We just wrapped up a unit on before and after in one of my classrooms. These concept words are tricky because they are more abstract than some of the spatial concepts. It’s hard to draw a picture of “before” without drawing on preexisting knowledge of what is supposed to happen next; similarly with “after”, a student needs to have sequencing ability in order to understand most of the examples that come to mind.

But never let it be said that I backed down from a fight because something was hard. We learned before AND after this month! And we had fun while we did it!

The simplest ways I found to help students understand before/after had to do with familiar sequences. We started with a number line, 1-10, and me asking the simple question “What number comes after ______?” What number comes after 1? What number comes after 2? What number comes after 3?

Once students understood the concept of “after,” we moved on to “before.” I explained that using the word “after” was like going forwards. “Before” is like going backwards. With an alphabet line (letters written in order from A-Z) I asked the same kind of questions. What letter comes before C? What letter comes before F? I used the visual to point to the letter in question, and students were allowed to point to their answers. (Some of my students don’t know all of their letters, and I wanted to see if they could understand the word “before” independent of whether they can say the letter names).

We also used the daily schedule in the wall to practice using before/after. What do you do AFTER lunch? What do you do BEFORE you go home? These questions, relating to their familiar routine, really helped the students to connect the words with their real-life meaning. In order to learn and use new words, they must be connected to real life. Using the schedule was a great way to do this.

Any book with a sequence could be used to talk about before/after. Here are a few we used:

The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carl. This book has become a staple of the modern children’s library, and for good reason. The colorful artwork, the predictable yet fun sequence, the life cycle of a caterpillar, and the simple language all make it ideal. The version I used was also bilingual Spanish/English, which engaged my kids immediately. My Spanish accent is good enough to pull off single words, so I supplemented my reading with the Spanish as I was able. What did the caterpillar eat before the plums? What did he eat after the oranges?

The Secret Birthday Message, by Eric Carl. Another Eric Carl book. This one follows a boy who gets a mysterious letter, with directions for a treasure hunt. I asked lots of questions about the sequence of the book (What did he do before he went in the cave? What did he see after he went up the ladder?). After the book, we went on our own treasure hunt around the school. Such fun!

Pancakes, Pancakes! by Eric Carl. Yes, all of the books I used were by Eric Carl. This one was the sequence of Jack, a boy who wanted to eat pancakes for breakfast. Before he could eat them, he needed to get flour, and after that some milk, and after that make some butter, and after that make a fire… you get the idea. We drew pictures of our favorite pancakes after we sorted out the sequence from the book.