Are numbers a “thematic unit?”

I tweeted this yesterday and it began a discussion and some thinking!  (Good!)

A teacher is wondering, how then DO you teach numbers and what is the THEME there?

My thoughts…I often do teach numbers very explicitly in level 1.  I do this because students and parents expect this.  But that is NEVER enough.  Why?  Numbers in themselves are an abstract concept.  Numbers are symbols.  A foreign language feels like learning new symbols for the existing set of symbols in the brain anyway.  So, numbers are like symbols of new symbols!  Does that make sense?  It makes sense in my head.

Numbers are naturally embedded in so many contexts.  I think the trick is, if you are using a context to teach numbers, make sure it is really a context where you need to know numbers AND know them in the target language.  Counting is not really a context because no one in their right mind REALLY counts in their head IN their second language.  Taking inventory in not a context because that is just another form of counting.

What do I consider a real context for numbers?

  • Playing a numbers game which would naturally involve saying the numbers (not an artificial game where your teacher forces you to say the numbers).
  • Making a financial transaction.
  • Asking/saying the date or a birthday.
  • Talking about the score of a game.
  • Discussing any kind of data.
  • Discussing a budget.

The caveat?  Many times teachers take a perfectly logical context and kill it by making it into a drill or a ridiculous “information gap” activity.  At that point it ceases to be a real context and becomes a drill.

Numbers come up at random times and predictable times.  Numbers are everywhere.  Numbers should be consciously used on a very regular basis throughout all levels of language study.  If a day goes by in your class and no numbers are used I would wonder why.  In discussion, try to consciously start asking “How many?” or “How much?” or “On what date?” or “At what time?”  Students will know the numbers much more deeply this way.

If you teach a “numbers unit” I beg you to reconsider!


  1. I don’t teach a numbers unit, but I have my students guess the outside temperature (mostly in winter) and read the temperature on all the thermostats we pass in the hallways on the way to Spanish class. This year I started having them all (1st-5th grades) sing and dance the macarena song by counting to 10 (uno maca, dos maca, tres macarena, etc.) then counting by 10s to 100 (…setenta mac, ochenta mac, noventa macarena, ¡CIEN macarena!). They love doing it, and I hope that eventually I can remind them of a number by putting my arms in the corresponding macarena position.

    1. Cute! I just listened to a story on NPR yesterday about music therapy and how people who have suffered severe brain injury or stroke often cannot speak but can still sing their favorite songs. Gabby Giffords in fact has been singing her old favorite pop songs as part of her therapy! It was a powerful look at just how in tune our brains are to music!

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