student. They teach me how to count in their language. While I am learning their numbers, I say the English numbers. Lastly, we both demonstrate our new vocabulary of numbers. This is a slow, but very successful and fun technique. I have learned to count in many languages!
My observation is that half of the languages have unique names for 1-12 and the other half have unique names for 1-10. All of the languages I have encountered use a combination of those initial numbers to express larger values. In English, 17 = seventeen (7 +10) and 74 = seventy-four (7 tens + 4). Likewise, in Swahili 17 = kumi na saba (10 + 7) and 74 = sabini na nne (7 tens + 4).
Reinforce your English learners’ new vocabulary by playing games such as 'Go Fish’ and ‘Concentration' with numbers. Playing board games with two dice is another great way to practice 1-12. 
Numerals, the graphic representations for a number, vary throughout the world. If an English learner uses different numerals or is pre-literate, they need to learn how to read and write English numerals. I teach handwriting by ease of the stroke. Straight lines: 1, 4, 7. Curves: 5, 0, 6, 9, 2, 3, and 8. You may have to teach not to put a flag  or foot on one or a dash through seven.
Many students are confused by the print version of numbers: 1, 4, 9 vs 1, 4, 9. Using a font such as KG Handwriting with the correct number forms, will help to eliminate this problem. I also teach that print numbers and letters are different from handwritten ones.
Once the first twelve numbers have been mastered, teach how to apply this new vocabulary using the practical life skills of phone numbers, money, time and calendar. These are essential for older English learners. For phone numbers, I have students take turns writing a classmate’s phone numbers on the board. This way everyone gets to hear, say, and write numbers. Students can also do a class survey which gives practice asking questions, “What is your phone number?” and answering questions, “My phone number is …” These two exercises provide speaking, listening, reading, and writing practice.
When teaching about money, begin with the value and use of $1, $5, and $10 bills. Then, teach the value of pennies, nickels, and dimes. Some countries do not mint coins, so this may be very challenging for students from these countries. When teaching about time, begin with the hours using both digital and analog clocks. In addition, I teach about the calendar using the numeric values for the months (June = 6). These four life skills give older English learners many practical ways to apply their new English number vocabulary.
Lastly, English learners need to learn the spelling of numbers. This can be taught with flash cards and worksheets. Preliterate ESL students require more practice for both handwriting and spelling than literate students. In addition, higher level ESL students should be taught formal writing requires numbers one through ten to be spelled, while numbers 11 and greater can be written as numerals.
I address teaching teens and higher numbers in another article. I’d love to hear about your ideas and methods of teaching numbers.
Happy teaching!

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