Numbers are the unpopular stepsister of ELT. Despite their simplicity they are not easy. Even very high-level learners struggle with numbers. They struggle in a particular way, which I’ll come to in a moment. At the end of this blog, there are some activities to focus on numbers. They are designed for solo practice but can be easily adapted for working with others.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

There are a few reasons why numbers are difficult. First, our brains process numbers differently from language. To simplify, it is massively a left brain-right brain issue. Second, on a practical level, in all national education curricula there are 2 compulsory subjects: the national language and mathematics. (Mathematics is more than numbers, but I’m focusing on numbers in particular here.) In other words, children and young people get about 10 years of focused mathematical instruction in their mother tongue. Small wonder that they struggle with numbers in another language. Third, “8”, for example, has no meaning; it is completely abstract, while $8, 8pm or 8 students have meaning.

(A) There are about 30 commonly used numbers which combine to form all the others: 1–20; 30; 40…100; 1,000; 1,000,000; 1,000,000,000.

These are introduced early in the ELT process and given desultory practice, usually in the contexts of time and money. Obviously, language learning is more than learning to count in a language and all forms of language need to be practiced.

Read the sentence marked (A) again. Your eyes smoothly (and quickly) ran over the list of numbers. Now read the following sentence:

(B) There are about thirty commonly used numbers which combine to form all the others: one to twenty; thirty, forty…a hundred; a thousand, a million, a billion.

This was a lot more difficult. Now read the sentence (A) aloud. Even more difficult. Here is the particular struggle which makes the practice of numbers unique. When we read and write numbers, we (should) always use digits, and these are not processed linguistically. When we say and hear numbers, we do it in words.

For the Academic Writing Centre, speaking and listening are not the main focus. However, academics often collaborate, discuss and present their work orally. They may also struggle with the numerical part of this, and, therefore, it is worth spending time on.

The most important thing to remember is that when practicing numbers it needs to be done aloud.

The most important thing to remember is that when practicing numbers it needs to be done aloud.

That’s not a typo, I wrote it twice. Below are some activities you can do to practice numbers, but if the numbers are not spoken aloud then the practice is not effective. You understand the numbers perfectly well; it’s about producing them. Listening is also an issue, but generally receptive skills (i.e. listening and reading) are more straightforward than productive skills (i.e. writing and speaking) so if you practice the latter the former will also improve.

A couple of points before the activities. The mark “.” has different names depending on the context. (I don’t know why.)

HSE.ru (dot)
Look at the end of the sentence. (full stop BrE; period AmE)
3.141 (point)

With decimals, each digit is said separately, three-point-one-four-one.

For writing there are (old-fashioned) rules that say numbers less than 10 should be written as words, and that you shouldn’t start a sentence with a number. I disagree with both of these, but you will see some publications following them. The golden rule is, as always, follow the journal. Similarly for symbols (%, $ etc.), for me they are easier to process than per cent (BrE) percent (AmE) or dollars.

The activities here are based on generating random numbers and saying them aloud. For more personalized numbers use such examples as your phone number, birthday, as well as the numbers that are relevant to your area of work.

Number snake

Use 2 ordinary dice, (or 1 ten-sided dice). Roll the dice, write down and SAY the number. (If 10, 11 or 12 is rolled, use the last digit. This is not as statistically fair as a ten-sided dice, but close enough.) Roll the dice again, add the digit to the right of the first number and SAY the new number.

Example:

  • first roll 7, write “7” and say “seven”.
  • second roll 3, writes 73, and says “seventy-three”.
  • third roll 11, writes 731, and says “seven hundred and thirty-one”.

Continue until you have a 9-digit number (“seven hundred and thirty-one million…”)

Variation: alternate adding the new numbers before and after (i.e. the third turn above would be 173).

Playing cards

Deal 4 cards (picture cards are 0) and say the number. Deal another 4 cards and make 2 sentences comparing the numbers: 1,234 is smaller than 5,678. Or 5,678 is bigger than 1,234.

Variation: add (or subtract) the numbers.

Read your work aloud

This is good practice and a useful editing step. Don’t skip the numbers.

Say it aloud

Numbers are everywhere. Look around you and SAY the numbers you see. You can say them in your head, but make sure you are saying the full number. One way to help that is to put it in a simple sentence: “that is building number 34”; “that coffee costs 150 rubles”; “the car number plate is 187.”

Main points:

  • Numbers are simple but not easy.
  • Numbers need constant repetition.
  • Numbers must be heard and said aloud.

By David Connolly

AWC consultant, teacher, editor and translator. He has worked on over 500 academic papers, preprints and presentations covering subjects from mathematics to management, folk music to finance, linguistics to law and everything in between.

The Academic Writing Center at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow, provides writing support to everyone involved in research.

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