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Using Differentiated Instruction in Physical Education

Kathleen Ellis, Lauren Lieberman, and Dani LeRoux

Originally appeared in Palaestra, Volume 24, Number 4, 2009

This article is reproduced with permission. Any further use requires permission from the copyright holder.

With the No Child Left Behind law, teachers are required to be highly qualified in the core area in which they teach. However, is being an expert enough; or better yet, the foundation responsible for a child’s education? A great deal of hype has surrounded the use of differentiated instruction as an effective and successful strategy for educating diverse students within the same setting. Expertise in the content being taught is only a fraction of the overall differentiated instruction picture, as in theory, teachers can be experts in their fields, but may not be experts in how to take into account the diversities of learners. An exemplary teacher not only is an expert in his/her core academic area, but has a strong foundation and use of differentiated instructional principles. Differentiated instruction has the focus of diversity, common outcomes, and is student-centered. It is designed to instigate multiple strategies impacting individual students while focusing on a common goal. In other words, the students are all learning identical content, but the strategy for successfully achieving the common outcome/goal is dependent on individual student learning styles and developmental levels (Lieberman & Houston-Wilson, 2009).

Creating An Effective Learning Climate

Differentiating instruction is not a new concept. It has been incorporated as a successful instructional strategy with gifted and talented students for decades. Over the past several years, the advantage of using differentiated instruction in the inclusive learning environment has gained intense focus. Differentiated instruction in and of itself uses instructional strategies based on individual student learning styles and needs. While its success as an all-inclusive instructional strategy is conclusive when effectively incorporated in various learning environments, it was only recently that the value of differentiated instruction was introduced to the physical education setting (Gregory & Chapman, 2007).

Differentiating instruction in physical education is adapted physical education for all learners in an inclusive classroom environment. While adapted physical education has the focus of adapting or modifying the curriculum, activities, or environment to meet the needs of students with disabilities, differentiated instruction has the focus of modifying the content, learning activities, outcomes, and environment to meet the needs of all diverse learners.

When one walks into a typical physical education class, the first thing that comes to mind is diversity—various sizes, shapes, abilities, desires, motivation levels. However, no matter how diverse, teachers must make the physical education environment one that is conducive to learning. Meeting the needs of diverse learners in an inclusive setting involves taking into account what each child needs from this climate in order to feel comfortable, motivated, and successful (see Table 1).

Table 1
Differentiated Instruction Inclusive Strategies

  • Information to investigate: Facts about the learner
    Inclusive strategies based on

    • Strengths
    • Background knowledge and experience
    • Interests
    • Learning style(s)
    • Multiple intelligences
    • Important relationships
  • Information to investigate: Goals
    Inclusive strategies based on

    • Does the learner have any unique goals?
    • Are there particular concerns about this learner?
  • Information to investigate: Facts about classroom demands
    Inclusive strategies based on

    • Content demands—How is content made available to the learners?
  • Information to investigate: Process demands
    Inclusive strategies based on

    • What processes do teachers use to facilitate student learning?
  • Information to investigate: Product demands
    Inclusive strategies based on

    • How do students demonstrate what they have learned?
    • How are they graded?

(Thousand, Villa & Nevin, 2007)

To create an effective learning climate which incorporates instructional strategies promoting inclusion, one may use strategies which are individualized for a given student.

Bethany has low vision and is in a physical education class participating in track and field events. In this case, tactile instruction can be used to teach Bethany the correct form and movement for the shot put, so she can be completely included in the activities with her peers. By focusing on her specific learning style, Bethany can participate in track and field activities.

Knowing the Learner

It is a fairly common understanding among professionals that students differ in their learning styles. In other words, no two students are likely to learn in the exact same way. Some global learning styles involve those who learn best by auditory means, those who learn best visually, and those who learn best by hands on or tactile means. Others may learn best while working with peers, or in small or large groups, or in a more isolated situation (Gregory, & Chapman, 2007). In many cases, students may require more than one learning style to fully grasp concepts being taught. Therefore, understanding individual learning styles and incorporating these into instructional strategies is a requirement, not an option, for differentiated instruction. Knowing your students may be the most important part of differentiated instruction…if you don’t know the important aspects of their learning needs and abilities, then determining effective instructional strategies is nearly impossible. Teachers should take into account characteristics of their students when determining strategies to use, such a various learning styles; ways in which students process information; and use of multiple intelligence theory (Gardner, 1983).

Knowing your learners is critically important in successful lesson planning and arrangement of the learning environment, including grouping strategies.

Samantha loves to play soccer, but because she is totally blind she relies a great deal on her auditory ability. Ms. Judge, the physical education teacher, took this into account when planning the lessons and made sure that all equipment used had some auditory device and that small, cohesive groups were incorporated in order to allow more time on task and peer tutoring. In addition, she looked at her learning style as an auditory and tactile learner and made sure her paraeducator worked with her and helped her become familiar with the learning environment and equipment in use. For example, when learning soccer, Ms. Judge had Samantha use a soccer ball with a bell inside, as well as cones which contained beepers so she knew where to dribble the ball. Ms. Judge physically helped Samantha understand how to dribble and gave her verbal and tactile feedback when she was practicing.

Assessing the Learner

Some of us may remember back during our undergraduate years when we took a course on measurement and evaluation (AKA, tests and measurement). Regardless of when or if such a course was completed, one of the take-home messages was that without assessment no programs or instruction can be effectively incorporated with the expectation of success. The first and foremost step for any program or class is to determine a needs assessment. Completing a needs assessment determines students’ prior knowledge and skills for upcoming lessons or programs; what areas of interest or overall feelings regarding lessons or programs the students demonstrate; what is needed for students to become more proficient or master skills being incorporated; and to determine skill and understanding levels to format learning groups.

One big thing to remember is that assessment is a continuous, ongoing process. It is completed almost daily, sometimes unconsciously, in order to provide immediate, critical feedback, and make changes in the lessons/programs to ensure learning. Parents are often a good place to gain useful information regarding current performance and unique learning information. As a teacher, there is never a time when assessment is not taking place.

Completion of the needs assessment at the beginning assists in implementing the instructional content and strategies used, informal assessment during the teaching and learning processes assists in ensuring the best learning environment for all students; summative assessment at the conclusion of a learning outcome assists in strengthening future learning outcomes for involved students; and regular self-assessments by the teacher may lead to modifications or changes designed to improve strategies used.

It is important to ensure that students are aware of ongoing assessment and defined success.

During a basketball unit, Janessa was included in the formative rubric assessment. The rubric gave a gold medal to any student who could put three or more basketball-related skills together, such as dribbling, passing, and shooting. They could get a silver for two or more skills, bronze for one or more skills, and honorable mention for participation only. Janessa knew the criteria for grading and worked hard with her partner and friend, Sammy, to get a gold medal. She and Sammy even demonstrated their skills for the class at the end of the unit, allowing the class to see a glimpse of wheelchair basketball!

Grouping Students for Learning

Students can be grouped based on readiness to learn certain content or skills. Table 2 discusses the various ways students can be grouped in order to incorporate differentiated strategies.

Table 2
Grouping Strategies within Differentiated Instruction

  • Grouping based on: Students’ knowledge of a subject
    Grouping strategy/purpose

    • Grouping students with a good knowledge of the subject with peers who have lesser understanding allows for those with better understanding to assist in learning of subject
    • Grouping students based on knowledge of subject allows for greater attention to specific group based on need
  • Grouping based on: Students’ ability to perform skill or task at hand
    Grouping strategy/purpose

    • Mixed ability groups to encourage peer teaching and cooperation
    • Focus additional skill building activities with groups showing greater need
    • Refinement activities for those with higher skills
  • Grouping based on: Cooperative learning groups
    Grouping strategy/purpose

    • Small mixed ability groups work together toward a common goal
    • All group members must be equally involved in activity
    • Reduces competition because outcome is not individualistic
    • Each member brings something to the group that others do not, hence groups must incorporate each others strengths in order to be successful
  • Grouping based on: Interest in a certain area of content
    Grouping strategy/purpose

    • Allows students to choose area of interest and focus on improving skills for lifelong participation
  • Grouping based on: Peer tutoring
    Grouping strategy/purpose

    • Higher skilled student of same age or older works with peer on specific skills
    • Less intimidating and likely more comfortable than working with teacher
    • Benefits both sides in different ways, where one is learning and one is sharing prior knowledge and experience
  • Grouping based on: Heterogeneous grouping
    Grouping strategy/purpose

    • Teaching children of same age and ability levels in the same classroom environment
    • Allows children to progress at their own rate
    • Uses authentic and/or performance based assessment allowing progress to be evaluated based on natural growth and development of skills/performance
    • This approach recognizes and honors individual differences as it is more "child-centered"
  • Grouping based on: Multiple age grouping
    Grouping strategy/purpose

    • Encourages interacting with various ability levels and learning at own rate
    • Emphasizes child’s developmental needs and how best to turn them to strengths
    • Focuses on the whole child, not just physical development, but also psychologically and socially

(Gregory, & Chapman, 2007)

Ms. Michaels, the physical education teacher, knew the students who had short attention spans, those who could focus for long periods of time, and those who needed some motivation to get moving. She made small cooperative learning groups and combined these learning styles in each group, so the students could motivate each other. Matthew was put into a group as a student who had task persistence and a long attention span, needing only some assistance in activities requiring high balance skills. He, along with his similar peers, Jessica and Michael, helped their group stay focused in Project Adventure to get their group across a moat full of alligators (AKA the balance beam).

Instructional Strategies

As mentioned earlier, differentiated instruction has the focus of diversity. It takes into account not only the content being taught and requires the teacher to be an expert in this area, but also to have a strong foundation of understanding of his/her students, the cognitive learning theory, and strategies for incorporating differentiated instruction. Successful integration of differentiated instruction requires an all-or-none principle. Teachers must be proficient in all four areas or else differentiated instruction strategies are likely not to be effective. Steps for implementing differentiated instruction into the physical education setting include—consistency; planning the program; use of focus activities at start of class; not wasting time; using graphic organizers; using cooperative group learning; using metaphorical and analogous thinking to make meaningful connections; and, awareness of student level of readiness and thinking complexity.

The importance of modifying curriculum and/or equipment to include ALL students is a critical step for any physical educator.

Mr. Estes teaches elementary physical education and his first grade class is one of diverse, mixed abilities. Two of his students, Jonathan and Ryan, have cerebral palsy and use motorized wheelchairs. For the lesson of catching and throwing, he modified the learning environment so that Jonathan and Ryan could catch and throw small and medium beach balls hanging from a line directly in front of them. This allowed them to work at their own pace and level without losing valuable time retrieving equipment. Both Jonathan and Ryan were able to work on their hand-eye coordination and movement of their arms during this activity, which increased their overall upper body movement and range of motion!

Curricular Approaches

Organizing curriculum to meet the various needs of diverse learners is no easy task. Differentiated instruction takes into consideration several strategies related to curriculum approach and organization—learning stations; incorporating projects into your classroom; use choice boards to give students empowerment over learning; use problem-based learning approaches; and incorporate student learning contracts in your classroom.

Bryn’s class was working on bicycling and there were a few modifications to this activity based on student ability level. Ms. Rush knew the students’ level of readiness, and she introduced several options of bikes ranging from two wheelers, three wheelers, two seaters, to tandem bikes. This allowed her students, regardless of ability or disability, to move up in equipment use as their riding ability progressed. Since Bryn had low vision and had never ridden a bike before, she was able to comfortably start with a tandem bike, allowing her to be successful in this unit.


Effective teachers take all of the skills and abilities of their learners into account. By differentiating instruction, students are set up for success and are taught to their strengths. Differentiated instruction does take time, energy, attention, and patience; yet, the outcome is well worth the energy. By assessing each student and then setting up effective instruction, grouping, and curricular approaches, every child will be successful. Table 3 provides an example of considerations for programming to ensure that differentiated instruction is appropriately implemented and successful.

Table 3
Example of Considerations for Programming to Ensure Differentiated Instruction

  • Function: Low physical fitness
    Needs: Can cover 1/2-2/3 of the distance covered during the class as his/her peers
    Approach taken by instructor for all students

    • When the class is running around cones set on the perimeter of the gym, set a group of 4 cones in a smaller circle inside the gymnasium
    • Run/walk for time and not distance
    • Have some students play just offense or just defense in games
    • Set up fitness stations with several levels to accommodate all learners
  • Function: Balance difficulties
    Needs: Has difficulty during kicking, throwing, or balance activities
    Approach taken by instructor for all students

    • Set up kicking, throwing, or balance beam next to wall
    • Allow some children to throw or kick from sitting
    • Work on throwing and balancing in the pool
  • Function: Short attention
    Needs: Can attend to activities for 2-3 minutes at a time
    Approach taken by instructor for all students

    • Have paraeducators work in small groups to help with attention
    • Have all students work in stations at their own pace so the student can move along when they complete a skill or station work
    • Utilize bright and textured balls and equipment to hold attention of all
    • Set students up for a challenge such as number of times they hit the target, number of jumps with a jump rope ,or performing a skill at a specific level to keep them focused
  • Function: Minimal low back flexibility
    Needs: Limited ability to bend, stretch and touch toes which inhibits activities such as kicking, jumping, or tumbling
    Approach taken by instructor for all students

    • Infuse more stretching throughout the classes
    • Kick a larger ball
    • Jump using a wall or on an inclined surface
    • Tumble on an incline mat
  • Function: Slow eye-hand coordination
    Needs: Difficulty catching objects thrown from 10 feet or more
    Approach taken by instructor for all students

    • Use balloons or beach balls for catching
    • Set up stations incorporating a ball on a string
    • Have students catch a ball rolling down a ramp or chute
    • Use a bounce pass and say the student’s name first

Selected References

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Gregory, G. H., & Chapman, C. (2007). Differential instructional strategies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Lieberman, L. J., & Houston-Wilson, C. (2009). Strategies for inclusion; A handbook for physical educators. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Thousand, S. J., Villa, R. A., & Nevin, A.I. (2007). Differentiating instruction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Tomlinson, C. (2001). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Kathleen Ellis is Associate Professor of Adapted Physical Education in the Department of Kinesiology at West Chester University, PA, and serves PALAESTRA as Department Editor for the Calendar section.

Lauren Lieberman is Professor of Adapted Physical Education at SUNY-Brockport, NY. Danielle LeRoux, is Adapted Physical Education Teacher, Cecil County Public Schools, Elkton, MD.