Instructional Cues

Examples of Cues


Rationale for Cues

A teacher's overall instructional effectiveness depends heavily on how that teacher uses instructional cues. A cue consists of a word, phrase, or sentence that describes a particular aspect of a concept or skill. While cues most often focus on motor skill development in physical education, they may also target fitness, strategy, character development, or any other aspect of lessons teachers deem appropriate. A growing body of research suggests that cues enhance learning by improving student attention, comprehension, and retention.


Cues enhance the attention or focus of learners by restricting what they need to think about. Since learner's capacity for attention is limited, it is important to deplete the capacity with relevant, rather than irrelevant (or perhaps, less relevant) stimuli. Consequently, cues play an important role in directing student's attention toward the most critical information, and away from less critical information. As Buchanan and Briggs (1998) put it, "While having more than one cue for the same movement is useful, be careful not to confuse a student by bombarding him or her with an endless variety of hints" (p.17).


In addition to helping students attend to ideas in a lesson, cues help students comprehend ideas. Naturally, students understand concepts better when teachers communicate them clearly and developmentally. Clarity depends, in part, on using the same terms consistently. Developmental cues result from focusing on (a) process elements before product elements, and (b) basic process elements before advanced process elements. Focusing too much on product elements, such as distance and accuracy, directs learner focus away from understanding how to produce a given movement. Although emphasizing advanced process elements retains proper focus, ideas are too difficult to grasp if basic elements are not understood first. After communicating cues clearly, teachers are encouraged to incorporate the same ideas as part of the feedback process (Landin, 1994). In this way carefully chosen cues help teachers target their feedback throughout a lesson and unit.


While understanding ideas is important, it would serve little purpose if students did not retain the information for future application. Retention is especially enhanced when cues connect new ideas to previously learned ideas in some way (Magill, 1993). In addition, retention is related to attention and comprehension chronologically: To the degree that learners (a) attend to cues, and (b) comprehend cues, they are more likely to (c) retain the information for future use. Conversely, if students are not attentive, and do not understand cues, they are ill-prepared to apply them in the future. Certainly, one of the aims of education is to foster desire and ability for students to learn independently.

Criteria for Cues

Although instructional cues generally help students attend to tasks, comprehend ideas, and retain ideas, the effectiveness of a cue depends on it's particular composition. From a potentially long list of criteria for effective cues, four are described below.


Cues need to focus on the most central or relevant information. With limited class time, teachers need to "get the most bang for their buck." What makes a particular cue central or relevant? It has to do with how important that information is to achieving success. Some cues are important because they target proximal aspects of movement. If a child does not know what direction to face his trunk while batting, telling him to shorten his swing has little value. It is less proximal (or more distal). Less proximal cues become more necessary as movement is refined because proximal aspects are more ingrained or automatic (Rink, 1993). The notion of importance or centrality applies to all areas of instruction, not just skill development. For instance, it is more important to understand that volleyball strategy involves a bump-set-spike, than to understand the benefits of spiking the ball down the line. These examples reveal that the criterion of centrality is closely related to the developmental nature of cues.


A second criterion for effective cues is degree of accuracy. A cue can be relevant, yet be inaccurate or incorrect. While teachers may agree that how to grip a tennis racket ranks high in importance, comparing the grip to holding a pencil is terribly inaccurate. As with centrality, accuracy of cues concerns more than skill development. Although eating a balanced diet would be relevant to teaching fitness principles, teaching students that the primary energy source is fats would be inaccurate.


Brevity has benefit for the teacher and student. From the teacher's standpoint, preparing cues in a concise manner makes it easier to organize relationships between ideas, and to remember cues when it's actually time to use them. From the student's standpoint, the concise cue is easier to remember as well. It is much easier for a student to remember to "shake hands with the racket", than to "grip the racket with the top of the racket midway between the thumb and index finger."


The creativity of a cue contributes to learning in significant ways, yet is less important than the other criteria. As with brevity, a creative cue is more likely remembered than an uncreative cue. Ideas may be expressed creatively through several types of cues, including, but not limited to acronyms, alliteration, rhymes, slogans and similes or word pictures. Each type of cue may be instrumental in helping learners connect new learning to old learning. Examples of each type of cue are provided in the left hand margin.

Relationship between Criteria

Physical educators need to guard against achieving one cue criterion at the expense of another. For example, using alliteration creatively is helpful only to the degree it is also correct (and concise). In this vein, telling students that "practice makes perfect" does them a disservice. I have yet to find a student with perfect motor skills. The slogan, "No 'I' In TEAM" meets all the above criteria. It is central because how players on a team relate to one another is critical to their success. It is correct, because experience indicates that primary emphasis on individual goals is harmful to team unity and performance. Naturally the slogan is concise by definition. Lastly, the cue is creative in that it emphasizes the need to put group concerns above individual concerns via spelling.

In rare cases, one criterion may work against another criterion. Many people learned how to spell words with 'ie' combinations because they heard a rhyming jingle, "'i' before 'e' except after 'c', or when sounding like 'a' as in neighbor or weigh." In this case, the creativity of the rhyme, and retention of the ideas were achieved with a less concise cue.

Ways to Express Cues

Instructional cues may be expressed in three general ways: verbally, visually and kinesthetically. The content of a cue determines the teacher's options. The slogan, "No 'I' In TEAM", for instance, does not lend itself to kinesthetic expression. Although students could form the letters with their bodies, taking the time is not warranted because no reference is made to movement mechanics. By contrast, "sitting down in a chair" at the end of a spiking approach may be expressed in all three ways effectively. Teachers are encouraged to vary how cues are expressed, recognizing that students may respond better to one cue than another.

Verbal Cues

Verbal cues are used most widely by physical educators because they represent the most common way to communicate, and because the largest quantity of information may be expressed verbally. In addition, verbal information is not easily misinterpreted if expressed clearly. A disadvantage of verbal cues is that, while teachers rely on one-way verbal exchanges as their primary means of teaching, a small percentage of learners rely on predominantly auditory information.

Visual and Kinesthetic Cues

Visual and kinesthetic cues are helpful to all learners for the sake of variety, and to visual and kinesthetic learners, respectively, in particular. In additon, visual and kinesthenic cues are especially appropriate when visual cues have limited value. An obvious situation that renders verbal cues less valuable is any time a language barrier exists. With increasing students of other cultures in physical education classes, it is helpful to utilize visual demonstrations or physical manipulation to convey movement ideas. Naturally, manipulation needs to fall within the teacher's and student's comfort level for physical touch. Another situation in which verbal cues are less valuable is in teaching technical movements with complicated directions. For this reason, visual and kinesthenic cues are used widely in the teaching of gymnastics and diving. It is marginally helpful to tell a student to align the hips over the shoulders in a handstand, if the student doesn't receive help to see and feel what that is like.

A further advantage of visual cues is when the teacher is too far away to use verbal cues. If a class is practicing throw-ins on a soccer field, a teacher could remind selected students to drag their rear foot by modeling the movement from 20 or 30 yards away. Of course, the usual context for understanding the visual cue is created earlier with a verbal cue.


Buchanan, A., & Briggs, J. (1998). Making cues meaningful: A guide for creating your own. Teaching Elementary Physical Education, 9 (3), 16-18.

Landin, D. (1994). The role of verbal cues in skill learning. Quest, 46, 299-313.

Magill, R. (1993). Motor learning: Concepts and applications (4th ed.). Dubuque, IA: Brown.

Rink, J. (1993). Teaching physical education for learning. St. louis, MO: Mosby.

© Steven A. Henkel, 12/02

PE Central: Activity cues