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ESL Telling Time: Vocabulary & Games

Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

This lesson provides a vocabulary list and guidelines to teach your students how to tell time and talk about time. You'll also look at some fun games and activities to get your students practicing the vocabulary in an engaging way.

Telling Time

If you ask your students why being able to tell time is important, you may get a variety of answers. But many will emphasize the importance of being on time for a class or event. After all, many of the things we do every are scheduled to start and end at specific times, and not knowing how to tell time can cause big problems. For ESL students, learning how to tell time in English can be difficult. Let's take a look at some telling-time vocabulary for ESL students:

Reading Time

In American English, time is generally written and spoken with the hour first followed by the minutes, and a colon in between. For example, nine thirty-five would be written as 9:35. Also note that, when there are no minutes to say, people may add the word o'clock after the hour, as in 5 o'clock.


Have your students practice writing time. This is a very simple activity--simply state a time in words, like ten fifteen, and have the students write the correct form in their notebooks (10:15). Continue stating times until the students have a strong grasp of the concept, and make sure to walk around the room and offer help to those having difficulty.

You can also have students practice reading time and saying the time aloud. Use a learning clock (or even the clock off the wall) to display a time by moving the hands of the clock, and then have your students speak the time aloud.

Students shown this clock should respond with the time 3:54.

Other Ways of Saying Time

It's important to inform students that sometimes English speakers say the time in different ways, such as with the minutes stated first and the hour stated second. For example, if someone wanted to say 8:15, they might instead say fifteen minutes after eight. Or, if someone wanted to say 5:50, they might instead say ten minutes to six.

The key to telling if someone is saying the time with the minutes first is to look for the words after or to, because these words tell us the relation of the minutes to the hour.

Understanding A.M. versus P.M.

Once your ESL students understand the basics of reading time, you might teach them about A.M. and P.M.:

  • A.M. is used after the time to show that it is in the morning (from 12:00 a.m. to 11:59 a.m.).
  • P.M. is used after the time to show that it is in the afternoon (from 12:00 p.m., also called noon, to 11:59 p.m.).


To teach the difference between A.M. and P.M., provide your students with worksheets displaying the hours of a day, from 1:00 a.m. to 12:00 a.m.

Then, read aloud a list of events for that day and the time of the event, stating whether it's in the morning, afternoon or evening. Make sure the events are not read aloud in sequential order. The students should fill in the name of the event next to the correct time. For example, if you say, Doctor's appointment at 9 in the morning, the students should write doctor's appointment next to 9 a.m.

Walk around the room, checking students' worksheets for accuracy and providing guidance as necessary.

Asking and Answering About Time

There are two basic questions people ask about time:

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