How to differentiate for pupils who have varied ability levels in PE

22nd June 2017 at 12:01

differentiation in PE

One of the challenges that teachers often face when delivering PE lessons in schools is finding ways to ensure that all pupils are challenged. How do we differentiate for pupils who have varied ability levels?

In this article, I’ll outline the layered differentiation method which (when delivered effectively) ensures all pupils;

  1. are engaged and challenged
  2. make progress in every lesson
  3. develop self-confidence through independence and discovery


Think of layered differentiation as lifting weights in the gym. We generally start with a weight we’re comfortable with, and as we gain confidence with a particular weight, we add more weights to increase the challenge.

Layered differentiation works in a similar way whereby we begin with a baseline task and explain the skills pupils have to demonstrate before progressing to the next level.

Consider a tennis lesson where your aim is to improve pupils’ basic racket control. All pupils start with a low threshold activity and make progress at a rate their both comfortable with and provides challenge.

Your explanation and demonstration might sound something like this…

  1. Jog with the ball on the racket without dropping the ball. Count to ten as you travel ensuring you maintain ball control. If the ball falls to the floor, that’s okay, simply pick it up and start again.
  2. Once you’ve done that for ten seconds successfully – move onto level 2 which is 10 tap ups on the racket, keeping the ball low below the nose. If you don’t quite reach 10 and the ball falls to the floor, that’s okay, pick it up and start again.
  3. If you can do ten taps without the ball dropping, you can move to level 3. Continue jogging, tap the ball up then rotate the racket, so you’re using both sides, still keeping the ball below the nose.

You can always have more levels to suit the needs of your pupils. The important thing to remember is that all pupils should be challenged whilst we have time to remind the class of key teaching points whilst giving quick tips for individuals as we walk around.

To deliver layered differentiation effectively, we must ensure that our explanations are clear, concise and supported by clear modelling.

It’s important to ensure pupils feel perfectly comfortable rehearsing a skill to relative mastery. This helps to ensure pupils:

  1. feel supported yet sufficiently challenged
  2. have sufficient time to practice
  3. refine their skills over time and work at their own pace
  4. remind themselves of the key teaching points as they progress through the levels

Give layered differentiation a go. I hope this article supports you to deliver effective differentiation in your PE lessons. 


Jazz Rose is a PE teacher and education consultant at J and C Academy. He tweets at @MrJazzRose and is the author of ‘Teaching Primary PE’