Even in Kindergarten, Advanced Content Advances Learning

by Lisa Hansel
July 8th, 2014

In a must-read post last week, the Albert Shanker Institute’s Esther Quintero explored several studies showing that bringing more academic content into the early grades is beneficial for children. The final study she summarized, by Amy Claessens of the University of Chicago and Mimi Engel and Chris Curran of Vanderbilt University, particularly caught my eye. As Quintero wrote, this nationally representative study of kindergartners “found that all children, regardless of socioeconomic status or early childhood care experiences, ‘likely benefit from exposure to more advanced and less basic content.’ ”

That’s great, but it raises an obvious question: What is “advanced” content?

Quite reasonably, the researchers distinguished between basic and advanced content by assessing what the kids know:

Specific mathematics and reading content is considered to be basic or advanced depending on whether the majority of children had mastered that content at kindergarten entry. If over half of children entering kindergarten have mastered a particular content area, we define it as basic. Content that most children have not yet mastered is defined as advanced.

Using that gauge, here’s what was deemed basic and advanced:

Basic Math:

Count out loud

Work with geometric manipulatives

Correspondence between number and quantity

Recognizing and naming geometric shapes

Using measuring instruments

Identify relative quantity

Sort into subgroups

Ordering objects

Making/copying patterns

Advanced Math:

Know value of coins

Place value

Reading two-digit numbers

Recognizing ordinal numbers

Adding single-digit numbers

Subtracting single-digit numbers

Adding two-digit numbers

Subtracting two-digit numbers, without regrouping



Basic Reading:

Alphabet and letter recognition

Work on learning the names of the letters

Practice writing the letters of the alphabet

Writing own name

Advanced Reading:

Matching letters to sounds

Work on phonics

Common prepositions

Conventional spelling

Using context cues for comprehension

Read aloud

Read from basal reading texts

Read text silently


That’s not as much detail as I’d like to see, but it is helpful. Kindergarten teachers could use it as a minimal checklist when first exploring new programs or revising their curriculum. Anything that does not cover at least this “advanced” content is not likely to be a good use of school time because advanced content benefitted all students—those who had and had not attended preschool, and those from high- and low-income families:

We find that all children, regardless of preschool experiences or family economic circumstances, benefit from additional exposure to advanced reading and mathematics content in kindergarten. Complicating these results, we find that most children gain less in mathematics and stagnate (at best) in reading with additional exposure to basic content…. Our study suggests that exposing kindergartners to more advanced content in both reading and mathematics would promote skills among all children.


Advanced content courtesy of Shutterstock.

For making the most of the kindergarten year, an important first step may be ensuring that all teachers are aware of the benefits of advanced content. One component of this study is a survey of kindergarten teachers regarding their content coverage; it revealed that they spend far more time on basic content than on advanced content.

Time on content (days per month)

Basic math


Advanced math


Basic reading


Advanced reading


To be clear, these researchers are not calling for advanced content all the time. They note that basic content must be introduced often even just to segue to advanced content. Their recommendation is rather modest:

Our results indicate that shifting the content covered in a kindergarten classroom to 4 more days per month on advanced topics in reading or mathematics is associated with increased test score gains of about .05 standard deviations. While this is a modest gain, changing content coverage might be an inexpensive means of intervening…. Further, the consistently null (reading) or negative (math) effects of basic content in our study indicate that the often tricky issue of ‘‘finding the time’’ to implement curricular changes might be accomplished with relative ease in this case. Time on advanced content could be increased while time on basic content is reduced without the need to increase overall instructional time.

Four more days sounds reasonable to me. In reading, such a change would merely result in a roughly 50-50 split between basic and advanced content.

Although the researchers do not delve into it, there’s one more result from the kindergarten teacher survey that jumped out at me—the paltry amount of time devoted to science and social studies:

Time on subjects (minutes per week)

Lessons on math


Lessons on reading


Lessons on science


Lessons on social studies


You can check out pretty much any other post (including Quintero’s) on Core Knowledge’s blog to see why that’s of concern. If you’re interested in using an early grades reading program that is filled with “advanced” content and addresses science and social studies, we’ve got you covered.


  1. I have to say I am really surprised to see that this encourages the learning of letter names in the early stages. This is strongly discouraged by synthetic phonics, which evidence overwhelmingly supports as the best method to teach children how to read.

    Comment by Charlotte — July 10, 2014 @ 1:56 pm

  2. Hi Charlotte,

    Synthetic phonics is indeed highly effective and does focus on sounds before letter names–and it is the approach used in Core Knowledge Language Arts.

    It may be a stretch, though, to think that this study encourages teaching letter names. This study tracked what teachers were teaching and measured the effects–there was no intervention, nothing that the researchers asked a group of teachers to teach. Since we only have a bare-bones description of basic vs. advanced content, we don’t know precisely what the teachers emphasized.

    That said, the basic vs. advanced content could be in keeping with synthetic phonics. Notice that “letter recognition” is in the basic column and “matching letters to sounds” is in the advanced column. If we follow the simple recommendation of the study–less basic and more advanced content–we would spend less time on letter names and more time on matching sounds to letters (which can be done orally and visually without giving letter names).


    Comment by Lisa Hansel — July 10, 2014 @ 2:07 pm

  3. Great read. I teach in a Multiple Disabilities Unit with K-4 and we work on this academic content many years in a row. By the time the students leave my classroom to move on to the intermediate building, they have come close to mastering some of this material, or at least been exposed to it. Due to severe cognitive delays, they most likely will continue working on these concepts throughout their school life, but either way, I know they will be successful because the material was started at an early age.

    Going along with this idea of learning early on in the game, I’d like to add that this can be for behavior instruction and independent living skills as well. Just like we do not want to “baby” the kindergartners in academic work, we do not want to “baby” them in how to take care of themselves and learn the rules of life so they are able to function and thrive outside of the classroom.

    Thanks for the insight!

    Comment by Emily — July 17, 2014 @ 8:55 am

  4. As a kindergarten teacher of more that 25 years, I firmly believe in, at the least, exposing these young learners to advanced curriculum. For most of these young learners the adage of their minds being as absorbent as sponges is true.
    For many of these students this exposures opens up many teachable moments because is sparks interest or desire to learn and know more. My personnel experience is with a socially and economically disadvantaged population, with a high proportion of English Language Learners, and for them literacy in Language Arts and Math is the equivalent of the function of language acquisition. The more in depth a teacher dives into advanced content, the more young students become invested in learning. This in turn results in improved learning and ultimately improved test results.

    Comment by Elizabeth Johnson — July 17, 2014 @ 10:34 pm

  5. I had the opportunity to teach Kindergarten in Santa Fe, NM for 3 years. The bulk of my previous experience was in 1st and 2nd grade. As a 1st grade teacher, it was always so much easier to teach incoming Kindergarten students who had many of the advanced math and reading skills mentioned in this article. Students were able to grasp ideas and concepts in first grade much easier and faster. I therefore totally agree with introducing Kindergarten students to advanced math and reading skills. As a Kindergarten teacher, though, if your school or district does not support this idea, it can be very challenging. For example. Kindergarten teachers in New Mexico had to follow specific curriculum and standards that did not incorporate any of the advanced reading or math skills presented in this article. We were told not to deviate from the curriculum that was given to us. After finally covering the curriculum and the standards, there was no time to cover anything else. I am sure this is a challenege that many teachers face in many districts. So my question is, what is the best way to overcome this?

    Comment by Candy San Pedro — July 20, 2014 @ 2:18 pm

  6. I found the article quite interesting. The bar for learners continues to raise and I agree that it all starts in kindergarten. Through intentional teaching, the basic skills can be taught along with some of the advanced skills. For example, students can learn the names of coins as they explore the values of coins. I think the advanced teaching keeps challenging students and encouraging them to achieve at higher levels. The program also supports differentiation in the classroom as well because you can incorporate basic and advanced skills into the learning experiences of the students. I agree with Candy from above that it may be difficult for teachers with strict curriculums that do not allow teachers to deviate. In my district, we teach from standards and do not have a curriulum program for English Language Arts in K-2.

    Comment by Anthony — July 20, 2014 @ 7:31 pm

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