Anchor Standard #8 ASL Tense
Benchmark #1 ASL Tense Concept Development

Even though this is an introduction to basic tense, we should not underestimate how complex “conjugating time” in grammar can be. In basic terms, tense tells us when the predicate is occurring. In order to get to this level of understanding, it is essential that we are clear and consistent. We will work to showcase tense in accessible, visual terms.

OBJECTIVE Organize events in time characterized by WHAT HAPPENED predicates according to three larger categories: events occurring NOW, events having occurred BEFORE NOW, and events that will occur AFTER NOW.



Teacher Note:

This lesson, and those that follow, will lay the foundation for how to understand and organize events in time using a procedure that will create a clear and unambiguous system for understanding tense. For now, we will avoid using the label “tense.” However, when we do introduce the idea, we will spell T-E-N-S-E (we will urge you not to sign TIME).  Our job is to find out WHEN the predicate occurs – this is our definition of tense. Getting there will take multiple steps. This objective is long and will take some time to complete. It is worth the investment as, once this foundation is laid, the concept of TENSE should be readily accessible.



Lesson Materials:

  • LCD projector
  • Time Line accessible to the entire room.
  • Activity examples to share
  • Props from Activity sheets
  • Cards for Visual Activity Schedules


Lesson Procedure:

Benchmark #1 ASL Tense Concept Development

ASL Formative Assessment AS #8, Benchmark #1

On the floor, lay out a time line with markers that represent a linear progression (see below). Ensure that each marker is large enough to stand on. You can laminate the PDF images provided for you and attach them to larger pieces of paper in order to create a “Zone” large enough to stand on. The Zones should be arranged on the floor in a pattern similar to the image shown below. Each Zone will showcase BEFORE-NOW, occurring right NOW, and AFTER-NOW, respectively.

As you stand on each Zone, reinforce the rule that you can only “face forward” (i.e., towards the future, or AFTER-NOW). Start in the occurring NOW Zone and clearly describe what each zone means according to the following guideline:

  • NOW is reserved for events/conditions that are occurring at this moment (i.e., you can see them happening currently).

Next, walk backwards to the BEFORE-NOW Zone (remember, you can only face forward).

  • BEFORE NOW is reserved for events/conditions that are finished occurring (even 1 second ago!).

Next, go back to the NOW Zone. Repeat that this Zone is reserved for events/conditions that are occurring at this moment. We must be able to see them happening currently.

Finally, walk forward to the AFTER-NOW Zone (again, always facing forward).

  • AFTER-NOW is reserved for events/conditions that have not yet occurred (this even applies to events that will occur only 1 second from now).

Ask each students to come up and repeat your sequence. As they do, ask them to describe, in their own words, what each Zone means. Remind them to always face the future! Check to make sure everyone is clear about what each zone represents.

Next, play the following video to reinforce our concept. As each tense label is shown, (1) pause the video, (2) have students note the labels, and (3) ask them to point to the appropriate Tense Zone.

ASL Tense Labels

This activity will be a fun exercise where student volunteers will see randomly presented ASL labels. As they see each label they will have to  move to the corresponding Tense Zone (always facing forward). There are two examples so that you can “change up” the options for each volunteer.



Teacher Note:

Before you begin this next part of the procedure, it will be more effective if you recruit an adult volunteer. Review the idea and the expectations with the adult before teaching it to your class.

Applied Events in Time

The next step will include you and your adult volunteer introducing the idea of events in time. Bring your adult volunteer up to the front of the room. Show your volunteer and your students one of the Visual Activity Schedules (you should project it/display it so that it is large enough for everyone to see clearly).

Visual activity schedules should have a series of clearly represented activities (i.e., predicates) indicated by images. An example is provided here and is downloadable  in the PDF materials below.

In the example above, there are 3 separate activities: (1) jumping jacks, (2) dancing, and (3) throwing a ball.  Ask the adult volunteer to demonstrate each activity. As each activity is being performed, point to the appropriate image on the sheet. Ask students to articulate the predicate of each activity.



Teacher Note: It is important to notice that all of these examples include WHAT HAPPENED predicates. This choice is intentional. It reflects an easy access point that will be leveraged as we introduce sentences with HAS and DESCRIBING predicates later. If you choose to create new activity sheets (and you should), remember to choose actions with movements that are observable. At this point, it will often be the case that the answer to “What is the predicate?” will most likely be a single verb. This is fine for now as verbs are the essential component of any predicate.

Have your adult volunteer, once again, proceed through a demonstration of the 3 activities. As they are engaging in the activity, point to its representation on the Activity Sheet.

One at a time, ask students to come up and do the same. In other words, as your volunteer proceeds through all three activities, students will point to each activity as it happens. Have students who are not currently volunteers name the activity. Ensure that everyone is clear about the sheet and the activities it showcases.

It is recommended that you video-record the sequence of activities that your volunteer performs so that you can refer to it again in the future. Remember, if you are using a phone or iPad for any recording, landscape mode is always preferred.

Working With the Time Line

 Next, refer back to the time line you introduced earlier. Once again, ask students to review what each Zone indicates relative to time. In this portion of the activity, you will be asking students to integrate the time line into your activity. We are about to engage more fully into the study of tense! As a result, you will need another adult volunteer!


Refer to the same Visual Activity Sheet on the board and prepare your adult volunteers for their roles. One will be performing these activities, another will be classifying them as occurring BEFORE-NOW, HAPPENING NOW, or AFTER-NOW.

Explain to students that, after the demonstration, you will be asking them to make decisions about when on the time line each of the three events occurs: BEFORE-NOW, HAPPENING NOW, or AFTER-NOW?



In this step, while the adult volunteer #1 is performing their activities, you will point to one of the three images on the activity sheet and ask adult volunteer #2 to indicate where on the time line that event should be classified by signing the label “out loud.” You can certainly ask your students to be the activity volunteers if you feel they can do the job!

As you point to various activities, ask volunteer #2 the question, “WHEN is this happening?” Volunteer #2 will indicate their answer by moving to the appropriate Zone and signing the name of that Zone (remember, we must always face the future!).

For example, imagine that while the jumping jacks are occurring, you point to the “jumping jack” image and ask, “WHEN is this happening?” We would expect our volunteer to stand on the “HAPPENING NOW” zone and sign “NOW.” It is important to reinforce that only events that are visibly occurring right now are classified as HAPPENING NOW.

However, if the volunteer was currently “dancing” and we all saw that they had already finished jumping jacks, the answer changes! In this case, pointing to the “jumping jack” image while asking, “WHEN did this happen?” our volunteer must move to the “BEFORE NOW” zone and sign, “BEFORE NOW.”

Similarly, if our volunteer was currently “dancing” and you pointed to the “throwing” image, the answer to “WHEN did this happen?” requires that our volunteer to move to the “AFTER NOW” Zone and sign, “AFTER NOW.”

Talk about how our volunteers classified the events in time. If you are sure that this idea is clear to your students, repeat it using students as your volunteers. Use the same activity sheet so that everyone has the same context.  This will help to ensure that everyone understands how to use the sheets. Continue this procedure until all students have successfully showcased their ability to recognize how events in time are linked to the three Zones.

Once you have given everyone a chance to practice with the practice example sheet, have individual students apply this procedure to new examples. Other Visual Activity Sheets are provided as PDFs.

Teacher Note:


The options for these sheets are endless. It is recommended that new activity sheets be ready for each student. Feel free to generate more ideas that showcase visual and doable activities.

In order to accomplish all we want to in this objective, it will take a significant amount of time. It is critical that you are confident about your students’ concept of these three categories before moving on to the next objective.