Saving Time By Avoiding Mistakes When Teaching Time

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As you’ve probably already experienced, teaching the concept of time to your students can have them shedding a few tears and you pulling a few hairs out.   Many of them struggle with telling the difference between the hour and minute hand as well as how each works.  Helping them understand the dual representation of numerals around the clock, such as the 1 being either 5 minutes after or 1 o’clock, can have you throwing in the towel as well.  Even getting them to embrace the importance of knowing how to tell time on an analog clock can be a challenge as one student recently commented, “I don’t need to tell time on a clock like that.  All I need to do is look at a clock with numbers”.  With the various frustrations which come with teaching time, here are a couple of ways to avoid commonly made mistakes.

Not Utilizing Concrete to Provide an Anchoring Experience

Think for a moment about the following: “What is time?”  Can you explain what you just said to your 6 year olds and have them fully understand time based on your elegant explanation?  Unlike understanding shapes, colors, or naming animals, the concept of time is very abstract.  Because of this, providing your students with several experiences which create mental schemas is a must.  Such schemas help students retain and recall concepts more effectively.  For example, as opposed to telling how long a minute is, have them experience running in place for a minute. As opposed to showing them how the minute hand works, have them create their own clock with a minute hand. Let them use unifix cubes to create groups of five up to 60 to develop an understanding of the five minute intervals of the clock.

Telling Time is Teaching Time

One of the most frequent mistakes I see teachers make with time is only teaching them the how to tell time without even understanding the concept of time.  That is, they teach them how to tell time on an analog clock before helping them grasp things like the duration of time.  Here are a few tips to help them develop a better understanding of the concept of time:

  • Have them brainstorm an event they think will last for one second, write it down, and revisit after learning about time.
  • Have them close their eyes and then raise their hand when they think one minute has elapsed.
  • Have them first predict the number of times an activity can be repeated within a one minute interval and then actually do the activity.  Sample activities could be having them write the number of times they could write their name, touch their toes, snap their fingers, etc.
  • Give them strategies to approximate one second time intervals (e.g. one-one thousand, one-Mississippi).
  • Before teaching the skill of telling time, first help develop their understanding of time by engaging in a few similar activities as the ones above.

Common Phrases which May Lead to Misconceptions

When they raise their hands to ask you for help, do you sometimes say, “Give me a second”,  or “Wait a minute”?  We unwittingly use phrases in everyday language which inadvertently may further confuse them about the duration of standard units of time.  Avoiding use of such phrases may aid in their understanding of time.

Concurrently Teaching Minute and Hour

A third mistake made by teachers when teaching time is simultaneously teaching how to read the hour and minute hand.  You may have experienced that this is a perfect recipe for organized confusion.   A more effective way to get them to learn how to tell time is to start with clocks which have only an hour hand.  When working with the one-handed hour clocks, engage them in quick activities in which they can show and tell the exact hour, a little before the hour, and a little after the hour.  Engage them in similar activities with the minute hand before combining the two.

Fractional Portions Before Fractions

How might you teach your students to tell the time if the hour hand is between 2 and 3 and the minute hand points to the 9 or the 3?  You may teach them to say 2:45, a quarter till three, 2:15, or perhaps a quarter after two.  A third mistake teachers make is to teach fractional portions of the clock before, ahem, their students have a true understanding of fractions.  Using fractional portions (e.g. quarter till, quarter after) often leads to further confusion and does little to enhance student understanding.

In short, the concept of time is abstract and providing multiple concrete activities when learning about it is a must to deepen their understanding.  Activities in which they explore the duration of time help build the foundation for learning how to tell time.  Teaching them how to tell time with the hour hand before teaching the minute hand as well as avoiding teaching fractional portions before they understand fractions may lessen the chance of misconceptions and misunderstandings occurring.

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