Lesson Tutor: ASL Past Tense Lesson Plan

American Sign Language (ASL) and Signed English (SE)
Series 3 Lesson 9: Past Tense
By Elaine Ernst Schneider

In asl /english there are time indicators like today, tomorrow, last night, next year. etc… ‘I will go to the store tomorrow’ is English word order. In asl, does the ‘tomorrow’ come first and then ‘store go to I will’ or ‘tomorrow go store will I’? I am not sure which is first. MaryRather than answer your question off the top of my head, I have gone to The American Sign Language Phrase Book by Lou Fant. I will quote him but also add in some explanation. My words will be in brackets. Here is what Fant has to say about Time Indicators: 

“In order to sign the equivalent of ‘I saw you,’ it is necessary to use a time indicator. One may use signs that
will place the event in a specific time, such as ‘yesterday,’ ‘last night,’ or ‘this morning.’

[These phrases would come at the beginning of the sentence.] 

One may also use the “finish” sign [after the verb] to indicate no specific time, simply the past. 

[Most deaf that I know use the “finish” sign to indicate that the activity has just been completed.] 

The ‘past’ sign may be used instead of the ‘finish’ sign, which conveys slightly more information.

[Use of this sign usually indicates something completed further back in time than when using the ‘finish’ sign.] 

For a nonspecific future time, use the “will” sign. Notice that nonspecific time indicators such as ‘finish’ and ‘will’ usually follow the verb; however, they may come before the verb as well. Specific time indicators, on the other other hand, always come at the beginning of a statement. Context is used a great deal in ASL when establishing or determining tense. For instance, the signer may tell the watcher about an incident that occurred sometime in the past or that will occur in the future. The signer will first establish the time of the incident by using a time indicator sign; then the signer will never repeat the time indicator sign or use any additional ones. The watcher knows that all the events described by the signer occur in the time frame established at the beginning of the statement.” 

That’s a nice little summary by Lou Fant, don’t you think? I hope the info begins to answer some of your “time” questions. You might want to consider getting this book. I find it invaluable. Good luck in your ASL studies!!


picture of asl sign for 'tell'
picture of asl sign for 'finish'
'him' or 'her' in sign language pictures

Did you tell him/her?

diagram to show 'tell' in sign language
picture of 'finish' in asl

I told him/her.
Now you try:

  1. Did you eat your banana? I ate it.
  2. Did you drive to school? I drove.
  3. Did you sing in church? I sang.

Need to review your signs? Look them up in the Vocabulary Index Here 

'past' in sign language
waaaay past, or long ago, in asl.
long ago, in the past

Combination phrases:

combination phrase: ' last week' in a single sign for asl
'last year' in asl
last week
last year


Signs Description of Sign Action
finish Hold open hands (fingers spread) in front of chest, palms facing inward. With a sudden movement, rotate wrists so that palms face outward.
him/her Point in the direction of where someone is located. If no one is there, point to an “imaginary” person.
last week Place the back of a right “1” hand in the upward turned palm of the left hand. Then move the right hand to the right shoulder, symbolizing throwing the spent week over your shoulder. Note: To show 2 weeks ago, make a 2 with the right hand; for 3 weeks, use the sign for 3, etc. as the right hand moves to the shoulder.
last year Make an abbreviated sign for “year” (touch the “S” hands together). Then move the right hand to the right shoulder, opening the fingers during the movement. This symbolizing a year that has been thrown away (over the shoulder). Note: To show 2 years ago, make a 2 with the right hand; for 3 years, use the sign for 3, etc. as the right hand moves to the shoulder.
long ago, in the past Hands alternate back over the shoulder.
past Move the right flat hand backward over the right shoulder and “wave” slightly as if throwing the past behind you.
tell Use a right “d” hand to visually move the spoken word from the mouth into the air.

Continue on to ASL Lesson 10 – Opposites – click here.

Series 3 of our ASL lessons is available in a single, print-friendly file in our Shop@LT.
Submitted by: Elaine Ernst Schneider entered the classroom as a special education teacher in the 1970’s. Since then, she has taught mainstream English Grammar, Literature, music K-12, deaf education, psychology, Algebra, creative writing, social studies, law, and science in both public and private schools. Presently, Elaine is a curriculum author for multiple educational publishers and is the managing editor of Lesson Tutor, a lesson plan website found at https://www.lessontutor.com. Her most recent books, 52 Children’s Moments (Synergy Publications) and Taking Hearing Impairment to School (JayJo Books and the Guidance Channel) can be found at Amazon.com. She is currently working on a project with Pearson Prentice Hall as an author of an on-line teacher’s professional development course for the Council for Exceptional Children.
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