How to tell time on a clock

To tell time on an analog clock, you look at where the hands are pointing. The short or small hand tells you the hour, the long or big hand tells you the minute of the current hour, and the thinnest hand indicates the seconds of the current minute.

Reading clocks is an important life skill since you see analog clocks and watches in your classroom, on people’s wrists, and in many public places. You never know when you will be without a digital watch or digital clock you have on your cell phone.

What is an analog clock?

An analog clock is a timekeeping device with numbers around the edge with hands that rotate around to indicate the time. We use clocks to see the elapsed time.

What is an analog clock

Anything that moves constantly is an analog, so the big round clock in your classroom with three sticks spinning around is called an analog clock.

When a typical analog clock shows the time is 8:22 and 5 seconds, it could mean 8:22 a. m. or 8:22 p. m. You cannot tell from an analog clock if the time is morning (a.m.) or afternoon (p.m.).

Most analog clocks will have three sticks mounted in the center that spin around the clock to tell you the time. These are called clock hands. These three hands are for the hours, minutes, and seconds.

Hour hand

The little hand is the hour hand. The hour hand tells you what hour it is. When the hour hand is between two numbers, it tells you we are between those two hours. The short hand or hour hand makes one full rotation around the dial in 12 hours.

Analog clock hour hand

Minute hand

The longer hand on the clock is called the minute hand. The long hand or minute hand moves around the circular dial one time in one hour.

Second hand

The very thin hand that is usually just as long as the minute hand is the second hand. It moves one time around the dial in one minute and indicates the seconds of each minute.

Analog clock dial

The hands of a clock are rotating around what we call the dial or clock face. Usually, the dial is marked with the numbers 1 through 12, with 12 at the top, 6 at the bottom, 9 on the far left, and 3 on the far right. The other numbers are in between those numbers.

All those numbered positions are the hour markers. Between the hour markers are four small marks, which each indicate one minute. Those same marks also indicate seconds.

On some clocks or watches, the Arabic numbers might be replaced with roman numerals, but reading the clock works the same.

How to read an analog clock

An analog clock is confusing because it has three layers, all stacked onto the dial.

One layer is the hours, which are the numbers only. The other two layers are the minutes and seconds – all the numbered positions and all the small marks in between.

To read an analog clock, begin with the hours. Look at the shortest hand only; this is the hour hand.

The hour hand will point directly at a number only 12 times in 12 hours. Most of the time, you will see it pointing between two numbers.

When the hour hand is pointed directly at a clock number, you know it is exactly that hour. When the hour hand is in between two hours, the number behind the hand is the current hour.

How to read an analog clock hour hand

For example, if the hand is past 1, then we are at some time between 1 o’clock and 2 o’clock. If the hand is past 3, then we have passed 3 o’clock and are approaching 4 o’clock.

Next, we determine the minutes. When measuring minutes or seconds, we have to multiply the printed numbers times 5:

  • 1 = 5
  • 2 = 10
  • 3 = 15
  • 4 = 20
  • 5 = 25
  • 6 = 30
  • 7 = 35
  • 8 = 40
  • 9 = 45
  • 10 = 50
  • 11 = 55
  • 12 = 60

When the minute hand is pointing to the 1, it indicates 5 minutes past the current hour.

Tell time on an analog clock minutes

If you divide the dial into four quarters, when the minute hand is pointing at the 12, it is a new hour. When it points at the 3, we are a quarter past the hour.

When the minute hand points at the 6, it is two-quarters past, but we say half past the hour because this minute hand is half-way around the dial. This is equal to one-half hour of elapsed time.

When it is pointing to the first little marker between the 1 and the 2, it indicates that it is 6 minutes past the current hour.

The second hand works the same way. It just indicates seconds instead of minutes, and when it has made one full rotation around the clock, it indicates one minute has elapsed.

How to read a watch without numbers

Some very fancy watches do not use the printed numbers. You are expected to know what the bolder marks mean. Telling time on watches without numbers works the same way as a clock with numbers. Just pretend the numbers are there and decide where the hands are pointing.

At first, memorizing the positions and numbers may seem hard, but you can learn how to tell time without needing the numbers if you practice.

Practice telling time

In our example below, the hour hand has gone past the 8 but is not yet on the 9. What hour is it according to this clock?

Tell time on a clock example

We know we are in the 8 o’clock hour.

After determining the hour, we need to know the minutes after the start of that hour. We look at the longest hand (the big hand), which will move much faster than the hour hand. We use our mental math to multiply those printed numbers times 5, or we count the small marks between the numbers.

In our example clock, the minute hand is two marks past the 4. What Is 4 × 5? The answer is 20.

Add 2 for the two marks, and we have 22 minutes after the hour.

The hour was 8 o’clock, so we are at 8:22. Remember, we have no way of knowing if the clock is showing morning or evening time.

Last are the seconds. Reading the seconds on an analog clock is tricky because the second hand moves very fast. In our example, the second hand is sweeping just past the 1. We know that 1 × 5 = 5.

The clock is showing 5 seconds past the minute, so our clock time is 8:22 and 5 seconds.

This can be written as 08:22:05.

What you learned:

After working your way through this lesson and video, you have learned:

  • The definition of an analog clock
  • What the hour, minute, and second hands are
  • How to tell time by reading an analog clock
  • How to read a watch without numbers
Instructor: Malcolm M.
Malcolm has a Master's Degree in education and holds four teaching certificates. He has been a public school teacher for 27 years, including 15 years as a mathematics teacher.

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