How to Teach Roman Numerals

Updated on January 27, 2017

Roman numerals are one of those things that everyone should learn but are rarely taught in school anymore. While there may seem to very little academic reason to learn this ancient and pretty impractical numbering system, Roman numerals actually make a great addition to math curriculum for any age. Being able to read Roman numerals also is part of being culturally literate, and they are fun.

Why Teach Roman Numerals?

Roman Numerals are still all over the place. The Super Bowl is numbered in Roman Numerals, movie sequels are often noted in Roman Numerals, pages in the preface or introduction of books, especially college textbooks are numbered in Roman numerals. Roman numerals are similar to the way numbers are understood in many other languages including Latin-based languages like French and Spanish, and Chinese. Why not? Learning new things is awesome and you never know when having an increasingly rare skill will come in handy.

Roman Numerals Teach Basic Math

Preschoolers who already know their numbers to ten or twenty are ready to learn Roman numerals. Children just learning basic math will also benefit from learning the Roman numerals because this system is all about counting, adding, and subtracting. Older children can also sharpen their math skills by dealing with the higher Roman numerals.

Entrance to the Colosseum

Roman Numerals Above the Entrance to the Colosseum in Rome
Roman Numerals Above the Entrance to the Colosseum in Rome | Source

Roman Numeral Table

Roman Numerals Follow an Easy to Understand Pattern
Roman Numerals Follow an Easy to Understand Pattern | Source

The Rules of Roman Numerals

In case you forgot, here is a quick rundown of the basic rules of Roman Numerals.

  • You Do Not Have More Than Three of The Same Numbers in a Row

Example: 3 is noted as III, but four is IV, not IIII

Example: 30 is XXX, 40 is XL, not XXXX

  • You Subtract to the Left and Add to the Right of the Biggest Numeral within the Numeral

Example: 4 is IV or 5 – 1

Example: 7 is VII or 5 + 1 +1

Example: 75 is LXXV or 50 + 25 (10 +10+5)

Numerals or Numbers?

Have you noticed are have been referring to Roman numerals and not numbers? Why?

The Romans used the same numbers as everyone else. Numbers are the abstract concept represented by the symbol of the numeral, the.

Numerals are just the way the number is notated. We commonly use Arabic numerals or 1, 2, 3, . . . These things are not actually numbers; they are simply representations of the concept of a number.

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A Roman Numeral Riddle

One morning at a cafe five Roman soldiers went to a cafe. None of the soldiers spoke the same language as the waiter. One soldier held up two fingers to the waiter and moments later all the soldiers had drinks. How is this possible? (Find the answer at the end of this article)

How to Teach

Just like teaching anything else, the more variety you use in your methods the deeper impact your lessons will have and the more fun everyone will have learning. Don’t be afraid to get silly. After all Roman Numerals are a little ridiculous.

Show and Tell

Roman Numerals make the most sense visually. Write them out on a whiteboard or a big poster. Let the kids have turns writing them too. We often learn best in the doing. Repetition and review are also key to retaining new information. You do not need to commit a lot of time to Roman numerals. Taking 15 minutes once or twice a week for several weeks will be enough to instill the basics for most children.

Counting with Roman Numbers

Kids like to be loud, especially in environments where they are always being told to be quiet. Try having everyone stand up and shout count the numbers from I to XX. It is guaranteed to bring a smile to every face. This technique works on three levels. The children learn by hearing the numbers, they reinforce their learning by speaking (or shouting), and they associate the learning with feeling happy, a great way to grow strong synaptic connections.

Roman Number Scavenger Hunt

Create a bunch of Roman numerals and hide them in the house, or at a park. You can also attaché them to different items. Then give the children a sheet with Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3 etc.) and have them write down what the corresponding Roman numeral is attached to.

Identify Roman Numbers in Real Life

Bring in some examples of Roman numerals used in real life. Get out a Copy Star Wars Episode II, or find some old Super Bowl Logos. Movies also sometimes use Roman numerals in the credits to indicate the year the film was produced. Have the children identify what number the numeral signifies. Make it a game. Have the children be on the lookout for Roman numerals and let them report back when they find any.

What Numeral is This?

2013 in Roman Numerals
2013 in Roman Numerals | Source

Final Thoughts

There is too much knowledge in the world to learn everything. But Roman numerals are part of our cultural heritage, they are still in actual use, they teach basic math facts, and they are fun. Learning Roman numerals may or may not improve a child’s chances of getting into Harvard, but if they are eventually going to earn LOL and IDK, they might as well learn III and LXXV.

I'll Take "V" Please


Roman Numeral Riddle Answer

The soldier held up two fingers making the shape of a "V" of the Roman Numeral meaning "5".

Questions & Answers

    © 2013 Jason McBride


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