All English learners 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. Younger students need to learn numerical correspondence.
Begin by teaching 1-12 because each of these numbers have unique names that must be memorized. Use buttons, pennies, dice, dominoes, and classroom objects to practice counting. Since counting always begins with one, students often learn 1-6 very well. To balance their exposure to the higher numbers, practice counting backwards like a rocket countdown. This enables students to practice 7-12 more often.
Do not use hand gestures or fingers to represent numbers. Hand gestures are culturally specific 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:
11, 12, All is well
If you have a struggling student, try reverse teaching. Ask the student to teach you how to count in their language. As they teach, repeat the number in their language and in English. While you are learning numbers in their language, they are learning English numbers. Lastly, demonstrate your new vocabulary of numbers and let the student demonstrate theirs. This is a slow, but very successful and fun technique. I have learned to count in many languages!
Recently refugees from non-counting cultures have been arriving in the U.S. These languages use general words for quantity such as none, few, several, many, most, and all. These students need to learn one to one correspondence and counting.
It appears that about half of the world's languages have unique names for 1-12 and the other half have unique names for 1-10. All of the languages use a combination of these 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 type of stroke. Straight lines: 1, 4, 7. Counterclockwise: 0, 9, 6, 8, and clockwise 2, 3, 5. 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 the numbers 1, 4, 9. Teach that printed numbers and letters are different from handwritten ones. Using a font such as KG Handwriting with the correct handwritten forms, is great for creating worksheets.
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 dates. For phone numbers, 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's 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 of dollar bills first and coins second. Students who come from countries that do not mint coins, find coins challenging to learn. When teaching about time, begin with the hours using both digital and analog clocks. In addition, teach about the dates using the numeric values for the months (June = 6). These four life skills (phone numbers, money, time, and dates) give English learners many practical ways to use their numbers vocabulary.
Lastly, English learners must learn to spell 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.
Teaching teens and higher numbers is addressed in another article. I’d love to hear about your ideas and methods of teaching numbers.