Putting the Story into History – the importance of Chronology

Posted in History, Knste Blog 1

If History can be viewed as a story, a narrative through time, then chronology is the coherent thread that we need to make sense of that story. Chronology enables pupils to carefully place their learning within the bigger picture, make connections and build upon their existing knowledge of significant people and events. Without an understanding of chronology then both substantive and disciplinary knowledge in History will be limited.

An important key concept in Primary History, Chronology should be used as an organisational tool to support our pupils’ in developing their understanding of the past. Whether you are adopting an enquiry based approach, teaching the subject discretely or using History as the driving force in a cross-curricular unit of work, using chronology to underpin teaching and learning will enhance pupil outcomes and attainment. Chronology must therefore be seen as an ongoing process in pupil learning in History that will grow and develop alongside the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Using the language of story with the pupils can really aid that process: “We are going to be learning the story of the Vikings. We don’t have time to learn the whole story, but we are going to zoom in on a couple of key chapters.”

A key resource that primary teachers can use to support them in their teaching of chronology is the purposeful use of timelines. In my years as History lead in my own school I had always advocated the use of timelines and proudly displayed one on a washing line in my classroom for each of my History topics. It was referenced in lessons during the topic and used as an aid to remember key dates and events. But on reflection, did I make the best use out the timeline? Or was its primary purpose for display rather than as an essential teaching and learning tool?

An analogy that I heard recently that really struck a chord was “Can you imagine teaching Geography without using maps?” We use maps purposefully and consistently in Geography to teach both knowledge and skills. We should attach the same significance to timelines in History. Timelines help us to scaffold, recap and promote a really clear understanding of the different periods of History that we teach in the primary school, both the overall narrative and the internal narrative of the period being studied. Using timelines for both of these purposes really reinforces how they fit together to build that complete narrative. (Tiffany, 2021)

The Ofsted Primary History Research Review (2021) stated that pupils should acquire a ‘mental timeline’ of the past. However, we cannot expect our pupils to be able to read and understand timelines without explicitly teaching this skill first, just like how we would teach our pupils how to read a map or a graph.

Here are some useful tips for using and teaching with timelines effectively in the classroom:

Thinking through the content of the timeline is important – is the scale of the numbers used suitable in terms of the age of the pupils and their understanding? Is the labelling clear? Are the dates and events pertinent to the key concepts and learning taught through the topic? There are many ready-made timelines available from a number of teaching websites, but it is worth checking if they are fit for purpose before printing them off and laminating them!

A timeline should be introduced right at the beginning of the teaching sequence. This will allow for the building of coherence. Lots of context is needed to set the scene as it can be very difficult for pupils, especially Key Stage One pupils, to imagine a world that existed before they did. It should then be referenced throughout the topic as substantive knowledge is acquired.

Allow pupils to construct their own timelines of their lives so far. These lines can be extended to take in the lives of both parents and grand-parents. This activity is useful in that it begins to develop the ideas that time existed before the pupil was born, thereby developing chronological understanding and allowing pupils a practical reference tool for the coherent sequencing of their historical knowledge.

Ensure that pupils have access to a rich range of vocabulary associated with the passing of time. Developing the language of chronology is most important if pupils are to fully appreciate historical people, periods and events. (Hodkinson, 2012) The language of chronology includes:

  • Descriptive vocabulary - Before, After, A long time ago, A very long time ago, Ancient, Old, New, Decade, Century, Millennium, Modern.
  • Technical vocabulary - AD, BC, the use of the ‘nineteenth century’ for 1845.
  • Conceptual vocabulary - Change, Continuity, Sequence, Duration, Period, Chronology.

Finally, and as in all subjects, for learning to be embedded then knowledge needs to be revisited and recapped at every opportunity. Using techniques such as retrieval practice and spaced learning can really help to cement that chronological understanding.


Hodkinson, A. (2012) How to teach chronology in Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2. In TeachPrimary. Available online at https://www.teachprimary.com/learning_resources/view/how-to-teach-chronology-in-ks1-ks2
Ofsted (2021) History in Outstanding Primary Schools blog. Available at: https://educationinspection.blog.gov.uk/2021/04/27/history-in-outstanding-primary-schools/
Ofsted (2021) Research Review Series: History. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/research-review-series-history
Tiffany, S. (2021) The Effective use of Timelines in Primary History webinar, as part of the Historical Association Virtual Forum.

Kerry Howle, Personal Tutor.
Find out more about Kerry's background here: https://knste-shaw.org.uk/our-team/

  1. Di Swift
    | Reply

    Thanks Kerry – I enjoyed reading the blog, I particularly like the connection that you make that timelines are for history as maps are for geography- I hadn’t thought in that way before.

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