Supporting Good Progress with the Lower End of the Ability Spectrum

Whether you have mixed ability PE lessons or streamed, it often seems considerably harder to make good progress with the lower end of the ability spectrum. When a student struggles to make contact with a shuttlecock there seems very little point in trying to teach the drop shot. I can remember units of badminton where low ability students worked on serving for six weeks, and were still struggling to make contact with the shuttle consistently.

Whilst assessment in PE is based on a quality model that lends itself to mixed ability teaching far more than a subject with a difficulty based assessment model, I think streamed groups make a significant difference in supporting better progress.

In this specific example, I am going to focus on football – primarily because when I teach football it always seems to be the sport where I encounter the largest ability spectrums. Teaching a low ability group a unit of football, presents a variety of planning considerations in terms of designing a lesson to best meet the needs of the group. In many schools, schemes of learning exist which will be delivered simply because that is what is expected. In schools where groups are streamed, there is a far greater need for a fluid approach with respect to schemes of learning. In one school that I taught in, the focus was skill development in Year 7, tactical understanding in Year 8 and leadership in Year 9. The reality of teaching a lower ability group is that by the end of Year 7, their skills may not be anywhere near the level of development needed to progress on to tactical awareness in Year 8.

With a lot of noise nationally in relation to threshold concepts, I have come to the conclusion that an understanding of space (spatial awareness) is undoubtedly a threshold concept for many sports taught in Physical Education lessons. Without spatial awareness, most game situations result in a ‘bees around a honey pot’ scenario, with all students competing for one or two glorious touches of an unobtainable ball. A football coach from Birmingham City FC once told me that spatial awareness couldn’t be taught beyond the age of 12; that children either develop the understanding or don’t during the pre-adolescent years of childhood (I’m yet to find any research to support this.) Regardless of the veracity of such a statement, the fact remains that teaching students to develop an understanding of space, is an exceptionally difficult and slow process with the lower end of the ability spectrum. The other consideration is whether there is any point moving onto tactical concepts until the students have a solid grasp of the basic skills.

So what is the solution?

As with all things learning and teaching, there is not necessarily a specific answer as the variables are so vast and it is what you know will have the most impact for your particular setting, and so I thought I would share the things that I have found to be successful.

Knowledge shouldn’t be neglected – “In on the micro”

The fact that a student may not have the skills to demonstrate a sophisticated or basic tactical understanding in a practice situation does not mean that learning hasn’t taken place. I have found some reassurance when teaching lower ability students by finding ways that allow students to demonstrate their understanding without having to do it in practice – and I don’t mean by a few token questions in a plenary. Another old football coach of mine always used to say, in his thick Scottish accent, “right lads, we’re in on the micro now”, and by micro he was referring to a miniature pitch made out of various coloured cones. He would then proceed to get us to move cones around to elicit our understanding of defensive positioning or recovery runs etc. This particular idea has been very useful with my low ability groups as it has given them the opportunity to demonstrate that they understand the principles of attack and defence without necessarily being able to demonstrate them in play.

Fundamental Motor Skills

Many of the problems in teaching football skills and tactics come from a root cause of weak fundamental motor skills. Just making contact with the ball can often prove problematic for the lower end of the spectrum. The inability to execute the most basic fundamental motor skills is undoubtedly a barrier to whatever unit is being taught. Sometimes I wonder if it would be better to personalise the curriculum and include some units specifically designed to strengthen the fundamental skills by explicitly focusing on them.

Focus on One Specific Teaching Point

Where the progress of a group has been slow, I have tended to focus on one specific aspect in order to measure progress. When fundamental motor skills are broadly weak, I have found it beneficial to focus on one teaching point as opposed to two or three teaching. For example, when working on controlling the ball, the sole aim of the lesson might be for students to get their body in line with the ball. If students can’t get themselves in line with the ball, there is no point in overloading them with instructions about using the side of the foot or cushioning the ball.

Repetitive Practice

If you have read The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, you will be familiar with the notion that practising a skill leads to increased myelination of the motor neurones; thus leading to better conduction of nerve impulses and ultimately, a more precise movement. With this in mind, I have found it useful to allocate more time in lessons to the repetitive practice of the basic skills. Once again, without a moderate grasp of such skills, there seems little point in moving on to even the most basic tactical practices.

Small, Realistic Individual Goals

In terms of motivation, I have found that small, achievable, personal goals can have a big impact in terms of motivation. The one student who has become a master of looking like they are playing in games without ever touching the ball, makes much better progress if their one target is to touch the ball at least 5 times in a game situation.


Last but not least is praise. Many of the students who find themselves in the lowest ability set are at great risk of reaffirming the notion of self-fulfilling prophecy. Being in ‘the bottom set’ is often demoralising and so the use of praise becomes vital. The beauty of streaming means that the students in the lower ability sets can actually participate without fear of being ridiculed by the high ability students. It enables them to experience success, and performing a nutmeg on a student in a lower ability group should be celebrated just as it would be in a higher ability set. For some students in these groups, just having the confidence to get into a position to try and control the ball, is good progress and should be praised.

As always, I am interested to hear what other people do to support good progress with low ability groups so please feel free to get in touch.

Thanks for reading,