Numbers in Context – A DIY Activity


Renata Phelps, Illinois Institute of Technology

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Being comfortable with using numbers in one’s second language is an important and necessary skill. Yet, activities provided by many ESL textbooks are usually somewhat limited, possibly because of the seeming simplicity of the skill – after all, numbers are one of the first things we learn in a foreign language. However, there are many factors that make using numbers in the L2 much trickier than it would seem:
  • Working with numbers involves a much more automatic memory than most other language use. It is often said that numbers are one of the last things that students let go of in their L2. Even very advanced learners will usually turn to their L1 while dealing with many operations involving numbers. Thus, frequent practice is necessary to help students feel as comfortable with using numbers in English as they are in their L1.
  • There are many different types of numbers. Our students need to become fluent in using fractions, decimals, percentages, etc.
  • There are some variations in how numbers are written or said between different languages. Languages might differ in things like using a period or a comma to mark decimals, using singular or plural for hundreds/thousands/millions, etc., or even in how digits are grouped in phone numbers or addresses.
  • Some numbers sound very similar, even to a trained ear. Even native speakers sometimes have difficulty distinguishing between numbers like 13/14, 15/50, 19/90, etc.
  • When it comes to numbers, every single thing is important. If we miss or mistake one digit, the whole number becomes incorrect.
If you are not satisfied with the practice of numbers your textbook offers, here is a simple activity that can remedy that. This activity will let your students practice both listening to and saying numbers, as well as give them an opportunity to see the importance of tying numbers to their references.

What you need to do:
  1. Choose a context. For my classes, I decided to present various information about the U.S. states. This context allowed for the use of a variety of numbers – big numbers (population, area), money (average salary), dates, percentages etc. Alternatively, you might focus on your students’ countries or cities, or even on topics like cars or sports.
  2. Prepare a listening activity.
    1. Prepare a short text/texts that you will read to your students. Make sure to focus on what you need – you may use a wide range of numbers, or just a specific kind (percentages, dates, prices, etc.)
    2. Make a list of questions about the numerical information from your text. Depending on the level of your students, you could either ask about all the numbers that are mentioned or just some of them in order to see if your students can find what they need amongst the many numbers that you read. For lower level students, you might do this part as a multiple choice activity.
    3. Provide an opportunity for “free practice”. To help your students practice more authentic work with numbers, prepare one section for which the questions are not provided, and ask the students to note down some numbers they hear along with their references. This will allow your students to understand the importance of paying attention not only to numbers themselves, but also to what they represent.
  3. Assign presentations. Now that you have modeled the activity, ask your students to prepare their own texts to present to their classmates. It is a good idea to specify how many numbers students should include in their presentations. The speeches might be presented on a daily basis – this will provide a nice continuity in the practice of numbers. Students should hand in the written version of their speeches, so you can monitor if they are correctly reading the numbers they wrote. As students are presenting their speeches, their classmates are asked to write down the numbers they hear along with the information about what those numbers refer to. You might collect those answers, or just go over them after each speech.
 Supplementing textbook practice with this activity will both help your students get more comfortable with using numbers and help them move towards the fluency they need in their everyday lives.

Renata Phelps has taught ESL to students of various ages and all levels of advancement. Currently, she works as an adjunct instructor in the ESL program at Illinois Institute of Technology.

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ITBE Link - Summer 2015 - Volume 43 Number 2