Making Sense of Physical Literacy

The concept of Physical Literacy is at the forefront of a lot of discussions within the physical education field right now. But what is Physical Literacy? Is it the same as Physical Education? Is it different? Are they mutually exclusive? Over the past year I have been seeking to define my thinking and make sense of the idea of Physical Literacy in my context. This post will serve as the first in a Physical Literacy blog series that will hopefully help me make sense of my journey to understand physical literacy. The idea is that through blogging, it will help me to better define my purpose as a physical educator and how physical literacy fits into that purpose.

First Exposure

Ok so I'll admit it, the first time I heard the term physical literacy my initial thoughts went to reading and writing and was this an attempt by policy makers to try and develop cross curricular links between literacy and physical education? Did they want me to have my students spell out words using their bodies? To me it seemed like just the next "buzz word" in the laundry list of  new "innovative" educational strategies.

Over time I kept seeing it popping up in physical education circles and decided that I better explore it further and find out more about it. I think my first exposure to physical literacy which really grabbed my attention was the video below:

Around the same time I discovered a definition definition of physical literacy which was published by PHE Canada. They defined physical literacy as:

"Individuals who are physically literate move with competence and confidence in a wide variety of physical activities in multiple environments that benefit the healthy development of the whole person"  - (PHE Canada, 2010)

In discovering this definition I was immediately drawn to the idea of "moving with competence and competence." Surely this meant Fundamental Movement Skills? There was even a handy graphic which helped show the importance of the different fundamental movement skills.

The definition goes on to say that this will "benefit the healthy development of the whole person."  Isn't that what physical educators the world over have been trying to do for the last hundred years or so? Isn't that our purpose?
On I went thinking that physical literacy was still just a fancy new term for physical education. I was already doing a good job at helping my students to develop their fundamental movement skills so therefore I must also be helping them to develop their physical literacy.

Digging Deeper

As time went on I noticed that I just kept seeing physical literacy appear everywhere I looked. At the same time a number of physical educators that I hugely respect had begun to share their thoughts on physical literacy as well. Some of the blogs and articles which helped me to dig a little deeper into the concept of physical literacy are listed below:

Physical Literacy is Not Physical Activity - Amanda Stanec

An Introduction to Physical Literacy Praxis - Doug Gleddie

On Student Reflection in Physical Education & The #MaxYourDays Mural: Celebrating Physical Literacy Journeys - Joey Feith

Physical Literacy: The Philosophy & Physical Literacy: Motivation - @ImSporticus

Physical Literacy: The Gateway to Active Participation- Dean Kriellaars

A Conceptual Model of Observed Physical Literacy - Dean Dudley (more about this one later!)

After reading these blogs I began to see physical literacy as something more than just fundamental movement skills. Physical Literacy seemed like it could serve a bigger purpose within my physical education program and even beyond the gym walls and school gates. Physical literacy wasn't just a set of skills learnt in PE class, but was a lifelong journey to find meaning in movement and to be well prepared to live life to the fullest.

And it wasn't just these amazing team #PhysEd members who were sharing their thoughts about the importance of physical literacy and how it fit together with physical education. I read the Quality Physical Education Guidelines for Policy-Makers document published by UNESCO and immediately drawn to the following statements:

“Physical education is the most effective means of providing all children and youth with the skills, attitudes, values, knowledge and understanding for lifelong participation in society.”

"Physical literacy is the foundation of physical education, it is not a programme but an outcome of any structured physical education provision, which is achieved more readily if learners encounter a range of age and stage appropriate opportunities."

Now the lightbulb was beginning to come on. I began to see how physical literacy could be the larger purpose behind what we do not only in PE class, but as a whole community to encourage not only physical activity but people to be "good" members of their communities.

You say "Tomatoes" I say "Tomatoes"

Something I have always found confusion about physical literacy is the plethora of different definitions. Many different organisations throughout the world have developed their own unique definitions of physical literacy, and while they are inherently similar in meaning, the fact that so many exist serves as a point of confusion to many in the physical education field. An example of how this confusion can hinder the physical education profession can be found in a paper by Lynch and Soukup (2016) debating if physical literacy is a clever way to promote physical education or has it further confused teachers?

Do a quick Google search of physical literacy definitions and you will find a number of different definitions attributed to a number of peak physical education bodies around the globe. One that you are likely to see a lot of is the definition from the International Physical Literacy Association:

While the different definitions may cause some confusion, this definition seems to be taking hold as the definition of choice around the world and it is the definition which I find the most useful in helping me to better understand physical literacy.

Coming to a Consensus

At this point my thinking had evolved and I was convinced that the concept of physical literacy as the foundation of my physical education program would be beneficial for both me, my students and our wider community. I wanted to make sure that everyone was on the same page so that we could all work together. Around the same time that I settled on the IPLA definition I discovered Canada's Physical Literacy Consensus Statement.

The statement created through consultation with sector leaders in Canada suggested that a common definition with consistent language was needed to provide clarity for the development of policy, practice and research. The consensus statement identified four essential and interconnected elements:

- Motivation & Confidence (Affective)

- Physical Competence (Physical)

- Knowledge & Understanding (Cognitive)

- Engagement in Physical Activities for Life (Behavioural)

These four elements which address the Four Domains of Learning in Physical Education are directly related to the IPLA definition. Given the confusion that I found early on in developing my understanding physical literacy, I was encouraged that Canada (a place I will soon call home) was trying to get everyone on the same page in regards to physical literacy and I decided too to subscribe to this consensus statement.

Putting Physical Literacy Into Practice

Now that I had clarified my understanding and made sense of Physical Literacy as a foundation for my physical education program, I began to think about how I could begin to put this into practice. I knew this wouldn't be an easy task (in fact it's something a lot of physical educators, organisations and researchers are trying to come to terms with at the moment). I mentioned earlier that one of the papers which had helped me clarify my thinking on physical literacy was A Conceptual Model of Observed Physical Literacy by Dean Dudley. In his paper Dean aimed to present a unique conceptual model of observed physical literacy and establish an assessment rubric on which future assessment protocol may be based. 

He argues that "physical literacy should be viewed as an umbrella concept that captures the knowledge, skills, understanding and values related to taking responsibility for purposeful physical activity and human movement across the life course, regardless of physical or psychological constraint." He identifies four key elements contained within a model of physical literacy:

To me each of these elements aligned nicely with the elements mentioned in the Canadian Consensus Statement. In Dean's paper I found the elements to be a little more descriptive and easier to begin to understand how I could begin to plan, teach and assess them in my physical education program. While Dean's paper suggests a loose non linear progression from simple to complex, bringing together the four elements might only be achieved by beginning with the motivation and interests of the students.

Making Sense of Physical Literacy as a Purpose

Having been on a journey to discover and understand physical literacy and how it can serve as a foundation for my physical education program, for me essentially it comes down to the following. 

I want my students to:

- Be Confident in their ability to move & be active.

- Be Competent moving in a variety of ways .

- Have the Knowledge & Understanding to be thinking movers and solve problems.

- To Value & Take Responsibility for taking action to move & be active.

If I can provide my students and the wider school community the opportunities to explore movement, sport and activity in ways which will enable them to feel confident and competent in the ability, while critically thinking their way through movement problems then I believe I can go some way to helping them develop the attitudes and values they will need to continue to be active once they leave my PE classes.

Now that I have made sense of how physical literacy can serve as the foundation of my physical education program, I have been trying to make sure that everything I am doing in my PE classes and in the wider school community is helping my students to develop their physical literacy.  In the coming posts in this physical literacy series, I will be breaking down each of these four areas in separate blog posts sharing how I am trying to teach and assess student progress in developing physical literacy, starting with the next posts on how I am helping students to develop their confidence.

Thanks so much for taking the time to reflect with me on my journey to make sense of physical literacy. While I feel my understanding has definitely evolved, it continues to develop as I reflect further, read new research and understand ways that I can better create learning experiences with physical literacy as a foundation. I would love to hear more about your thoughts and understanding of physical literacy. If you enjoyed this post and want to make sure that you don't miss the next blog post be sure to join our mailing list.

Nathan Horne is a physical educator currently based in Singapore (soon to be in Vancouver, Canada) and the founder of iPhys-Ed.com Be sure to never miss out on any of iPhys-Ed.com’s future posts by connecting with us via TwitterFacebook, Youtube or Instagram. Nathan can be contacted on Twitter @PENathan.


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  1. Yes quite a big discussion ….final teaching is based on a proper understanding….do look at my own thoughts on this n visit my website…maybe have drink n discussion before u leave Singapore…@reinventthegame

  2. Thank you for writing this blog post, and especially thank you for providing so many resources to learn more! I am working on my dissertation and am 80% sure I want to focus on physical literacy. Again, thanks, and keep up the great work!