Knowledge Organisers: What They Are And How To Use Them In KS1 and KS2

Knowledge organisers, a tool whose origins lie in secondary education, have slowly been making their way into primary schools across the country. This article looks at their history, purpose and relevance in primary school teaching and education especially in the context of KS1 and KS2 maths.

What are knowledge organisers?

Knowledge organisers are a summary of the key facts and information that pupils need about a unit of work or a curriculum subject. They should be no more than one side of A4 with all the information broken down into easily digestible chunks.

The single side of A4 is important in order to focus the minds of the teachers creating them so they only include the crucial information. It is easy for knowledge organisers to become overwhelmingly full of information which then renders them useless.

Knowledge organisers can be used for any subject or year group, from the humanities such as history and English to maths and science.

It is also important to state what a knowledge organiser is not: they are not a curriculum and they will never replace the expert teacher. It’s best to think of them as tools to help teachers enact a curriculum. 

Who uses knowledge organisers

Knowledge organisers can be a valuable tool for both children, staff and parents. Class teachers are usually the ones who write the knowledge organiser, to set out their expectations of what pupils should learn about a topic – and to clarify their own thinking around what is important.

School leaders, headteachers and subject leaders then may look at a series of knowledge organisers to check for progression and continuity both within and across curriculum subjects and to ensure standards and expectations for learning are being implemented, and if not, what CPD is required.

Pupils will review, revise and quiz themselves using their knowledge organisers.

And finally knowledge organisers are a really clear and easy to understand way for parents to be more aware of what their children are learning at primary school and thus to support them.

Knowledge organiser templates and examples

Accompanying this blog post we’ve included a sample Year 6 Maths Knowledge Organiser. We’ve done this to give you a headstart when creating your own. Other knowledge organiser templates are available online however we encourage you to take a critical approach to these.

When you download anyone else’s knowledge organiser that it will need adapting for your own school curriculum and the unit of work you are teaching.

What to include on a knowledge organiser?

The contents of a knowledge organiser are entirely subject and year group dependent; while a KS1 knowledge organiser for phonics might simply include all the different phonemes to learn, a KS2 knowledge organiser is likely to be a lot more complex as fits the age of the learner and the information to be studied.

Year 5 Knowledge Organiser Reach Academy
Example of a Year 5 Knowledge Organiser from Reach Academy

Features common to all knowledge organisers

There is of course some information that may be found be found across knowledge organisers in all subjects

  • key vocabulary (in maths make sure to use appropriate mathematical language by using this maths vocabulary list)
  • key places and people
  • useful diagrams (as required for the topic)
  • key dates for a subject like history (e.g. when the two World Wars were) would clearly also be included
  • key themes – essential for any Key Stage 2 reading work
  • important quotes (that demonstrate those themes)
  • stem sentences for a subject like Maths

KS2 Maths Knowledge Organiser for SATs

Help your Year 6 pupils prepare for SATs with this fantastic knowledge organiser created by Sophie Bartlett.

Knowledge organisers used to be most common for humanities subjects, at GCSE/A-Level. While there has been a recent increase in use of knowledge organisers in teaching primary maths there is still some misunderstanding about what to include on them and how to use knowledge organisers at primary school.

Why use knowledge organisers?

There are a number of benefits to having pupils use knowledge organisers, many of these born from ideas developed from the teachings of cognitive science. Others draw from other sources but are still considered good practice, and we will look at these first.

5 benefits of using knowledge organisers

1. A knowledge organiser makes the teacher think hard about what will be taught

From a planning perspective, if it goes in the knowledge organiser then there is an expectation that the pupils will learn it. With the limited space an A4 sheet of paper provides, the teacher needs to consider very carefully the information that they will put on from when creating a knowledge organiser. 

If it is not going to be used within a sequence of lessons, then there is no reason for that information to be in the organiser. Going through this thought process makes exactly what learning you expect to occur far clearer, and with this clarity the likelihood that what we teach will stick with pupils increases.  

Creating a series of knowledge organisers also provides an excellent example of the intent of your curriculum which will be useful during an Ofsted deep dive into the subject.

2. Knowledge organisers are an endless source of meaningful homework activities

Once a knowledge organiser has been given to the pupils, the teacher now has an endless means of providing homework for the pupils.

Assuming that careful thought and consideration has been given to the knowledge on the knowledge organiser, this will mean that pupils could come to a lesson already having some understanding of the key vocabulary or key facts needed to be successful for that lesson. 

Further, Professor Graham Nuthall in his work Hidden Lives of Learners hypothesises that those pupils who know more about a topic learn more about a topic. Therefore, there is a chance that pupils could learn more from a lesson when they have some of this information to hand. 

Pupils’ working memory can process the bigger picture rather than getting distracted with the meaning of certain words etc. This is an absolute work-load saviour – no more last minute rushes to the photocopier and printing off 30 sheets of practice questions which some pupils may not be able to do independently!

The fact that knowledge organisers are physical printed out items, also ensures there is no barrier to uptake or technology requirement that might otherwise prove a barrier to pupil premium children accessing the material

3. Knowledge organisers are an excellent tool for inclusion

For our low attaining pupils (by low attaining I am referring to the differences between what pupils in the class know) use of knowledge organisers offers an excellent way to help fill those gaps. 

For example, those pupils who require more practice on ‘shape’ could be given a knowledge organiser that details some core knowledge on shape names and properties of that shape including angles. A teacher could then hand this to the TA to work with then on or get them to self-quiz. 

It should be noted again that this does not replace an expert teacher, but allows a pupil to take responsibility for their own learning and work on their own gaps.

In addition, once these facts have been learnt, it will be far easier for the expert teacher to teach and demonstrate (via worked examples and maths talk) how to use this information to solve more complex problems and deepen learning. 

Assuming the key facts have been learnt, there will also be less of a burden on pupils’ working memory, making it more likely they will learn to apply those facts when solving problems. 

If our aim is teaching for mastery, then we know that each pupil will need a different amount of time to master the content. By providing high quality knowledge organisers, we can ensure that those pupils who need more time can use their own time productively, as well as using the teacher’s time more effectively as the key facts will already have been learnt.

4. Knowledge organisers create opportunities for spaced retrieval practice

Spaced practice refers to a specific practice concerned with timing – ‘when’ it’s best to learn. Is it better to spend seven hours on a Sunday to practise a skill before a test or to space those seven hours out as one hour sessions across seven days?  

Many studies have looked into this and the evidence is clear: it would be far better to practise for seven one-hour sessions than to practise for seven hours the night before. 

From the experiments by Ebbinghaus, we know that the rate we forget newly learnt information is quick. Assuming 100% recall, it would only take (on average) for knowledge retained to fall to 58%. After an hour the retention rate has fallen to 44%. Is it any wonder that that pupils forget things? 

Luckily, there is a way to interrupt this forgetting and that is by systematically recalling that information which we wish to be learnt. This is known as retrieval practice and is far more effective in the long-term than simply restudying something (more on this later). 

When we retrieve information, that memory trace becomes stronger and the rate that we forget something decreases. The more we space out our learning, the more time it would take for us to forget something. 

Knowledge organisers are excellent tools to ensure that some of this spaced practice takes place. Ahead of a summative assessment you can inform pupils that some of the questions will refer to previous learning; pupils can then refer to the knowledge organiser to access and practice those topics.  

This is especially important when dealing with topics in maths that you know do not get equal teacher time. With many popular primary maths schemes of work like White Rose blocking their units, it is entirely possible that after two weeks on measurement in Year 5 the pupils will not encounter it again until Year 6.

By continuously testing those areas that do not get our equal attention, we can ensure that the retention of these units happens across the year, not just in the unit.

5. Used appropriately, knowledge organisers can increase retention of facts

This comes down to their core purpose. Our working memory can only take in so much information at one time and for our pupils to be successful in a range of subjects they need to have a large store of factual knowledge in their long-term memory. 

Our minds have adapted to take this information from our long-term memory into our working memory without sacrificing much space within our working memory, but children need to develop this skill.

A child who has been taught their times tables is far more likely to get to grips with equivalent fractions as all their working memory can attend to the fractions. A child on the other hand who is not secure in their multiplication facts will have to juggle both the multiplication facts and their relation to equivalent fractions in their working memory. 

This can overload the working memory, stressing its cognitive load and lead to pupils not learning what they should.

With a knowledge organiser providing the key information and, providing the pupils use them correctly, these facts can then become part of a pupil’s long-term memory.

How to use knowledge organisers

There are no set ways with how to use a knowledge organisers but I think there are some principles that ensure they are likely to be successful in their deployment. 

I would first of all suggested that a copy goes home and that one copy goes into the relevant book. I would not advocate a teacher passing out a knowledge organiser and just telling their pupils to get on with it, especially at primary. However telling pupils that they will have 5 questions from a certain section of the knowledge organiser can be an effective way to channel learning.

Pupils can then learn smaller chunks of the knowledge organiser as homework – which we have already established is more likely to ensure that they retain knowledge. 

It is important that, once you have set some sections of the knowledge organiser to learn for homework in isolation that you also plan commutative quizzes; pupils must be made aware that they cannot just learn these facts in isolation to each other, and that there is an expectation to memorise them all for the long-term. 

A piece of maths homework in week 4 for example could be a selection of questions from the 3 previous sections, with more weighting given to section 1 and 2 as these may not have been tested for 2 weeks.

4 top tips for using knowledge organisers

1. For the knowledge organiser to be successful, pupils will have to put it away

A consistent finding in cognitive science is that of the retrieval effect. This has demonstrated that, when talking about long-term learning, the act of studying something for a session and then writing down everything from memory about that topic is far more effective than just constantly re-reading something. 

The latter gives us an air of familiarity about the topic and deceives us into thinking we know the material better than we actually do. To make sure that we do know the material, the knowledge organiser has to go away and a blank sheet of paper has to come out! 

Alternatively, a family member could test pupils by asking questions from the knowledge organiser. This is the best way to help pupils retain more of the information they’ve learnt. 

2. Give the knowledge organiser out at the start of a topic

As mentioned earlier, pupils who have greater prior knowledge of a unit are likely to learn more from the teaching of that unit. This is because knowledge is generative (sticky) and new knowledge is good at hooking onto this pre-knowledge. 

Without this foundation, there is nothing for knowledge to ‘hook’ onto, and so the new knowledge risks falling out of our minds. As teachers, we know that many pupils’ prior knowledge of a topic can vary and the home environment is one culprit for this. 

To ensure that all our pupils have a chance of being successful in an upcoming unit, I recommend that knowledge organisers go out a week before beginning teaching (maybe longer if the new unit coincides with a longer break) and sections of the knowledge organiser are given for pupils to learn that relate to the first few lessons. 

This way, there is a likelihood that all pupils have at least a baseline of prior knowledge which the new knowledge can attach itself to. However, this won’t happen by osmosis; this leads to my next tip.

3. Teach pupils how to use their knowledge organisers effectively

When introducing knowledge organisers for the first time, it is important that we teach pupils how to use them properly. This includes telling them the ‘why’. I have with previous classes told them all about working memory and long-term memory and the link between prior knowledge and new knowledge.  

This certainly gets some buy-in from the pupils and allows them to see that I am not just being Gradgrindian in my teaching outlook. Another crucial part is telling them about retrieval practice and helping them understand that to be successful, they will need to recall this information without using an organiser. 

This is important as research into retrieval practice has shown that  participants who had several sessions of retrieval practice believed they would remember less than those who took part in the research and had several sessions of simply re-studying information.  

This means that pupils over-estimate just how much they think they will learn. This makes taking the time to ensure your pupils know how to use knowledge organisers properly paramount.  

For pupils to understand just how powerful knowledge organisers can be, they need to be able to use them and then work beyond them – coming back to that blank piece of paper!

4. Test regularly (but in the right conditions)

You need to make sure that your pupils know that you mean business when you provide a knowledge organisers. That means that from the get-go low-stakes quizzing begins – the next day if possible. 

It should not be many questions – 5 at the most; doing this everyday after the knowledge organiser has been handed out will mean that your pupils know that they are expected to learn it. To get the conditions right, the pupils need to not feel threatened by the test (which is why we use the friendlier-sounding ‘quiz’ rather than ‘test’). 

This further means marking and score collection should not be a ‘public’ activity; this risks making the quiz high-stakes again. 

What we are aiming for here is for pupils to strengthen their memory, not for us to be assessing constantly. Other ways to get the conditions right are to make the quizzes time effective; I’d suggest that the ideal time is around 5-7 minutes to complete and mark a quiz. 

It’s also important to ensure that everyone is able to take part in these quizzes. This could be done through writing the quiz on paper and giving it to the pupils, or having multiple choice questions with pupils holding up the correct fingers to show the correct answers/writing their answers on whiteboards.

Feedback must still be given to the pupils, as we do not want pupils recalling the wrong information. Two ways this could happen could be the teacher simply going through the answers, or the pupils self-checking answers by using the knowledger organiser that is in their books. 

Of course, this latter way will only be effective if the learning culture in your classroom is right and the pupils are not tempted to cheat.

How to write a knowledge organiser

It is important to note that when the term ‘knowledge-rich’ is talked about this does not simply mean facts.

There are two types of knowledge – declarative and procedural. Knowing the difference between these two will help make it clearer which knowledge should go into your knowledge organiser. 

Declarative knowledge is simply factual knowledge. In the domain of mathematics, this would be your number bonds, times tables, knowing that all angles in a triangle add to 180 degrees etc.

Procedural knowledge involves being able to know procedures. So “how do I do 3 digit by 2 digit long multiplication” or “how to find the missing angle of a triangle if 2 are already given to me”. 

When designing knowledge organisers it is unlikely that pupils will garner much understanding from procedural knowledge being on there. That is just an attempt to replace a teacher with a piece of paper and it will not work. 

We therefore want to focus our knowledge organiser on declarative knowledge as it’s this knowledge that will unlock the procedural knowledge and make that learning much richer in the classroom.

In terms of what these would look like on the page, there is definitely no set format and I think it would be wrong to try and force all teachers to use the same format as they should be. 

It is preferable that you adapt your knowledge organiser to the needs of the of the unit, rather than follow an arbitrary format.

Knowledge Organiser Maths Year 6
Year 6 Knowledge Organiser Maths SATs

I would recommend, should you wish to create your own knowledge organiser, that you look at the curriculum objectives for each domain and year group and pick out which knowledge would be considered as declarative.

KS1 knowledge organiser example for Year 2 Maths: properties of shapes

These are the objectives for shape for Year 2. Pupils should be taught to:

  • identify and describe the properties of 2-D shapes, including the number of sides and line symmetry in a vertical line. 
  • identify and describe the properties of 3-D shapes, including the number of edges, vertices and faces. 
  • identify 2-D shapes on the surface of 3-D shapes, [for example, a circle on a cylinder and a triangle on a pyramid].
  • compare and sort common 2-D and 3-D shapes and everyday objects.

If I were to create knowledge organiser for this topic, I would ensure that I included the most common 2-D and 3-D shapes, a picture, a name, the number of sides, the number of lines of symmetry, the number of edges, vertices and faces etc. 

The other two objectives are examples of procedural knowledge. That is, the success of those final objectives comes down to pupils knowing the declarative knowledge from the first two objectives.

Once pupils are comfortable with the shape names and their properties they will be able to identify the 2-D shapes on the surface of 3-D shapes and easily compare the shapes.

KS2 knowledge organiser example for Year 3 Maths: number and place value

In Year 3, these are the curriculum objectives for number and place value. Pupils should be taught to:

  • count from 0 in multiples of 4, 8, 50 and 100; 
  • find 10 or 100 more or less than a given number  
  • recognise the place value of each digit in a three-digit number (hundreds, tens, ones)  compare and order numbers up to 1000  
  • identify, represent and estimate numbers using different representations  
  • read and write numbers up to 1000 in numerals and in words  
  • solve number problems and practical problems involving these ideas.

If I were creating a knowledge organiser as part of my number and place value teaching value objectives for Year 3, I would include the 2, 3, 5 (from year 2 – it would be foolish of me to believe that these are secure) 4, 8, 50 and 100 times tables. 

I would also where possible follow my concrete pictorial abstract approach to include visual representations of these. I would include the greater than, less than and equal signs and a suitable definition along with a place value chart with a 3 digit number written in both numerals and words. 

Finally, I would provide spelling for the numbers 1-19 and the multiples of 10 up to 100. Again, I am under no illusion that this means that pupils will not need to be taught these things explicitly in lessons, it’s just that they are more likely to be successful if they have this background knowledge already in their long-term memories. 

Clearly, that last objective is all procedural knowledge and relies on the declarative and procedural knowledge of the other objectives, therefore it would not have a place on the knowledge organiser.

While it can be a lot of work to begin with, the joy of having these knowledge organisers is that once they are done, they can always be reused year on year and will be a useful tool in the teacher tool box to help increase attainment in maths or any other subject.

Do you have pupils who need extra support in maths?
Every week Third Space Learning’s maths specialist tutors support thousands of pupils across hundreds of schools with weekly online 1-to-1 lessons designed to plug gaps and boost progress. Since 2013 we’ve helped over 60,000 primary school pupils become more confident, able mathematicians. You can learn more about our interventions or request a personalised quote for your school to speak to use about your school’s needs and how we can help.

Neil Almond
Neil Almond
Woodland AT Primary
Lead Teacher
Neil is a primary school lead teacher and TES contributor, as well as a writer for Third Space.
Downloadable resource

KS2 Maths Knowledge Organiser for SATs

Help your Year 6 pupils prepare for SATs with this fantastic knowledge organiser created by Sophie Bartlett.

Download Free Now!
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Downloadable resource

KS2 Maths Knowledge Organiser for SATs

Help your Year 6 pupils prepare for SATs with this fantastic knowledge organiser created by Sophie Bartlett.

Download Free Now!