• Charlesworth Author Services

How to structure and write a Chronological Literature Review

Organising your literature review by chronology is one way to approach this section of your research paper (or PhD thesis). If you can see a clear development in the way your topic has advanced (by definition, by topic or by methodology), then it would be natural to approach the presentation of this literature chronologically.

Purpose and scope of a chronological literature review

A chronological literature review does not necessarily mean that you have to outline every single piece of research that has been done on your topic from decades (or even years) ago. It also does not mean that you should exclude or ignore entire chunks of relevant literature.

Rather, the main focus in a chronological literature review is to trace the development of studies, debates or theories in your subject area, and to identify how a central ‘problem’ or question(s) has been dealt with over a period of time. Doing so will help you to present and explain the need for your research at this point in time of the research evolution, and how it extends the studies and debates to date.

Benefits of doing a chronological literature review

The chronological approach has a number of benefits:

  • It provides an overview of the sequential development of a certain topic, or aspect of the topic at hand. This overview allows a broader understanding of the field.
  • As it is chronological, this approach allows the reader to clearly see how you perceive the logical progression, and stages within the development, and further, how you intend to carry that research forward. 
  • It allows you to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short space.

Structuring and writing a chronological literature review 

1. Organise the review

A chronological review can be organised in two ways: 

  • In broad terms by decade or years: This approach is a more straightforward exploration of studies on a particular issue/topic in order of their chronological development.
  • By issue within the topic: This examines how researchers moved the topic and debates forward over time. This approach could explore how the discipline has progressed theoretically or its inter- and/or multidisciplinary evolution.

2. Group authors

Within this chronological development, it is best to group authors rather than introduce them one by one as that can be rather descriptive and boring.

  • Ideally, you would group the most prominent authors in the field together and explain their most salient findings and debates.
  • Then, you would discuss how subsequent authors built on these findings over time.

3. Share your assessment

Identifying how you see the progression and development of these studies, and the connections made between these studies as they evolved, will thus allow you to bring in your voice and your critical assessment of what each author/study has brought to the chosen research topic.

4. Identify the shortcomings of previous research

Don’t forget that this literature review contextualises and argues for the need for your own research. So, you need to identify what the shortcomings of previous research have been, and how these problems may or may not have been addressed over time by the various studies you have considered. 

5. Discuss how your research would address these shortcomings

You would then assert how your research would uniquely do the following:

  • Answer existing questions.
  • Address outstanding gaps.
  • Move the debates forward.
  • Chronologically, contribute to the next stage of knowledge within your field.

Chronological literature review: Example

This abstract illustrates how the literature review could be organised chronologically. (Note the highlighted text.)

How language teaching methodology has developed

The earliest European written accounts of language teaching methods are from the 5th century AD, referring specifically to Latin. For centuries the language of the Romans was the primary foreign code throughout much of Europe, functioning as the language of scholarship, trade, and government. The founding of universities in the latter Middle Ages led to developing the Grammar-Translation Method, based on the centuries’ long tradition of reading Latin and Greek learned texts. In the 15th century, Europeans began shifting from Latin to using the continent’s modern languages more widely. By the 19th century, the Direct Method was developed, modeled on first language acquisition and addressing the greater need for speaking skills in e.g. French, German, and English. In the early 20th century, research largely in educational psychology led to developing the Audio-lingual Method in the 1940s. Believing language use was an issue of stimulus and response, teaching methods emphasized repetition and dialogue memorization. A decade later, Chomsky’s landmark research on cognitive aspects of language acquisition recognized that children do not acquire an inventory of linguistic stimuli and responses. Instead, deep processing in the brain enables them to generate sentences they have never heard before. This led to modernizing the Direct Method by incorporating cognitive dimensions of language learning. Since the 1970s, language is further recognized as a social phenomenon that inherently entails expressing, interpreting, and negotiating meaning. To foster such competence, the current approach of Communicative Language Teaching emphasizes having learners do meaningful activities involving the exchange of new information.


Read previous (first) in series: Deciding between the Chronological and Thematic approaches to a Literature Review

Read next (third/final) in series: How to structure and write a Thematic Literature Review


Maximise your publication success with Charlesworth Author Services.

Charlesworth Author Services, a trusted brand supporting the world’s leading academic publishers, institutions and authors since 1928.

To know more about our services, visit: Our Services

Share with your colleagues