How to deliver excellent history lessons


Subject Leadership

16th October 2023

How to deliver excellent history lessons

Studying history helps children understand the world through shared and diverse human experiences and the subject forms an integral part of a broad and balanced primary curriculum. In this blog, our curriculum advisor and history expert, Al Ritchie, outlines ways to deliver excellent history lessons.

How to deliver excellent history lessons

History in primary education

History is a powerful foundation subject that is used as a main driver for many class topics and projects in primary education. Tim Jenner, HMI and Ofsted’s subject lead for history, asserts the important role the subject of history performs in his blog, ‘History in outstanding primary schools’: 

‘History is vital to a rich and broad primary education. It helps pupils to make sense of the present as well as the past, and to appreciate the complexity and diversity of human societies and development.’ (Tim Jenner, 2021) 

With such importance being placed on teaching history well, many people want to find the ‘secret recipe’ for delivering excellent lessons. A lot of advice is out there to support teachers whose expertise may be in different subjects or whose confidence in teaching history is a little low.  

What Ofsted defines as outstanding teaching 

Ofsted evaluates teaching with an emphasis on how it impacts children’s learning, and this means looking at whether lessons are engaging and motivating children and that they are making learning progress. Inspectors will speak to the children ‘to understand what pupils have learned and how their teachers help them to learn new curriculum content.’ (Ofsted school inspection handbook, 2023). 

Children learn and progress well when they participate in generating, analysing and evaluating the lesson content rather than passively listening; a teaching method referred to as active learning. Here are ways to consider how teaching is impacting learning: 

  • Are children highly engaged?   
  • Are children motivated?  
  • Do children make progress and does their learning ‘click’?   
  • Are children adequately challenged?   
  • Do children obviously enjoy the lesson?   
  • Do children make relevant, spontaneous comments, ask pertinent questions, engage in debate and offer ideas?   
  • Do children interact productively as they are learning?   
  • Do children show a keen interest in the tasks planned for them?   
  • Are children proud of their work? 
  • Do children understand the concepts of what they have learned? 
  • Are children eager to explain what they are doing and why?   

Ofsted’s School inspection handbook advises that teaching needs to be ‘sequenced so that new knowledge and skills build on what has been taught before and pupils can work towards clearly defined end points.’ (Ofsted, 2023). When planning lessons so that they follow the progression of knowledge and skills, the needs of individual children should also be addressed where appropriate. Finally, there needs to be flexibility to move with the needs of the class if the pitch of the lesson is too high or if the children have become disengaged. 

This all helps in a general sense but isn’t specific to history. So, what criteria should we add that is recommended for the teaching of history? 

Covering the knowledge and skills for history 

Susie Townsend is Senior Lecturer in History Education at the University of Roehampton, and she believes that to teach history well, lessons need to contain a combination of substantive knowledge, disciplinary knowledge and methods of enquiry. Once this has been considered, exciting and interesting activities can be introduced for the children that will cover all three areas. In her article ‘Back to basics: what does a good history lesson look like?’, Susie states that, while learning the subject knowledge is a key component of any history lesson, there are other factors that are essential to the teaching of history. This includes ‘how you make sense of the knowledge and link the ideas together to draw conclusions, make judgements and interpret the past.’ (Susie Townsend, 2020). 

Knowing the basic facts isn’t all there is to learning about history. It’s also about how those facts are meshed with other key concepts, such as context, significance, chronology and interpretation. Children can then use them to garner information to support their conclusions and help with understanding the past.  

Tim Jenner’s findings in his April 2021 report History in outstanding primary schools provide further key features of successful history lessons: 

• Introducing and consolidating appropriately challenging vocabulary in lessons 

• Continuously developing chronological knowledge to support children in understanding context in history and other areas of the curriculum 

• Carefully building up children’s knowledge of more abstract concepts of history, such as empire, tax, trade and invasion, which are difficult to fully comprehend but vital for learning about these substantive concepts 

Engaging children with history 

It is important to consider what engages children in learning history. In his transition training session ‘What makes good primary history?’ for The Historical Association, Dr Tim Lomas listed the following most popular features primary children report enjoying from their history lessons:  

  • Stories, including those told by the teacher 
  • Looking at people and what they did 
  • Sensational but human content, such as blood, dirt and gore 
  • Uplifting issues and dilemmas they can relate to as human beings  
  • Fascination with artefacts from the past – sometimes even mundane ones 
  • Active and challenging work with sources, such as historical pictures, videos and television programmes 
  • Links with their own life and experiences 
  • Engaging in the historical process, particularly practical activities such as fieldwork 
  • Engaging with depth work 
  • Local history work, especially associated with a visit, such as to a museum 
  • Family history 
  • Visitors 
  • Making models  
  • Creative writing, especially diaries, letters, stories and role play 


Planning high-quality, engaging history lessons can take time and expertise. It helps to take a step back and look at how children respond and progress in lessons so planning can be adjusted to meet their needs. Getting the right support as a teacher and knowing what support you need is essential.

Reviewing your history lessons

Use these questions to make an ‘at a glance’ assessment of your history lessons and identify areas where you would like support:

  • Can you see signs that children are actively learning and not just passively listening?
  • Are children engaging with the chosen history content and activities?
  • Do lessons contain a combination of substantive knowledge, disciplinary knowledge and methods of enquiry?
  • Are children given the opportunity to apply key concepts such as context, significance, chronology and interpretation when learning new history knowledge?
  • Would you appreciate more guidance and support with sequencing the knowledge and skills for history?
  • Would you benefit from having a range of adaptable history lesson plans?
  • Would you like to spend less time creating and producing resources?
  • Would it be helpful for you to have knowledge organisers for history projects?
  • Would you benefit from an integrated planning and assessment system for managing history?
  • Would you like to see previous coverage and attainment for history directly linked to planning and teaching?

How we can help you and your school 

At Cornerstones, we provide fully sequenced curriculum projects, resources and lesson plans alongside a live, integrated assessment system, giving you time to focus on teaching. You can also adapt and localise the curriculum projects to suit your children’s and school’s unique needs. Our history projects are part of the Cornerstones Curriculum, available through a whole curriculum or individual subject annual licences for Curriculum Maestro. 

If you want to learn more about our curriculum , click on the button below.

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