Some studies show that autistic people may struggle with the perception of time. Remember, time can be abstract, so it is our responsibility to give it a concrete nature, make it visual, and give it tangibility. 

Learning what temporal words are and how to use them can help achieve this.

child learning and practicing his temporal words

What are temporal words?

Temporal words are transitional words that give a sentence a time frame. It allows a story to flow with meaning and context, telling when things are happening in a story. 

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One method I have used to teach temporal words is to accent the OR in “temp-OR-al” words. Then I  say that tempORal words are used to give a sentence some ORder.

The Child Does Not Use Temporal Words

There is an approximate age list for temporal words below. If your child is not using them appropriately by the expected age, it can indicate issues.

Of course, not every child behind their peers in some skill sets is autistic or learning disabled. But, if it accompanies other concerns, you may want to inquire about a speech evaluation or special education evaluation.


This is not a complete list of temporal words or all of the temporal words. But they are commonly used temporal word examples.

afterfirst, second, thirdyesterday
yesterdayat firstnow
meanwhileat lastnext week
finallyearlierlast week

How do temporal words and sequencing give context and meaning to a paragraph?

Let’s look at two side-by-side examples.

Without temporal words                                           With temporal words

I bought supplies for the party, but I needed to buy other things. The invitations went out. The people are invited. The visitors are bringing food. I can ask my cousin to help me. I hope I have everything in time for the party. 
Last month I bought supplies for the party. Then, I sent out invitations, and during that time, I asked several people to bring a plate of food. Suddenly, I realized I needed more supplies for the party. Tomorrow I will ask my cousin to pick up the other things I need. I know it will work fine because the party is not until next week. 

As you can see in the paragraph on the right, the situation is written with much more clarity.

There was a sequence to this party planning.

This party has been in the planning stages for a month, there was an order to how things were done, and the party isn’t until next week.

The paragraph on the left leaves out key points like how soon is this party. Is it today? Is there time to ask for help?

Temporal Words Examples

It is important to understand how our young ones begin to understand temporal language before they can be able to use it in their writing.

These ages are approximately when your child should understand the concepts of time and use temporal words.

Up until 18 months: Children understand the here and now. This is why toddlers express unhappiness and anger when they are told phrases like “we’ll go later” or “tomorrow.” They cannot process what that means, and they want it now.

18-24 months: may understand some past and future tense. Emotional regulation improves as they can put expectations in a time perspective, but they may still struggle to manage those emotions.

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30-36 months: The child should begin to use some temporal words for when an action/activity happened or will happen (yesterday, tomorrow). Use may be confusing to them. For example, a child may tell you, “My grandmother died yesterday,” which is quite alarming, right? The truth may be that she died two months ago. The child knows it happened in the past but cannot put it in the correct time frame.

36-52 months: Some of the child’s speech will incorporate temporal words more freely, and there is a better understanding of time segments.

It is important to note these are approximate ages in months and within that is the tendency to not always use the tenses appropriately.

Also, remember that as parents, we often overuse the word “later.” And other words, of course. But if a child can grasp that “later” means “not now,” then they are using the concepts. Some children need more use of direct language to be successful and not vague terms like “later.”

With that in mind, at what age can students begin to accurately use temporal words in their oral sentences and writing?

This can be taught orally as early as Kindergarten or First Grade. When a teacher reads a story aloud, they can point out the words that show when something is happening or will happen.

There are stories where teachers can count on their fingers to show if events are happening in a certain order. As this skill develops, a student can be given temporal words to be used in sentences within a paragraph.

This skill is very important to be stressed at an early age to prepare students for more complex writing in middle and high school. By then, it should be a natural progression for an essay.

Tools to teach temporal words 
Sand time
Written schedule
Visual schedule
Visual Timers

Vocabulary terms to use and implement in daily life
Next week
Next month

The use of sequencing can also help a child begin to understand these concepts. You can find more information on sequencing activities in that article.

In the article Using Self-Regulated Strategy Development for Written Expression with Students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, we read how those with ADHD struggle with writing assignments, especially in planning. Their language tends to be shorter as they struggle to express themselves fully. This informative study boasts the success of Self Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) for writing instruction.

Students with ADHD, autism, or NVLD may not have effective strategies and must be explicitly taught how to use temporal words.

It is important that scaffolding be effectively used with prompts, cues, and organizers. Depending on the grade-level temporal words should be taught, demonstrated, and used with examples, specifically shown in short paragraphs.

It should also be emphasized the relevance of temporal words in their writing. It must be demonstrated in good text, highlighted, shown its relevance, modeled, and then required of the student.

Another idea for using temporal words is to have them on place cards in the front of the room. When teaching a lesson, move those cards and put them in the order of what is being taught. For example:

Tomorrow, I will read you a story using temporal words. Then, I will have you circle the temporal words in the story.  Next, I will have you write 3 sentences that have temporal words. Finally, we will read them to the class.  Next week we will write longer stories and hang them up.  Next month we will learn a new writing skill.

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Linda Gilmartin is a high school special education teacher, an adjunct college professor for future teachers, and the Administrator of the social media group Transitioning Teens/Adults with Special Needs Life After High School, and Author of Transitioning Special Needs Teenagers and Adults. 

It is so important to start our new writers off on the right foot for their future success tomorrow.

We are publishing an ongoing set of articles to help parents better understand subsets of reading and literacy skills. Don’t miss the article on inflected endings or inflectional endings.

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