What is time? How to tell the time?

Being able to tell the time is a necessary skill. But what is time and how do you tell the time?

We often use clocks on our mobile phones or computers or digital watches. These tell us the time by showing us easy-to-understand numerals. However, we can rely on them only as long as the is electricity needed to power them is available. But what if there isn’t? Well, we can rely on an old-time invention called the analog clock, but we need to learn how.

It’s important to understand what the numbers on the clock mean to help you to learn to tell time.

one year in time

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user WillowW.

What is time?

In analog clocks, the “clock face” or the dial of clock will only show time between 1 and 12, always in the position shown in the picture. Since the day is 24 hours long (or 2 times 12), our day is divided into two parts: before noon or a.m. and afternoon or p.m.

The analog clock has three hands (the thin, pointy thingies of different lengths and widths). The shortest hand of the watch shows the number of hours.

Minute hand

What happens when we want to find out how much time has passed since it was 11? Or how long do we have to wait until it’s 12? For this we need to introduce the minute hand.

telling time

The second longest hand shows us the number of minutes that have passed since the last full hour, or, in other words, since this hand was pointing directly at the number 12.

There are 60 minutes in an hour, and since the clock face is divided into 12 parts, exactly 5 minutes pass between the hand pointing at one number and the hand pointing at the next largest number.

This means that, when the minute hand is on 8, we know that 40 (8 times 5 is 40) minutes have passed since the last full hour. So if the hour hand (the shortest one) is at 11 and the minute had is pointing at 8, we know that it is 11:40 (a.m. or p.m.).

how to tell time

Seconds hand

If we want to get even more precise, we’ll observe the longest, thinnest hand, or the “seconds hand”.

The seconds hand shows the number of seconds that passed since the last full minute (when the second hand was pointing at 12). In this example, the hand is pointing at the number 4. If we multiply it by 5, we’ll get the number of seconds: 20 seconds.


This means that our watch is showing 11 hours, 40 minutes and 20 seconds.

Telling time

Let’s do an example! Here is how to tell time. Let’s say that it’s evening (which is p.m.) and you want to know what time is it.

The smallest hand (or the hour hand) of this watch is between 9 and 8, which means that it’s between 8 pm and 9 pm.

The mid-size hand is between 4 and 5, which means we’ll multiply 4 with 5 and add the number of the little lines between the last numeral the hand has passed and the one the hand is pointing to (including that line as well).

The longest hand (the seconds hand) is between 1 and 2, which means that we’ll multiply 1 by 5 and add the required number of lines.

So, when we take everything into account, we can see that the time is 8:22:07 pm.
If you’d like to practice a little bit more, please use the free worksheets. :)