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A matter of time

Alan Hodkinson suggests fun, fast-paced activities that reinforce chronological understanding

It's common to be presented with misconceptions in pupils' historical knowledge caused by their poor understanding of chronology. For example, a pupil once asked me, "What did you do in World War One?"

Now, a stressful teaching career may have aged me beyond my years, but I would expect a child to realise I couldn't have been around in 1918.

However, if chronology is carefully planned for and reinforced through fast-paced, fun activities, pupils can - and do - develop this important concept. Take the Year 4 pupil who said: "Sir, I used to think that the Romans and Victorians lived within a few years of each other, because you told us they both had good sewerage systems. I now know this can't be right because of the timeline thingeo (sic) on the wall. It told me there was about 1,500 years between these two periods, and nobody can live that long, not even you Sir, so the Romans couldn't have been involved in building the Victorian sewers."

Chronology is the air that history breathes and without it historical understanding will remain limited. It is important because it helps make sense of the past by defining, at the very least, cause and effect relationships. Chronological understanding also enables pupils to place their learning within the "bigger picture" and better remember historical people, periods and events.

Teaching chronology is statutory within the national curriculum and key stage 1 pupils should be aware of terms that describe the passing of time and be able to place events and objects in chronological order.

Furthermore, they should be aware of a past beyond living memory. Early in KS2, pupils should develop an awareness of chronology, be able to employ dates and terms to describe the past, and realise that the past can be divided into periods. Later in KS2, pupils should produce work making appropriate use of dates and terms such as ancient, modern, ad, bc, century and decade.

The teaching of chronology can't be left to chance and should be considered within a school's long, medium and short-term planning. Pupils should be involved as active agents in their own learning by joining in co-operative, multi-sensory activities that facilitate discussion of temporal vocabulary and concepts at increasingly complex levels.

At KS2, for example, a lesson on "invaders and settlers" may include three phases. First, lively timeline activities should aim to promote chronological understanding by locating peoples such as the Anglo- Saxons, Romans and Vikings within the correct temporal framework. Second, during the development phase, "time language" should be reinforced and the content of this study unit addressed.

Pupils might also employ ICT resources to construct a timeline of, say, the Roman invasion and settlement of Britain. Finally, the plenary provides opportunities to address temporal misconceptions and develop specific vocabulary, such as ad, bc bce and century.


* Don't: underestimate pupils' capabilities; solely employ the phrases "a long time ago" and "a very long time ago"; be afraid to use dates to locate specific people, events and periods in time.

* Do: consistently employ timelines; use accurate temporal vocabulary; make time links to all the study units the children cover; ensure that learning is lively and fun.

Dr Alan Hodkinson is a member of the Historical

Association's primary committee. He helped Schofield and Sims and Oxford Cartographers develop a History Timeline Poster, pound;3.99 from

Lesson ideas

Old and new sorting

Ask children to bring in objects, then discuss the differences between them and divide them between hoops labelled "old" and "new".

Sequencing objects Ask pupils to organise four objects, such as toys, with the oldest on the left through to the newest on the right.

All about me

Children and teachers could bring in photos of themselves as babies and as they are now. Discuss these and make booklets to illustrate the differences between the photos. Jack's Basket by Alison Cately supports this activity.

Chronology walks

Ask pupils to walk around a locality taking photos of old and new objects, such as telephone boxes and houses, to use later for sequencing work.

History stories

KS1 study units contain details of historical figures. Pupils can listen to these life stories and sequence the events of these people's lives.

Personal timeline

Ask pupils to construct a personal timeline, employing some dates as reference points. Place photos of events, such as birthdays and their first day at school on the timeline. These lines can extend to take in the lives of parents and grandparents.

Class timeline

Using a computer and scanner, make a set of cards which includes people from your life and that of the school's. Each card should contain dates of births, marriages, and so on. Ask pupils to place the cards in sequence on to a large timeline using each datein turn.

These activities can be made more challenging by adding people or historical periods and events, such as those indicated in the national curriculum. Fast-paced games can be used where pupils sequence the cards on the timeline using given criteria (eg people born in the 1900s).

Eventually, bc timelines, and "people and events" cards can be used.

Assembly timeline

Construct a timeline and place it in the school hall. During assemblies, children can watch year groups bring out their history work and sequence it on the timeline while discussing some aspects of the period.

Human timeline

Give pupils "people cards" (ad, bc or a combination of both), then ask them to organise themselves into a human timeline using the birthdates on the cards.

Time snap

Give pupils "people and event cards" with various dates on them. At a basic level, a "snap" occurs when the same card is seen. Later, a "snap" may also occur for cards within the same decade or century. This game fosters discussion about time, especially when pupils argue why their card is a "snap", as opposed to those selected by their peers.


The Teaching of History in Primary Schools

By Hilary Cooper

David Fulton pound;18

Time and Timelines in the Primary School

By Pat Hoodless

The Historical Association pound;5

"Enhancing temporal cognition: practical activities for the primary curriculum"

Primary History, issue 28

* Pictorial Charts Educational Trust has a range of timelines, costing Pounds 10.28 each (incl VAT)

* LCP History Resource Files cost pound;89.95 (file and flipbook) and Pounds 129.95 (file, flipbook and CD)

* Interactive Map of World History Junior Edition CD-Rom costs from Pounds 49.50 for a single-user licence to pound;199.50 for a sitenetwork licence

* Innovating with History

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