Building Background Knowledge:  Pre-teaching Physical Education Concepts to Students with Visual Impairments

By Paula Conroy, Ed.D.

Paula Conroy, Ed.D., is a professor of education in the University of Northern Colorado’s College of Educational and Behavioral Sciences, School of Special Education, and coordinates the visual impairment and orientation and mobility personnel preparation programs. She is a certified educator for students who are blind or visually impaired and a certified orientation and mobility instructor.


The importance of pre-teaching to facilitate concept development by building background knowledge and to promote inclusion has been acknowledged in the professional literature related to the education of students with visual impairments. However, there is no research that describes how teachers can use pre-teaching with students who are blind or visually impaired in the areas of physical education and orientation and mobility. The term pre-teaching has become a buzzword because it is largely undefined as it relates to the field of visual impairment, which includes orientation and mobility. Teachers know they should be pre-teaching, but they don’t know how. This article explains the collaborative pre-teaching process and techniques that can be used to facilitate concept development for the inclusion of students with visual disabilities in general physical education classes.


Pre-teaching, blindness, visual impairment, inclusion, concept development, physical education


Although blindness or visual impairment does not affect a child’s ability to use muscles, it does affect the way a child learns to use them (Buell, 1964). Three main reasons that children with visual impairments are frequently behind in movement development when they reach the school-age are: (a) lack of incidental learning, (b) lack of motivation to move, and (c) lack of the self-confidence to move (due to strength issues) (Lieberman, Byrne, Mattern, Watt, & Fernandez-Vivo, 2010). These learning factors are mostly due to lack of experience and practice in movement. In order for children with visual impairments to overcome these problems, they need to learn to move early and move often. This need can be addressed in physical education (PE) classes by providing blind or visually impaired children with frequent and consistent instruction and opportunities for movement in safe environments (Sherrill, 2004; Lieberman et al., 2010). PE teachers need to use instructional strategies, such as pre-teaching, in order to help students with visual impairments learn to move. In doing so, these children can more fully participate in classroom physical education activities at school and reap the most benefits possible for their health and fitness (Conroy, 2012; Lieberman, Houston-Wilson, & Kozub, 2002). The purpose of this article is to present a framework for building background knowledge through the use of a pre-teaching structure. Teachers often hear the word pre-teaching and assume it is simply a brief overview of the material to come. Although this technique may be better than no introduction to new concepts at all, to be most effective, pre-teaching should be a time set aside where the student is involved in a structured lesson. This systematic approach to pre-teaching helps the student with a visual impairment gain the information to better understand what is to come later in their PE curriculum (Lieberman, Ponchillia, & Ponchillia, 2013).

Motor Learning

Children acquire motor skills through maturational readiness, interaction with their environment, and through direct instruction (Magill, 2007). When movement is modified as a result of instruction or experience (practice), the change in behavior is largely due to the process of motor learning. Fundamental motor skills are the foundation for the development of more complex and specialized movements used in games, sport, dance, and fitness. In contrast, when a behavior sequence progresses through regular stages as a result of growth processes, but independent of instruction or practice, the change in behavior is credited mostly to the process of physical maturation (Magill, 2007). Sports-related motor skills develop through a complex interaction of both learning and maturation. For example, maturation provides the potential for running; opportunity and instruction are needed to bring about running behavior, then practice is needed to refine it. Therefore, motor learning in children is inextricably bound with their maturation.

Motor learning involves instruction in the acquisition of motor skills and performance enhancement of learned or highly experienced motor skills. Motor skill acquisition is first and foremost a cognitive process. Fitts and Posner (1967) present a three-stage motor learning model. The first stage is the cognitive stage of learning, where the learner focuses on cognitively oriented problems (Magill, 2007). In this stage, learners try to answer questions such as, “Where should my hands be on the grip?” or “What movements do my arms make?” Fitts and Posner explain that the learner must engage in cognitive activity as he or she receives feedback from the instructor. The second stage of learning in this model is called the associative stage of learning. This stage occurs after ample practice and performance of the movements. The learner knows how to do something but putting that into action requires a great deal of conscious concentration. The third stage of learning, according to Fitts & Posner, is the autonomous stage of learning. In this stage, the skill has become almost automatic or habitual.

Visual Impairment and Motor Learning

As stated previously, children learn sports-related motor skills through observation, experience, and direct instruction (Magill, 2007). Children with visual impairments cannot readily observe the movements of others; consequently, direct instruction becomes even more important for conceptual understanding. A child who has never seen anyone kick a ball or swing a baseball bat may lack conceptual understanding of what is meant by different terms like bent or straight. Therefore, these movement skills may be delayed in their development. Motivation has much to do with why a child moves and why students with visual impairments don’t learn movement skills as readily as sighted individuals. For example, young children who are blind or visually impaired do not move toward objects and bright toys as sighted children do when something interesting catches their attention. There is also inherent risk in movement. Children who can’t see where they are moving may feel unsafe and be hesitant to move throughout and explore their environments. This lack of movement may cause a delay in maturational readiness as muscles may be weak or underdeveloped, especially in the upper body. Thus, performing expected motions may be physically difficult. These three factors compound one another. Taken together, it is understandable why visually impaired children may lag behind their sighted peers in developing movement skills. This makes direct instruction and pre-teaching to address the cognitive stage of learning even more important.

Inclusion of students with visual impairments in regular physical education classrooms is the rule rather than the exception in public schools today (Houston-Wilson, Dunn, van der Mars & McCubbin, 1997). When visually impaired children are placed in the general education classroom they may be far behind their peers in their development of movement skills and patterns as they may not have the background conceptual knowledge necessary to participate in classroom activities. This can lead to the blind or visually impaired student being in the PE class with peers but doing separate activities off to the side of the group with a classroom aide. This goes against the principles of inclusion as it defeats the purpose of the student being in the general education class in the first place. To remedy this, PE practitioners must adapt their teaching strategies to meet the needs of all of the students in the class. Teachers are challenged to use creative teaching practices that ensure that all students with visual impairments are taught in an appropriate instructional environment. One such practice is the pre-teaching of movement skills to blind or visually impaired students in a one-to-one setting prior to inclusion with the rest of the class (Lieberman & Houston-Wilson, 2009). This pre-teaching takes place in addition to the inclusion of the student with peers in the general education PE class, not in replacement of it.

Background Knowledge

Research supports that what students already know about content is one of the strongest indicators of how well they will learn new information (Fisher, Ross, & Grant, 2010). This has been termed background knowledge. Since research has confirmed the relationship between background knowledge and achievement, educators must strive to enhance the background knowledge of all students. Studies show that people acquire background knowledge through the interaction of two factors: (1) the ability to process and store information, and (2) the number and frequency of experiences (Pellett & Pellett, 2010). The defining feature is the ability to process information and store it in permanent memory. This ability dictates whether experiences parlay into background knowledge or are forgotten. The most straightforward way to enhance students’ background knowledge is to provide enriching experiences such as direct experiences (Terpstra, Higgins, & Pierce, 2002). Taking into account how students with visual impairments learn and the importance of building background knowledge as a base for future learning, instructional strategies must be used that promote the processing and storing of concepts into memory.

Pre-teaching in Physical Education

Pre-teaching is one instructional strategy that helps build background knowledge and helps students participate in the general education classroom. The benefit of pre-teaching is common knowledge in the field of visual impairment; however, there is little explanation of what pre-teaching actually is and how it can be applied to physical education. According to Pellett and Pellett (2010), pre-teaching is defined as providing students with advanced introduction of key terms and concepts before those terms or concepts are introduced in the general curriculum. It provides a framework on which a student can build new knowledge during subsequent learning experiences (Pellett & Pellett, 2010). Researchers have reported the effectiveness of pre-teaching for learning in many different academic areas (Fisher et al., 2010). Pre-teaching students with visual impairments requires collaboration between members of the educational team, including a teacher of the visually impaired (TVI) and/or a certified orientation and mobility specialist (COMS). Major advantages of pre-teaching are the enhancement of learning time and engagement in PE class, more independent functioning in PE class, and more time to learn the skills in a non-threatening environment whereby the student can try out movements prior to doing them among peers. This can result in increased motor performance as well as social and communicative opportunities with peers. If students become solid in movements, they can concentrate on the other aspects of the activity which include performance and having fun while interacting with friends and gaining strength and confidence in their body. There are few formal pre-teaching strategies presented in the literature that instruct teachers in how to pre-teach movement concepts to students. Teachers know they should be pre-teaching concepts, but they do not know how. The steps to collaborative pre-teaching are presented here.

The Collaborative Pre-teaching Process

There are three steps to collaborative pre-teaching of students who are blind or visually impaired in physical education. These are planning, instruction, and evaluation.

Step 1: Planning

The first step in pre-teaching is planning. This planning is usually between the general education classroom teacher and the pre-teaching instructor and occurs as a child’s need for pre-teaching of movement concepts has been identified. It is important to note that pre-teaching can be implemented by anyone who has an interest in the child’s success such as a teacher, parent, paraeducator, tutor, mentor, or related service provider. However, it must be done under the direction of or in consultation with a teacher who specializes in visual impairment and blindness. This means that a TVI or COMS needs to be involved in the planning process as this is the person who has expertise in explicit instruction, assessment, and evaluation of blind or visually impaired students.

Once identified, a schedule for pre-teaching needs to be established. This could happen before, during, or after school and must be made in consultation with the student’s parents, teachers, and school administration (as needed). The instructional setting must also be arranged. Where will the skills be taught? The school gym is not always available, so some thought must go into establishing a suitable environment for teaching the particular skill. It is important to ensure that there is enough space for the student to complete full movements using the equipment (throw, jump, run, etc.). The pre-teaching instructor must obtain the necessary materials and equipment. This may be specialized or adapted equipment, which the teacher may need to borrow or purchase. This can take some time and effort, so pre-planning is very important. If pre-teaching does not take place in the gym, then these materials must be moved to the instructional area. As with all instruction, the pre-teaching instructor must determine the instructional content and the sequence of movements, and organize the teaching environment prior to instruction. These details may seem obvious, but during busy school days, these planning details are often overlooked. Being unorganized or unprepared wastes the student’s precious pre-teaching and learning time.

Step 2: Instruction

The next stage in the pre-teaching process is instruction. The aim of pre-teaching is to help students become proficient with selected vocabulary, content, and procedures as quickly and efficiently as possible. Therefore, instruction should help students master and retain new learning. Learning for mastery is a process of providing instruction and practice so that students optimize acquisition and retention of new information. Research shows that mastery learning of new skills and knowledge is readily accomplished through direct instruction. Pre-teaching consists of using a direct instruction approach that includes modeling, guided practice, and independent practice (see Table 1).

The instructional session can be thought of as having several parts. The pre-teaching instructor must first set the stage for teaching the concept(s). The lesson must be introduced by gaining the student’s attention and relating it to both the physical education general curriculum and orientation and mobility (O&M) skills. A statement of the behavioral objective and rationale must be provided in student friendly terms, to ensure that the student understands why this direct teaching is taking place and the expected level of mastery. This is important as it adds to the student’s background knowledge and will promote deeper understanding. The teacher first models new skills in a step-by-step process orally. The teacher then prompts or guides the student through new learning while eliciting high levels of response, providing positive reinforcement, and giving corrective feedback. Next comes independent practice, where the student performs the skill independent of the teacher. It serves to test student mastery of the learning objective. The instructional cycle is complete when the teacher restates what was learned and records data on how the student performed during the lesson.

Table 1: Instructional Process

(a) Model and instruct (I do)
  • Provide clear, accurate, concise instruction for each word or concept
  • Self-talk to assist students in understanding the thought process
  • Guide students who do not have vision through the movements of the activity as part of the demonstration

(b) Guided practice (We do)

  • Provide students the opportunity to demonstrate lesson objective with assistance
  • Monitor student performance closely
  • Students respond orally
  • Students may also give individual written responses
  • Provide error correction as needed

(c) Independent practice (You do)

  • Provide students opportunities to independently demonstrate words or concepts learned
  • Closing and summary of learning
  • Review
  • Summarize

Step 3: Evaluation

Teachers should collaborate to evaluate student progress in the pre-teaching setting and in the larger group setting. It should be decided at the outset of the lesson (i.e. during the planning stage) the type of data to gather and the times these data will be collected. Teachers can collect both qualitative and quantitative data. Quantitative may be gathered from pre-teaching and may be tangible indicators of student achievement from before and after pre-teaching. This may include performance indicators. Qualitative data could be taken on the quality of the movement from pre- to post-instruction. Evaluation must be planned and in place before the pre-teaching begins in order to obtain a true picture of the effects of the intervention. The teachers must identify specific objectives for student learning and then use learning outcome data to evaluate the achievement of the objectives. Evaluationof student progress should be shared between the general education teacher and pre-teaching instructor. This approach is illustrated through a case study in which direct instruction was used to pre-teach a blind elementary level student in PE.

Case Study Example

Annie is a blind fourth grade student on grade level academically, and independent in her general education classroom and curriculum. She receives assistance from the TVI in areas of the expanded core curriculum and to access the general education curriculum. A COMS works with her on movement and independent travel skills. Annie is provided paraprofessional assistance for PE only. The PE teacher tried to include her in the classroom activities, but the adult (either the teacher or paraprofessional) always seemed to be instructing Annie for the entire PE period. This gave Annie only a little time to play the games or do the activity with the students in the class. So, while she was learning the same skills as those in general education, she was not participating with her peers; which defeated the purpose of being included (i.e. mainstreamed). The PE teacher sought a way to provide instruction that was less time consuming during class, so she consulted the COMS. The COMS quickly found that she could integrate movements involved in PE standards during separate lessons every week that could prepare Annie for the content in the PE class, while also teaching useful concepts for O&M skills development.  

This started the planning stage of the pre-teaching process. Since Annie was fully included in the general education class all day, she and the COMS needed to find a time that worked for everyone outside of the school day. Her parents were a part of this decision. Annie, her parents, the PE teacher, and the COMS decided that pre-teaching should occur before school once per week. This happened on Monday mornings so Annie was set for the week in her PE class. The COMS and the PE teacher met every Friday to plan for the upcoming week (they were always at least one week ahead of the class activity schedule) in order to discuss necessary adaptive equipment and ways to modify equipment and movements. The COMS had the year plan so major equipment was already made available (beeping balls, sound sources, etc.). At the pre-planning meeting the teacher and the COMS discussed what skills and movements the student would need in order to learn the game or task (like gymnastics). They collaborated to figure out teaching strategies that incorporated both PE skills and O&M skills and how they were going to evaluate those skills.

Next was the instructional stage of the process. In this case, the COMS did the pre-teaching instruction and the PE teacher observed as her schedule allowed. This was important so that the PE teacher still had ownership of the child in the PE class and knew how the COMS approached the individual skills. During the thirty minute pre-teaching time, the COMS went through the instructional process outlined above in Table 1.

Finally, the COMS observed the student in the PE class approximately once per month to collect data on Annie’s progress (i.e. progress monitoring). Evaluation of individual movement ability in the one-to-one pre-teaching setting was conducted every two weeks. This data helped the educational team discern if the pre-teaching time was effective. The educational team found this approach to be very effective in developing movement skills necessary for O&M, movements specific to grade level PE standards, and age appropriate social skills in a natural setting. By knowing the skills and expectations ahead of time, Annie was able to focus on the social aspects of PE class.


Pre-teaching can be an effective instructional strategy to help students who are blind or visually impaired participate in mainstream general education physical education classrooms and curricula. It must be emphasized that although this article discusses using collaborative pre-teaching in the context of physical education and the development of movement skills, this approach can be used in other learning areas as well. Students who have been pre-taught concepts enter their general education class with increased background knowledge in course content, skills, and the confidence that they can succeed. The explicit instruction they receive on a topic prior to its introduction in the general classroom can provide this necessary foundation for learning new skills. Pre-teaching requires participating teachers to understand and implement general principles of effective collaboration. In this case study, the PE teacher and the COMS were able to collaborate to help the student not only build the background for physical education but also for the development of overlapping O&M skills.


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