Why kids struggle with telling time and reading a clock

A National Board Certified Teacher explains common pitfalls in telling-time lessons and suggests resources that address students’ difficulties.

Telling time is a very difficult skill for many students.  When you see this breakdown of common pitfalls, you’ll understand why kids struggle.  I offer hope for frustrated teachers, parents and tutors by suggesting resources that can help.

No familiarity with analog clocks: Today’s kids use digital clocks—and their parents grew up with them, too.  Your students will have to practice, practice, practice.  The online manipulative clock will help you teach because it shows digital and analog.

Not knowing 5s times table: It’s hard to quickly read the clock if you can’t look at the 7 and think “35.”  Kids really, really need to know their 5s.  That’s why first and second graders have such a hard time reading a clock, and third graders finally break the code.  Hint: practice your 5s with the Best Multiplication Songs EVER! and FREE Best Times Tables Practice EVER!

Confusion over a quarter: Students hear the word “Quarter” and think “25” because they are used to working with money.  You will have to stop, do a fractions lesson, then show how a quarter of 60 is 15.  Good luck with that; it’s always a tough lesson!

Pie wedge fractions diagrams: these visual aids help because the pie shape echoes the clock shape
Quarter hour time worksheets from DadsWorksheets.com
Basic fractions worksheets can help

Big hand/little hand confusion: With practice, kids figure out that the big hand is minutes and the little hand is hours.  I tell them that “minutes” is a longer word; think longer hand.  At least it’s something for the mind to wrap itself around.

The online manipulative clock will address big hand/little hand confusion.   Even better is a set of individual manipulative clocksso the students understand the gear workings better.

If you buy just one manipulative clock, make it a big clock.

Reading the hour incorrectly:  Kids have trouble grasping the concept that the hour hand moves gradually from one hour to the next as the minute hand makes its way around the clock.  Students don’t understand that at 6:30, the little hand is halfway to the 7 and that by 6:50, it’s almost at the 7.

Again, the online manipulative clock or real-life manipulative clocks will really help.
Printable telling time clock faces let you put several examples under the document camera.

Writing the time incorrectly:  There are as many ways to mess this up as there are students.  My all-time favorites are “7:5” for “7:25” and “5:12” for “5.00”

Telling time on the clock worksheets will help.

When students can do draw the time on the clock worksheets, they really show they understand how to tell time.  Also, some kids who can’t seem to write the time correctly might get a little better when they see that 7:5 is NEVER used to mean “7:25.)

Good luck!  As with all skills, mastering clock-reading takes time.

Posted in Academics,Math by Corey Green @ Jul 6, 2012



  1. I really enjoyed your article on problems children have whilst telling the time! Numberfit, (www.numberfit.com) the company I work for is a mathematics workout programme, who teach time as one of the topics used in nurseries and pre schools and can identify with alot of what you have written. We incorporate fitness and movement into our numeracy sessions;(something that we think works really well) which has been found to help memory and cognition!

    Comment by luke hill — September 12, 2013 @ 4:18 AM

  2. Thanks, Luke! I visited the NumberFit site and it looks like a truly innovative program.

    Comment by Corey Green — September 12, 2013 @ 11:47 AM

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