Ordinal numbers are anything but ordinary!

The other day, a Grade One teacher asked me to do a demonstration lesson on ordinal numbers. She wanted to see how I would approach it. I had to think for a moment because I have never explicitly taught ordinal numbers. Usually, by the time students get to me, they’ve already learned them. I just assumed it was something children picked up naturally; the evidence being my children who have fought many times, with lots of tears, over being first or second!

I became curious and wanted to know whether children’s understanding of ordinal numbers developed in the same way cardinal numbers did (to find out more about the development of cardinal numbers, read my earlier post here), so I did a bit of action research with my boys! See the video below.

As you can see, Oliver ( 3 and a half years old) knows the words for the ordinal numbers, but just like his development of cardinal numbers (see Learning to count…baby steps.), he has no understanding of what first or third actually means. Rory on the other hand (kindergarten) has a rational understanding and could count up to 18th before he found saying ‘th’ too hard (when is that front tooth going to grow in?!). I am pretty sure he hasn’t been taught ordinal counting in school and I know I haven’t taught it to him, so this result supports my initial hypothesis that children pick up ordinal numbers naturally!

So what could I add to a Grade one class then? Three things:

First (ha!): I can teach for understanding. Neither Rory nor Oliver could articulate what the difference was between cardinal or ordinal numbers. It is important to explain that cardinal numbers are for counting. Ordinal numbers are to describe positions. I emphasise this with the alliteration Counting-Cardinal….Ordering-Ordinal. Always embed this learning with real-life scenarios.

Second: Relate the ordinal words and symbols to patterns. Is there a rule we could use to know the ending of each ordinal number? The Grade Ones were great at seeing that every number ending in one, is first; two is second, three is third and all the rest end with a ‘th’ ending. We also discovered why the teen numbers don’t follow this rule. How silly would it be to say the twelvesecond position!

Third: Connect to cardinal numbers. Notice the similarities and differences in counting with both sets of numbers. In our video, we counted the people on the train, but then we described their order. Have a conversation with your child about when we would want to know the count and when we would want to know the position. A great example to use for this discussion is waiting in line for tickets to an event with a finite number of seats.

Techniques for teaching? Bring in the 100 chart, read step-by-step books and refer to the steps using ordinal numbers, role-play! What a fun lesson to act out: have a race, build a train, stand in line. Happy ordering!

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