How Do You Plan Your Units of Instruction?

By: Mark Banasiak @MoreThanGym

When I was in college, I was required to write a unit plan as part of a class assignment. I was taught to select a skill theme, decide on the number of days the unit would last, and plan what would happen on each day of the unit. This was a hard assignment at the time. How was I supposed to know what would happen on Day 5 of the unit if the unit hadn’t even started? After several years of teaching, I have become convinced that this traditional way of pre-planning a unit is an antiquated practice.

As a result, I have worked with my colleagues to develop and modify what we affectionately call Skill Progression Sheets (SPS’s) for each unit we teach. These SPS’s are our unit plans. They are simply lists (like a recipe card) that break down each skill into tiny, manageable steps that are designed to help a student succeed.  The buzzword for this in the education world is “deconstructing the standards.”

Once I start teaching, I go as far as the student skill level will allow and then pick up where we left off the next class. I tell the students that skill development is like climbing a flight of steps, as you cannot jump to the top (culminating activity). You must go step by step. If they are ready, we will move on; however, if they are not then we will practice some more. The coupling of actual instruction and assessment will determine what is taught on each day of the unit (we will talk about that in my next post).

When planning each unit of instruction, it is important to ask the following questions:

  • What skills are needed to be a successful, age-appropriate participant in this activity (e.g., basketball, volleyball, tennis, etc.)?
  • How can these skills be broken down?
  • What activities and drills can be utilized to practice these skills in non-complex, game-like situations?

After answering these questions, you can begin to plan your unit of instruction.

For example, when teaching 4-square, you cannot go straight to the activity without proper skill development. The following is an example of a two-hand, underhand striking progression that our third grade students use.

*Note: Each student is working with a partner, and each pair has their own space and playground ball.

  1. Drop, hit, bounce, catch – this is the serve in 4-square – (the focus is on the initial hit that is dropped and then hit to a partner who is straight across)
  2. Drop, hit, hit, hit, catch – (the focus is now on the second and third hits that come from a partner who is straight across – so they are tracking the ball and then striking it back to their partner)
  3. Drop, hit, hit… – this a continuous hit – (the focus is on the second, third, and additional hits that come from a partner who is straight across)
  4. Multiple Partners – the students are placed in groups of 4 on a 4-square court (the focus is on receiving and striking a ball to and from different angles) – There is no mention of rules or boundaries – simply, how many hits/strikes in a row can your group get before it bounces twice?
  5. Modified Four Square – [the focus is now on the rules, boundaries, and strategical errors of the activity (Was it hit correctly? Did it hit a line? Did it bounce twice?, etc. ) as well as the basic rotation]. I usually introduce one to two rules at a time so as to not bombard them.
  6. Traditional Four-Square – (focus is now on strategy)

Note: The initial steps (#1 DHBC & #2 DHHHC) may be introduced to our second graders simply as a challenge with the latter steps being further developed when they reach fourth and fifth grade. Items #5 & #6 in the list are skill dependent – that is, we may or may not progress to them with the 3rd graders – it all depends on their skill level.

We previously determined that we wanted the students to participate in 4-square. We then designed lessons/activities to help get each student to that point.

Another key detail in planning a unit of instruction is to define the critical elements and the common mistakes of each step in the progression. This must be done in order to be able to give specific feedback. When teaching, general feedback does not help to improve performance. When teaching the two-hand, underhand strike, one must define the critical elements in order to know when to progress a pair to the next level.

Critical Elements of the Two-Hand, Underhand Strike:

  • TSW drop the ball straight down from waist level.
  • TSW step forward with one foot as striking.
  • TSW strike with two hands (fingers pointing to the floor).
  • TSW make contact with their finger pads [similar hand contact as basketball dribble (striking the ball upward versus pushing it down)].
  • The ball should move to their partner with a medium level arch.
  • The ball should bounce one time and then the partner should catch it.

I have also found it helpful to define the common mistakes.

Common Mistakes of the Two-Hand, Underhand Strike:

  • TSW carry the ball rather than striking it.
  • TSW not take a step.
  • TSW hit the ball with too much or too little force.
  • TSW hit the ball with their hands in the overhand position.
  • TSW strike the ball with only one hand.

When you take the time to define the critical elements and common mistakes, you are creating a rubric.   This rubric will play a key role during the actual instruction and skill assessment (more about that in my next post).

The final part of planning a unit comes at the conclusion. Within a month or so of completing each unit, my colleague and I sit down to review and revise the unit. During this conversation, we discuss what needs to be added, deleted, or which parts of the SPS need to be rearranged. Each SPS is a separate document on my computer. After completing the review, the changes are made on the computer so that the SPS is ready to be used next year.   As a result, you are essentially planning a year in advance. Yeah, you read that statement correctly. I write my unit plans a year in advance. The next time I prepare to teach that unit, I simply print the revised SPS, get the equipment ready, and let the student’s skill level dictate the rest.

I also make an effort to participate in various professional development activities (e.g., attend a local in-service or a state/regional conference), review online resources, and collaborate with other physical educators in order to learn new ideas and activities. Those ideas and activities may be added to the SPS’s throughout the year.

I have found this type of unit planning to be more student-focused and student-friendly. After all, the ultimate goal is to plan a list of activities that should be taught to help each child be successful. This method allows you to be more efficient in your planning. That is, planning a road map to get to the culmination is a much easier task than trying to predict which parts of that road map will be taught on each day of the unit. Additionally, revising the SPS when the unit has just been taught is more efficient because it is still fresh in your mind. If you make notes but wait to review the unit until you are preparing to teach it again, then it has been almost 11 months since you actually taught the unit.

 How do you plan your units of instruction?

Could you benefit from this type of planning?

This method of unit planning and revision are key to the system of instruction that I call the Student Progression Model of Physical Education Instruction. During the next post, I will discuss how assessment drives instruction and acts as a motivator.

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Reference – This post is reworked from an article I wrote for the TN AHPERD 2009 Fall Newsletter entitled “Designing a Skill Progression That Uses Assessment to Motivate Physical Education Students.”

**UPDATE** – Here is a sample SPS (K-2 Tossing & Catching)

K-2 Sango Toss_Catch – Blog


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