Teaching Newcomers (ELL) About U. S. Bills & Coins

You may be surprised That many advanced ESL students do not understand American money. This is a topic that is good to review for all students.

American money can be confusing for several reasons. Most countries use size and color as an indicator of value. Bills and coins of greater value are larger and sizes decrease for each smaller value. Different bill denominations are often different colors.  All denominations of U.S. bills are the same size and color. Students quickly learn to read the denomination in the corners of a bill.

Regarding coins, the dollar, half dollar and quarter follow the large to small pattern, but the dime is smaller than the nickel and penny. Students often look for a written amount on American coins, as this is common around the world. The name or amount is usually found on the back of the U.S. coins, but is too small to read. The quarter and dime have their names written on them, whereas the nickel and penny have 5 cents and one cent written on them, respectively. The state quarters have the name written on the head.

When teaching money, begin with dollar bills: $1, $5, $10 and $20. Use realistic play money for this activity. Usually students learn how to use various dollar bills very quickly. 

When teaching coins, use real coins including both regular and state quarters, and new and old nickels and pennies. Separate these into four piles according to value. After reviewing the value and name of each coin, ask students to make amounts ranging from 1-20 cents. Once they have mastered this, move on to 21-30 cents and so forth until you reach 100 cents. Ask students to tell how much money you have in your hand. Amounts over 25 cents have multiple combinations and can be challenging for students. Demonstrate the different ways to make the same amount. Lastly, have students use dollars and cents together. Lastly, practice giving larger amounts and receiving change.

The nickel and quarter are difficult for students to differentiate and identify. They are almost the same size and have very similar heads. The new nickel face helps students to distinguish the difference. I always show the edges of coins. The quarter and dime have ridges, so are worth more. The nickel and penny have smooth edges and are worth less. This is a practical way to tell the quarter and nickel apart.

Students often use both sides of a coin to identify it. The quarter currently has 51 different backs. Also, the penny and nickel have more than one back. This causes confusion for many new English language learners.

Did you know there are a number of countries which don't have coins? This can cause students to really struggle using U.S. coins. In 2021, Belarus, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Congo-DRC, Somalia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Guinea, Iraq, Nepal and Bhutan don't mint coins. Students from these coinless countries really appreciate learning how to use coins! One student from the Congo learned how to use coins on Friday and returned beaming on Monday. She had gone shopping and was able to give the correct change in coins. Previously she had held out her hand and let the cashier pick out coins. Empowerment is a wonderful gift to give others.

There are many words and phrases associated with money that can be taught. "How much does this cost? How many cans for $5? What's the price? Here's your change. Do you have change for a dollar? How much cash do you have? I have twenty-five bucks. That's a lot of dough! Flip a coin. I call tails/heads."

Money is best taught in the context of use. Set up a small store with empty boxes and cans or any objects available. Place prices on the merchandise and have students sell, purchase, and make change. Or better yet, take a field trip to a grocery or dollar store.

You can ask the students to bring money from their country to class and teach their classmates. This is always a fun time and students use English without even realizing it.

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