Physical Literacy: Can we teach it?

“Physical literacy can be described as the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life.” (IPLA, 2017)

Can physical literacy (PL) be taught?

This is a question I have been asked by primary school teachers, secondary school PE teachers and youth sport coaches over the last few weeks.

This post is an attempt to articulate my thinking and start a discussion about what is the best way for teachers and coaches who want to make the development of PL a priority in their programmes. It is by no means correct, comprehensive or clear but a work in progress.

My answer is no, you cannot teach PL. Why? Because it is a dispositional construct. A disposition “is a quality of character, a habit, a preparation, a state of readiness, or a tendency to act in a specified way that may be learned.” What does that mean with regards to PL? That it manifests itself as an observable behaviour – “It’s not an outcome per se, more constant fluctuations of behaviour manifesting due to the physical, social, affective, and cognitive skills we learn and choose to employ in any given movement context.”

A construct is not a real thing, but is made up of a number of real things interacting with each other. Martin Seligman in his book Flourish explains this much better than I can. In attempting to justify that wellbeing is a construct he uses weather as an analogy to clarify his point. Weather is a construct, it is not in and of itself a real thing. Several elements, each operationalisable and thus each a real thing contribute to the weather – temperature, humidity, wind speed, barometric pressure etc.

Therefore a real thing is a directly measurable entity. Such an entity can be operationalised, which means that a highly specific set of measures defines it. A construct on the other hand is made up of severable measurable elements, each a real thing, each contributing to the construct, but none defining the construct.

Physical Literacy, like wellbeing and the weather, is unable to be exhaustively defined by one single measure, but severable interacting measures contribute to it. These are the elements of PL; motor competence, confidence, motivation, knowledge and understanding.

There are two challenges with this. Firstly some of these elements are constructs themselves, such as confidence (although I prefer the term self-efficacy). Secondly, PE teachers and youth sports coaches can try to help individuals improve an element of PL, but that does not mean we are improving their PL. No one element defines physical literacy, but each can contribute to it in some measure. Each element is a necessary condition for Physical Literacy, but none on their own are sufficient.

If we are unable to teach PL directly, then we must look at each of the elements in depth. We must clarify the knowledge, skills and behaviours of each of those elements that our context (school, club, home) can realistically teach or design developmentally appropriate learning experiences in which they can practice and develop them. If PL is a construct that we believe in, think is important and is part of the solution of solving the complex problem of rising sedentary behaviour then we need to be clear about the elements that make it up, and what we can realistically teach to contribute to the development of each of those elements, without doing any harm along the way.

What it comes down to is that we need to be aware that there are many moving parts when it comes to influencing and nurturing PL. It would perhaps be better to see PL as a philosophy rather than as an intervention or outcome. Something that guides our professional judgement and decision making with regards to content, curriculum, pedagogy, learning experiences and assessment rather than something we can teach and influence directly.

Other posts on Physical Literacy:


3 thoughts on “Physical Literacy: Can we teach it?

  1. A really interesting way to articulate the wholeness of the monist position that PL thinking originates from. I think the distinction between elements and constructs more of a hard science way of considering socio-cultural phenomena but it is useful to help to identify why it will not change practice; practitioners simply say they are developing motor competence and continue as before, ignoring the importance of the wholeness of experience. This is why PL simply reinforces narrow preformative notions of movement such as FMS. PL does not shake the normativity off what it is to be human, it provides a convenient conceptual approach to hang off current practices in the name of PL. A useful blog to support my own thoughts, thank you.


    1. Hi Gavin. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I would be interested in your thoughts about how we can be faithful to the ‘wholeness of experience’ within PE, school sport and school based physical activity. I have struggled to operationalise this in teaching, learning objectives, charting progress and assessing. My attempts have been to reframe PE as and eduction of the physical, mental, emotional and social capabilities of the child. However Kretchmar calls this a pseudo-species of holism which is about filling in missing parts to the puzzle. This will not produce an ‘earthquake’ or as you say shake off the normativity of what it is to be a human. What ways do we have forward?

      Liked by 1 person

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