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The Most Emphatic Early Learning Numbers Explained. 0 to 100!

It is possible to tell a story with numbers. In early learning, there are so many statistics that often get used and recycled to emphasize certain points, whether they deal with percentages, whole numbers of fractions. 

It’s a good exercise to pause, step back and reflect on the individual messages each statistic conveys. Doing so makes it possible to notice the overall picture or trend of early learning. 

Early learning, also known as early childhood education, refers to the education a child receives from birth to age 8, which roughly corresponds to the grade 3 in most school systems.


Early Learning Statistics and Commentary

In this article, we cover early learning statistics from zero to a hundred, divided into 10 sections. As statistics can be spun in many different ways, we provide commentary on each number as we start from zero and make our way to hundred.


0 and Up

Turns out early learning begins at birth! There are developmental milestones listed as early as 2 months. Early Head Start Programs serve infants and toddlers under the age of 3. It shows why there is a need for systematic education for that age group as well. 

This additional $1 billion brings the total Head Start (ages 3-5) and Early Head Start (ages 0-3) funding to above $10 billion for 2021. 

The pandemic affected all facets of life, including early childhood education. In the crucial early years of development, the 2 missed months of learning can have a compounded effect later on if not addressed. 

  • There was little to no disruption for 10 % of 3-5 year olds who remained in the same program on the same pre-pandemic schedule during the pandemic.

Only 1 out of 10 schoolchildren had any sense of continuity during the course of COVID-19. Again, the threat of discontinuity and inconsistency of education in the crucial early years is something that should be examined more closely.

  • Children’s academic success at ages 9 and 10 are determined by the amount of conversation they heard from birth to age 3

There are multiple variations of this one statistic, but it demonstrates the necessity of parental involvement in the early years to instill oral communication in their children. Development of oral language is an important indicator of success in the later years.


The 10s

This is extremely important to take into account, not because of the lack of importance of special education (which is very much needed), but the costs of special education placements and the fact that such placements are preventable via early enrollment.

  • Students from minority communities attended school districts that received nearly 13% less in state and local funding compared to those school districts that had fewer students of colour. 

Education inequity is something that cannot be swept under the rug. With the expansion of high-quality and affordable early learning programs, there is hope that such inequity will dissipate over time. Especially if the best support is provided in the early years, it acts as an outstanding equalizer regarding school preparedness. 

Supporting the last point, this is again a reminder that attending and progressing from preschool to grade three is linked to academic success later on. Thus it’s very important to extend whatever support that is necessary during this time period. 

Before one can even graduate highschool, as mentioned in the last point, it is important that they progress through each grade. This further establishes the link between enrolling early into a school system and successful graduation years later. 

The benefits of preschool attendance do not stop at academic success. When considering everything the child eventually contributes to the economy and the society, the ROI is thoroughly justified.


The 20s

Education resources, both inside and outside the classroom, are so important to early childhood development. Books are one of the best sources for learning, which can be read to kids, and which kids can learn to read themselves. 

  • Pre-k enrollment during the pandemic in the US declined by 22%.

Given everything that is discussed thus far on the importance of pre-k, it’s discouraging to see that a major catastrophe such as a pandemic or natural disaster can discourage enrollment in pre-k. Even if remote learning can be arranged at such times, situational stress and safety concerns seem to have a discouraging effect on enrollment.


The 30s

 There are other forms of learning, besides just cognitive, which have a tremendous impact on both academic and non-academic success for a child. 

In the very famous study conducted by Hart and Risely, where children from wealthier families were exposed to a certain number of words in an hour, it turned out that difference added up to be a massive advantage by the time they turned 4. 

Admittedly, the statistic is worded to provide maximum shock, but the point still stands. Expanding vocabulary in the early years is paramount. 

After all aforementioned benefits of preschool, the fact remains that a sizable chunk of children who are not enrolled in preschool.  The reasons for this are wide-ranging. Understanding them would help address the causes of education inequity.


The 40s

There are positive and negative externalities of early childhood education. Most of the positives have been mentioned such as graduating high school and becoming a productive member of society. 

It also helps to look at what can be avoided, such as crime. This happens when young students are beneficiaries of an education program that goes beyond just academics and teaches them values.

No early learning program is successful without effective teachers. When teachers have the right resources and infrastructure, they are able to do their work well and make a huge difference in early learning. 

Almost half of the 3 year old children in the US were not enrolled in preschool in 2020. This is in contrast 34% of 4 year olds who were not enrolled in preschool. It makes sense that the older children get, the greater the likelihood they will be admitted to school. 

But on the heels of everything mentioned in this article about the importance of starting early, there is a lot more work to be done in providing access to high-quality education to 3 year olds.


The 50s

Pound for pound, books are one of the best resources for learning. Not worksheets, or tablets, but traditional paper books. Even if meant for children, they are designed to fast-track learning and provide a type of learning experience that is more permanent. It’s why here at Spig Learning, levelled readers and storybooks are such an essential part of our early learning programs.


The 60s

Remote learning may be great as a contingency plan, but it is not the preferred method for teaching. Transitioning out of the pandemic, both students and teachers would favour in-person classrooms for high-quality learning. 

This speaks to the intergenerational nature of the inequity in education. It’s been found that when two successive generations of people are educated by the Head Start Program, the latter generation fares better because of improved parenting from previous Head Start attendees.


The 70s

  • 70% of elementary school principals say that they could not meet their students’ mental health needs with the staff they had.

This is why educating the whole child is so important, rather than focusing on academics only. Holistic learning is a great approach that focuses on the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual side of growth which can mitigate any emergent conditions later on.

  • In NYC, the lowest annual fee for a private school is $1280, while the highest is $72,725.

Based on all these statistics, it’s clear that there is a  need for preschool. Sprig Learning has written on the qualities that make a high-quality preschool program before. This statistic however looks at the private sector, and it just demonstrates just how much value can be added on to a program in terms of quality.

Inequity emerges again as a major issue, as kids from families who make less income are less prepared for kindergarten. Assistance is required. There is a window of opportunity to address this discrepancy in the early years of learning.

Beyond education, providing a high-quality learning environment helps families as well who can trust that their children are being well looked after. It strengthens families by allowing them to better manage their time, and giving them confidence knowing they are being supported by teachers and the greater community. Learn about how community plays a key role in holistic learning.


The 80s

Previously, we saw that children from higher income families are better prepared when entering school. This statistic is an extension of that, which shows exactly how those who enter kindergarten ready to learn, can then benefit from the schooling that is provided.

  • By age 3, approximately 85% of the brain’s core structure is formed. 

This is a throwback to the beginning of the article that zoomed in on early development. Indeed, most of the brain develops by age 3, the age when most kids enroll into preschool. Learning truly begins in the home. It is best when early learning programs include a learn-at-home component through which parents are supported to help their child’s learning at home.


The 90s

  • There is a 90% likelihood that, in the absence of additional instructional support,  a poor reader in 1st grade will remain a poor reader.

This is a chilling statistic that shows how important preschool and kindergarten are for taking corrective measures to fix or optimize the learning capacity of the child in question. It’s good to have multiple formative assessments during that period of learning, to identify all learning opportunities before it’s too late.

A teachers’ role in the early learning process simply cannot be understated. There is curriculum, content and methods of assessment, but it’s the teacher who varies instruction in all these areas to best educate a young student according to their unique abilities. 

  • Over 100 activities were conducted across Canada by Indigenous organizations and the government of Canada to inform a better understanding of existing Indigenous early learning and child care systems.

While most of the earlier statistics mention the need for high-quality early learning programs, it is not possible to achieve quality with the considerations of all stakeholders.

When designing early learning programs, respecting the various diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds of communities is extremely important.


Main Takeaways

That brings our article to a close. Hard hitting early learning numbers, from zero to hundred. Going through all of the statistics offers a lot of takeaways. In summary:

1. There is so much research that points to the benefits of prioritizing high-quality education in the earlier years.  Starting early is crucial when it comes to educating young learners. It sets the foundation and tone for the rest of their student journey.

2. Inequity is linked to accessibility. Even if the benefits of early learning are thoroughly understood, expanding such programs to all will remain a challenge for years to come. Certain high-quality aspects of the program might have to be scaled quickly. Sprig Learning can help with that. Reach out to us to know how we can help.


Benefits of Differentiated Instruction in Early Learning—The Comprehensive List [With Matching Strategies]

Sprig Learning believes that every child is truly unique with their own learning gifts, strengths and challenges. Naturally, we endorse differentiated instruction, or differentiated learning, as a teaching method. It is the act of varying instruction based on the needs and progress of groups of students. When customized for just one student, it is known as individualized instruction. 

Multiple studies prove the efficiency of differentiated or individualized instruction. It is starkly different to whole group instruction, which is the traditional way of teaching to the whole class, instead of groups or individuals. 

It’s a lot to ask a program or an educator to introduce or change their current curriculum or teaching practice to adopt new content or teaching methods. One of the benefits of differentiated instruction is that it doesn’t require teachers to implement a complete overhaul. Differentiated instruction only requires that one of the following elements be modified to suit the needs of the student group: teaching content, process, assessments or environment.

There are many ways to vary these elements, it’s likely you already employ the concept of differentiated instruction at some level.

Some of the most popular teaching methods in preschools and kindergarten—such as the hands-on approach, cooperative learning, conference learning and play-based learning—are not mutually exclusive. Mixing and matching them is one form of differentiated instruction. The educator sees what type of learning certain groups of students are most receptive to, and modifies instruction for that group to optimize their learning.


Need for Effort and Seeing the Benefits of Differentiated Instruction

Of course, everytime you modify an aspect of teaching, it requires planning and effort. There is also the aspect of follow up thereafter, to see if the varied instruction had its intended effect on the students. 

It’s why understanding the benefits of differentiated instruction is crucial. With proper understanding, greater clarity is achieved on why there is a need to differentiate. 

For this article, we browsed through both industry and academic literature to gather all the benefits of differentiated instruction. Each benefit is matched with a strategy. The benefits can be realized by following the respective strategy.


Differentiated Instruction Benefits & Strategies to Realize Them

Addresses Learning Gaps

Differentiated instruction is effective at providing appropriate instruction to students with a wide range of abilities. Some young students learn very quickly, while others need more time to learn and absorb specific concepts. Differentiated instruction takes both speed and depth into account when tailoring instruction. 

Strategy: When flexible grouping and self-selected reading time are used, targeted students are able to improve their phonemic, decoding and comprehension skills. 


Considers Both Active and Passive Learning

As everything depends on the unique learning strengths and opportunities of the student in differentiated instruction, the differentiated instruction teaching method  is very open to active learning, which is experiential in nature. Usually early learners prefer to engage more in play-based learning, but there are some who prefer a more informal learning. 

Strategy: For active learners, teach outdoors as well as in the classroom. Scheduling a lot of movement breaks is considered a teaching best practice for early learners. 


Caters to Individual Strengths

Young students have both learning strengths and challenges. If any course material or learning style does not consider learning strengths, then they are less likely to overcome learning gaps. It’s very common for students to struggle with certain concepts and skills, but by focusing on learning strengths, it is possible to unlock a child’s full potential. 

Strategy: The National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities indicates that one out of five children struggle with the process of learning to read. It is important to remind ourselves that there have been many studies conducted prior on this topic and that the evidence suggests that “teaching children to decode letters and words, incorporating a whole language technique, and utilizing phonics instruction” are useful for gaining reading proficiency. 


Values Individual Interests and Abilities

Differentiated instruction is student-centered. Early learners inform educators how they best learn and what interests them. This is especially relevant in children from different linguistic and cultural communities. Relevant educator resources are needed to appeal to them. 

Strategy: In a study involving 48 elementary school teachers where they documented lesson objectives and recorded pre- and post-differentiated instruction results, students felt greater ownership of the class content and their performances when they were given choices in how they wanted to learn and be assessed. 


Does Not Neglect the Benefits of Group Learning

Differentiated learning is not the same as individualized learning, where learning takes place on a one-to-one basis. Differentiated learning can accommodate the individual learner as well, but it recognizes all the advantages of group learning where early learners can interact with their peers.  

Strategy: Use the think-pair-share method where students conversate amongst themselves before sharing their ideas with the whole classroom. 


Equally Qualitative and Quantitative

Differentiated instruction uses both qualitative and quantitative data to teach and assess early learners. When varying teaching content between differently skilled learners, it’s important to vary the difficulty of work. When assessing young students, it’s important to note all information about their learning environment.

Strategy: The whole basis of differentiated instruction is that not everyone is equally good at everything. Thus varying the length or quantity of assessment exercise or scaffolding the same learning activity into varied levels of difficulty are popular differentiation methods. While they are more tactics than strategy, they can be collectively looked at as a strategy. 


Increases Participation

Differentiated instruction has been proven to increase student engagement. Without active or passive participation, learning can often screech to a halt. 

Strategy: In the same study mentioned prior for “Values Individual Interests and Abilities”, it was found that students were more “motivated to stay engaged” in classes when they had greater say in the course content and methods of assessments. They displayed higher energy levels.


Includes Comprehensive Assessment

In order to differentiate, there is no getting around the need for a holistic assessment. It’s interesting that a distinction is made between educating the “whole child” versus targeted learning. In reality, both can be combined where the right targeted learning can be applied only after understanding the whole child.

Strategy: Use holistic assessments to unleash a comprehensive understanding of student learning. Not only does this approach gather numerous data points when screening students to properly understand them, it also considers subsequent formative assessments that will be conducted on the basis of this initial understanding. 


Ensures Flexibility for Teachers

The majority of this article is about students. But what about teachers? Differentiated instruction also takes educator preferences into account, where it provides them the opportunity to design lessons meant for particular groups of students. The approach is not restricted by a rigid curriculum, but can be creative in finding solutions of how to best teach the curriculum content to all students. 

Strategy: Regardless of the learning approach chosen, it must consist of “respectful activities”. Carol Ann Tomlinson, an education innovator and teacher, considered to be the pioneer of differentiated instruction, uses that term to refer to activities that are not dull drills or just fluff. Students have to continually work on tasks that motivate them and are considered valuable.


Is Inclusive Towards All

Differentiated instruction is aware of the current inequity in education. Based on this understanding, it attempts to provide students a high-standard quality of education so students have the opportunities and resources to excel regardless of their background or circumstances. 

Strategy: Depending on where your school is located, it’s important that the curriculum is reflective of the needs of the student body. When children see their culture and language reflected in classroom materials, they are more inclined to learn. 


Assessment is Thorough and Ongoing

Differentiated instruction uses formative assessments to monitor the growth of all students. It’s often that a student’s interests change or that their improvement accelerates or decelerates over time. Thus, in between summative assessments such as yearly progress reports or report cards, it’s important to keep track of learning trajectories. 

Strategy: Allow for do-overs when it comes to assessment. Sometimes young learners understand a concept but for whatever situational reason, may not be able to demonstrate that learning. In such instances, allowing them more chances to prove themselves before shifting anything else is worth exploring. It is an underutilized strategy.


Gels Well With Technology

Differentiated instruction is no doubt linked with collecting data. For years teachers have painstakingly collected notes on student files and organized them into folders. All of this takes time away from their actual teaching activities. Thanks to the ease of technology, all observatory notes, performance evaluations, and assessments can be stored electronically. 

Strategy: Technology assisted self-paced learning is optimal for differentiation, but for early learning all such activities must be supervised by adults. Despite the advantages of gamification of learning, it’s better that learning happens offscreen but that adults (teachers and parents) have a way to track progress using technology. 


Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) Are Accommodated

IEPs are a form of individualized instruction, where teachers are required to modify their teaching practices for special needs students. But just because a student is a part of an IEP, does not mean that their unique strengths and challenges cannot be differentiated further just like any other student. They can also be grouped with similar students with learning difficulties so they can benefit from group learning. 

Strategy: IEPs have specialized and intensive supports specific to a child’s IEP information, goals and objectives. Examples include waiting for a longer period of time for responses and prompting when response is not given.


Further Differentiated Instruction Strategies

While any other differentiated instruction benefits can be grouped under one of these benefits, it’s not the same for strategies of which there are plenty more. For example, there are choice boards, learning contracts, tiered assignments, etc.  

Differentiated instruction’s positive impacts have been proven in both preschools and kindergartens, so it’s important that educators, school leaders, and education technology providers are on the same page when it comes to determining the best strategies. 

But before that happens, it’s important to ask if differentiation instruction is serious enough to be considered a major objective? If the answer to that question is yes, then the right strategies (both included in this list and others) can be proposed. But first, we should closely examine the need for differentiation. We hope the list helps.

Why You Need High-Quality Head Start Preschools for Early Learning

Do high-quality preschools exist? Yes, but mostly for the affluent. According to Emily Griffey, Policy Director of Voices for Virginia’s Children, there is a 19 point difference between percentages of high-income families and low-income families who can afford preschools for their children. 

There are many initiatives to expand accessibility to public Head Start preschools, but such accessibility has to be matched with quality, or there is a risk of falling back into the cycle of inequity.

In her essay for the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, Taryn Morrissey narrows down the major reasons that warrant greater policy attention to early education.

To summarize, high-quality education:

  • promotes child development and learning, and reduces inequities for those in disadvantaged communities. 
  • helps parental employment by providing a safe and quality environment for learning for their kids. 
  • forms the necessary backbone of the economic infrastructure.

Thus, high-quality preschools have both a short-term and long-term impact on school children and their communities. The community is able to thrive knowing that the child has a safe and quality environment in which to develop that is conducive to learning. As the child grows older, there is a net spillover effect, where they contribute to the larger economy.

A study of 22 longitudinal studies, conducted between 1960 and 2016, showed that the attendees of early childhood education programs were:

  • less likely to be placed in special education
  • less likely to be held back a grade
  • more likely to graduate from high school 

These positive outcomes demonstrate that, when available, high-quality preschools do make a difference in early learning and future outcomes.

Are There Enough High-Quality Preschools?

It’s tough to say if there is a shortage of preschools. Invariably, every preschool classroom does not fill the capacity of the maximum of 20 children per two trained adults, as recommended by the Office of Child Care in the US. However, even when this happens, quality can be impacted as more children require increased teacher attention. 

In the US, state-funded preschool and Head Start programs serve less than 1 in 3 eligible early learners. 

The National Institute of Early Education Research (NIEER) says that the quality standards remain “far too low” for these programs, and were only exacerbated by the pandemic. As low-income families weigh their options, homeschooling or daycare may seem like better alternatives if the quality of preschools garners a bad reputation. 

Which prompts the question….

What Does High-Quality Early Childhood Education Look Like?

High-quality preschools are both academic and play-based. A high-quality curriculum is specifically designed to present skills and concepts to schoolchildren in an order that matches their level of development.

In the process, formative assessments are used to address achievement gaps in underperforming students. It increases student engagement and leads to greater teacher satisfaction.

Hence, high-quality preschools do not merely focus on providing the best early childhood education experience, but also have innate differentiated instruction to cater to the needs of every child in the classroom. 

There are scales available to measure the quality of preschools such as the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS).

The ECERS contains 35 items organized into 6 categories of Space and Furnishings, Personal Care Routines, Language and Literacy, Learning Activities, Interaction and Program Structure. One can appreciate the breadth of factors that go into determining the quality of a preschool!

It’s interesting to note that the Language and Literacy category encourages “becoming familiar with print” and “children’s use of books”, so the focus is definitely to build on oral language as foundational literacy concepts and move to reading when appropriate. 

Also, under Learning Activities, the promotion of diversity and the appropriate use of technology are suggested. Tools like Sprig Library combine these recommendations. The app offers interactive story books that support oral language development, while introducing Indigenous themes, illuminating diversity.

An equal mix of self-learning and group learning is ideal for high-quality preschool programs. As seen in the ECERS scale: to address self-learning, “space for privacy” appears under the Space and Furnishings category, and “individualized teaching and learning” appears under Interaction. To address group-learning, peer learning is recommended under Interaction, and “whole-group activities” is listed under Program Structure.

The High-Quality Checklist

The NIEER recommends the following considerations when building a high-quality preschool program. A high-quality preschool Head Start program must:

  • cultivate positive relationships between teachers and children.
  • adequately equip the classroom with sufficient materials and toys. 
  • ensure regular communication that involves mutual listening, responding and encouragement to use reasoning and problem solving.
  • offer opportunities for multiple kinds of play.
  • provide materials and activities to promote understanding of diversity.
  • nurture parental involvement in the program.

Additionally, there are structural recommendations published by The National Association for the Education of Young Children. For preschool, a staff to child ratio of 1:10 is suggested, with a maximum class size of 20 students. 

Furthermore, the fair compensation and professional development for all teachers and staff are very important components of administering and maintaining a high-quality preschool program. Wherever they are not compensated adequately and on equal terms with K-12 educators, there is a higher risk of turnover.

Need for Consistency and Assurance

Literacy assessment data from the US show that almost half of kindergartners were falling below grade-level benchmarks partway through the 2020-2021 year. The setbacks were more pronounced in marginalized communities. 

This is a case where the quality of preschools fell short of expectations. The data shows that preschoolers need consistent in-person interaction with educators.

Whenever this consistent learning environment is uprooted (due to any natural calamities or a global pandemic), it’s important to have a contingency plan in place that uses hybrid or remote learning, depending on how soon it’s safe to go back to school. 

The rate of return on human capital investment is at its highest from birth to age 5. When children attend any sort of structural school system for the first time, it’s important that they receive the best education and are assured of continuing in the program.

There can be a trade-off sometimes between targeting skills and the whole child. While it’s true that targeting specific skills such as literacy and numeracy increases achievement in those areas, a whole child curriculum is often better at ensuring quality of classroom processes.

It doesn’t have to be either-or. With holistic learning, you tend to the whole child by involving their teachers, parents and the community to support their needs and safety. But you also focus on particular academic skills by offering leveled activities that are fun to do.

Looking Ahead

It has been a tumultuous year as we continue to battle through the pandemic. It was not easy for early learners as many of them entered the school system for the first time this fall.  The Learning Policy Institute recommends creating a culture of affirmation and belonging, and building from students’ interests and taking a whole-child approach to their development.  A holistic approach seems to be best suited for achieving this purpose. 

There is help available to build high-quality Head Start preschools or transform existing preschools into a high-quality Head Start program. However, while there is more funding to increase accessibility, it must be matched with increased quality.

Formal Formative Assessment or Informal Formative Assessment. What’s Right for Early Learning?

Every month in the life of a child is crucial for early childhood development. The most significant brain development happens between birth and age 5. It’s said that 90% of brain growth takes place before kindergarten. 

The first critical period of brain development does not end until the child reaches 7 years of age. This early period is extremely conducive to learning and has long lasting effects for the rest of the child’s life. 

It’s a formative period, where most of the synapses between brain cells are formed. As it pertains to education, it’s a time for formative assessments.

Formative assessments monitor early learning to provide ongoing feedback, which educators use to adapt instruction and ensure that every child has the opportunity to succeed. It identifies progress and learning gaps as they happen and informs how to best move forward to optimize learning for the young student. 

Principal Jennifer McKay, former Senior Director of Early Childhood Education at Oklahoma State Department of Education says that “effective teachers make informed instructional decisions from formative assessment data.” 

Commenting on the pandemic, she states that formative assessments help close learning gaps and “provide a window to understanding student’s social and emotional well being” after a prolonged period of absence from school.

Examples of Formative Assessments Include: Homework assignments, in-class activities and group work.

Formative assessment (assessment for learning) is different from a summative assessment (assessment of learning), which happens only after a certain instructional period, and only a certain number of times a year.

Examples of Summative Assessments Include: End of unit reports, final grades and end of unit projects.

Clearly, both formative and summative assessments are needed to support all young students. Performing well in formative assessments is often a strong indicator of doing well in any summative assessment. In a meta-analysis of 250 formative assessment studies, formative assessment was found to have a lasting, positive effect on the quality of teaching and the achievement of students. The effects were much more pronounced for low-performing students, which is a testament to its effect in identifying and addressing learning gaps.

Formal Formative Assessment and Informal Formative Assessment

Often, formative assessments are contrasted with formal assessments, implying that all formative assessments are informal. While it’s true that summative assessments and standardized tests are more formal than common formative assessments, there is still variation in the latter in the degree of formality. 

Educators can assess students by taking notes. But there are also valid and reliable scales used by researchers to formatively assess young learners. For example, the Desired Results Developmental Profile (DRDP) looks at the development continuum from early infancy to kindergarten. It contains rating scales that are based on the acquisition of age-appropriate developmental milestones.

Similarly, National Institute of Early Education Research researchers have developed the Early Learning Scale and Kindergarten Early Learning Scale. These scales contain items that are easily measurable and critical to present and future learning. 

At Sprig Learning, we too have developed our own scale for early learning that is developed by educators, based on best practices and tested for efficacy, accuracy and bias. Adopting such a formative assessment approach ensures that educators are able to make timely data-informed decisions at every step of the child’s learning journey.

Formative Assessment Cycle

Formative assessments are a planned classroom practice of acquiring evidence of student learning.  They are often repetitive and occur throughout the school year. They are not a one-time event. Formative assessments take on the following cycle:

Examine Student Work > Inform Teacher Knowledge > Inform Instruction > Administer Tasks

There are data points that need to be collected in all four stages in order to facilitate this cycle. 

  • Student work assigned should be examined for completion and accuracy.
  • There should be a feedback loop that connects this information back to the teachers.
  • They should record the actions taken to identify learning strengths and address any learning gaps.
  • New classroom activities and tasks should then be assigned to measure progress and repeat the cycle. 

Formal formative assessments use some standard, rubric or well-defined grading system to assign a mark. But merely collecting data for this purpose makes formative assessments very rigid. It leaves no room for informal techniques of assessment such as observations, notes, and qualitative work samples that a number cannot evaluate. 

Rori Hodges, an experienced pre-kindergarten teacher, says “my formative assessment strategies are very informal. That way I can get an honest, natural response from the child. Very young children learn most effectively through interaction and exploration, not by lecture and memorization.”

So it’s good to have a lot of data to enable formative assessments, but the execution of such assessments and the actual interactive teaching that happens in the classroom are extremely important in the development of the early learner. We can label such face-to-face or observatory assessments as informal assessments.

Next, we look at some of the ways to do informal formative assessments. It’s best if the implementation and results of such activities are securely stored in a repository for future evaluation, thereby uniting formal and informal formative assessments.

Examples of Informal Formative Assessments

Monitoring: The teacher monitors the class to see if everyone is engaged. Observing students as they practice a skill helps teachers understand who needs help with what. 

Games: Tag or relay races. Alphabet naming. Interactive response sessions (including physical responses such as clapping and stomping). Play based learning is a great opportunity to observe progress, where young students let their guard down and reflect what they have learned. 

Parent Communication: Sending teacher-recommended activities to parents. When it comes to assessing learning progression, it’s great if parents help out by reinforcing the teachings at home. 

Journals: This is a more advanced form of formative assessments suitable for 1st graders. Journaling allows them to demonstrate their knowledge in words, numbers or pictures. 

Survey: Sometimes, it’s best to ask students directly if they have understood a particular lesson. They can indicate this by using fun methods like the Hand Thermometer (hands raised high if they understood and hands held low if they didn’t quite get it) and displaying coloured cards (each colour signifies a particular response). 

Partner Quizzes: Assessments can be turned into a group activity as well where young students quiz each other on what they have learned, and this activity is observed by a teacher.

4 Types of Formative Assessment Practices

Regardless of whether formal or informal formative assessments are used, it’s important that they follow best practices. NWEA, formerly known as Northwest Evaluation Association, lists four formative assessment practices that can be used to continuously gather evidence of learning to adapt teaching accordingly. 

For each best practice we have created a scale that shows the influence of formal and informal formative assessments.

Clarify what the students are to learn. Explain what they should know or be able to do.

                                                      Largely Formal

It’s imperative students understand what it is that they are learning and what their expectations are in class. As such there is more scope for one-on-one or group teaching.


Get evidence of where students are in their learning.

                                                      Largely Formal

Collecting evidence requires hard data. Such assessments can be done on a tablet or by building a learner’s profile by looking at all completed activities thus far. Different standards of progress can be created using a rubric.


Provide feedback to students on what to work on.

                                             Equally Informal and Formal

High degree of interaction with students is required to provide feedback, but the feedback also relates back to a formal assessment of their latest activities.


Activate early learners by getting them to own their learning.

                                                     Equally Informal and Formal

All improvements should be reflected in a report. Teachers and parents may share such reports with young students to incentivize further learning growth. Using a rubric sets clear expectations on what is to be achieved.

Why Formative Assessment is a Good Fit for Early Learning

Early education innovator and researcher Dr. Shannon Riley Ayers writes that formative assessment is “a critical piece of a balanced, comprehensive system of assessment for young children.”

It is systematic, but individualized. 

It is all encompassing in considering every aspect of a child’s learning and development.

It is not the collection of data, but the use of data.

It is a strengths-based approach. 

It is suited for differentiated instruction

In this article, we highlighted the importance of formative assessments, and how it precedes most other forms of assessments such as summative assessments and standardized assessments. 

So, what’s best for early learning? Our research shows that the right way to approach formative assessments is to take a balanced approach, which utilizes both formal and informal methods of assessment. At the end of the day, assessments should be useful to the educator and fun for early learners.


How Differentiated Learning Supports All Forms of Early Learning

Carol Ann Tomlinson, an author and educator, is credited with pioneering differentiated instruction. Since its inception, differentiated instruction has gained massive popularity. In many ways, it is connected to all forms of modern early learning approaches. Differentiated learning is often used interchangeably with differentiated instruction. They are one and the same.

In a survey of 601 teachers, 98% said they differentiate their instruction weekly. Of that 98%, 86% say that differentiation is extremely effective. 

In this article, we will define the term differentiated instruction, clarify what it means for early learners, highlight differentiated instruction strategies, and make the connection to other learning approaches for young students. We will conclude with a word on the future of differentiated instruction.

Differentiated Instruction. The Clearest Definition.

Differentiated instruction is described in many ways. We’ve chosen the following definition:

Differentiated instruction is a planned teaching approach that recognizes the differences and similarities among students and adapts accordingly. 

In other words, it acknowledges the diversity of learning needs, styles, and backgrounds of the student, and accordingly modifies instruction for each student.

Differentiated instruction is ready to help every early learner by knowing as much about them through assessments. It is also willing to modify instruction based on student responses at the onset of the school year, or at any other time during the school year.

From the student’s perspective, it’s called personalized learning, but from the teacher’s perspective it is differentiated instruction.

What Exactly Is Differentiated?

Having understood what differentiated instruction is, the best way to delve deeper into its nature is to highlight what exactly educators can differentiate to adopt such a teaching approach. 

There are four things that can be differentiated to provide a unique learning experience.


Content refers to the knowledge, understanding and skills that young students have to learn. 

A school curriculum defines content for young learners. Curriculum mapping is the process by which teachers plan their instruction throughout the school year. This ensures the goals, objectives, learning materials and course assessments all align to what is being taught to the students. 

Example of differentiated content: Leveled readers, optional mini-lessons, text materials that are digitized through audio or video.


Process refers to the activities or practices by which students understand content. 

By internalizing, practicing and by associating with the teacher and other students, the students figure out what they have learned and its applications beyond the classroom. 

Example of differentiated process: Different pace of instruction, different support, customized groups of students.


Product refers to the outcome of the process and content. When a process is applied to certain content, learning occurs. The students then get to demonstrate this learning via assessments or other means. 

Example of differentiated product: Different check-in points, formative assessments and holistic assessments, different criteria for success.


Environment refers to the set and setting where content, process and product happens. It accounts for the student’s feelings on what they were able to learn as a result of following a process on particular content. 

Example of differentiated environment: Outdoor learning, individual instruction, centre-based learning.

Differentiated Instruction Strategies

The four modifiable differentiation components offer many opportunities to tailor an educational pathway that is personalized for the young learner. 

It’s best to have learning strategies available that reflect all four components. Here are key examples:

Project-based Learning

Project based allows teachers to differentiate by teams. It’s a great way to cluster students according to their reading level, or other strengths, interests, or social skills such as collaboration and empathy.

Formative Assessments

Formative assessments are used to monitor learning and provide ongoing feedback. They are distinct from summative assessments in that they are conducted throughout the school year, and not only at certain times of the year. 

They allow educators to take corrective action quickly when they see skills are not progressing as they should. Formative assessments were specifically designed as a tool for differentiated instruction in the classroom.

Learning Stations

Customizing learning stations is an effective teaching strategy. Stations are set up with different content and purpose in terms of the student in each group.  Teachers can also rotate students between stations so everybody has a chance to learn from each experience.

Learning Profiles

A learning profile looks at a student’s interest and readiness in various subject matters to accurately capture and support their learning strengths, needs and challenges. 

It allows teachers to focus on any learning gaps and optimize teaching based on what the students have a natural inclination towards.

Differentiated Instruction’s Relationship to Early Learning Approaches

There are other very popular approaches to early learning. We explore the connection between differentiated instruction and these other learning approaches. 

Play-based Learning

Also known as active learning or experiential learning, play-based learning is when young children learn through interactions with people, objects and the environment that they are in. 

By engaging with what is around them, they exercise their impulse to play and understand the world. It is self-chosen and usually led by the child. 

Relationship to Differentiated Learning: Play-based learning is a powerful way to differentiate the process of learning.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

SEL teaches young students how to develop self-awareness, social-awareness and interpersonal skills. 

It leads to better academic performance, positive behavior and healthier life choices that influence the quality of life in future years. By better understanding their emotions, children are able to better manage themselves and make responsible decisions. 

Relationship to Differentiated Learning: SEL is all about the interaction with others and giving space to feelings. As such, it’s an extremely useful method to support those learners who are more social or affective.

Inclusive Learning

Inclusive learning recognizes that all children have the right to a learning experience that respects their unique situation or circumstance.  It enables all students to participate by removing all barriers to learning for anyone with a different background. 

Relationship to Differentiated Learning: Differentiated learning is inclusive by nature. It ensures that no one is kept from reaching their potential simply because the content, process, product or environment was not right for them.

Personalized Learning

Personalized learning is an educational approach that modifies the lesson plan based on each student’s unique skills, abilities, needs and interests. The focus is on one student and it is from the student’s perspective. From the teacher’s perspective, it is called individualized instruction. 

Relationship to Differentiated Learning: Individualized instruction deals with one student at a time. Rather than assigning the same group of students to an activity or assignment, each student is shuffled according to their pace of development and learning needs. It can be part of an overall differentiated instruction strategy, which deals with groups of students.

Is Differentiated Instruction the New Normal?

Research conducted on differentiated instruction demonstrates its effectiveness as a teaching strategy for students with varied needs. In a three year study, researchers found that differentiated instruction yielded positive results for several groups in mixed ability K-12 classrooms in Alberta.

To demonstrate its sway on the culture, there are now courses that offer early childhood development with differentiated instruction.

But as differentiated instruction can be resource intensive and time consuming, it has not become the norm just yet. The industry, the government and academia are working together to introduce new solutions that make it easier to apply differentiated instruction across classrooms in North America. 

When differentiated instruction is added to a program, early learners often show significant gains in oral language vocabulary, print knowledge, phonological awareness, and math. The ubiquitous nature of technology has definitely helped to propel the advancement of differentiated instruction.

Vince Hill, former principal at Grasslands School Division, states how over half of teachers surveyed say that technology helps them individualize their classroom instruction. Collaborating with Sprig Learning has helped him to apply differentiated instruction at his school, which has a mix of students from varied socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. He stresses the importance of collecting data in a safe and secure way to account for the learning needs of all and to measure the progress of such a diversity of students.

Holistic Learning–The Epitome of Differentiated Instruction

One of the best ways to create a strong foundation for early learners is through holistic learning. It makes use of holistic assessments that support differentiated instruction by not only looking at the student, but also their parents and the community they live in. 

Similarly to differentiated instruction, holistic learning has links to all other types of learning. It considers play, sociability, emotions, inclusiveness and personalization. 

Furthermore, holistic learning compliments Indigenous learning perspective where equal emphasis is given to the mental, physical, emotional and spiritual areas of development. This opens up many doors to learning such as visual learning, auditory learning, kinesthetic learning and of course reading and writing.. 

But to get to the level where early learners can build the foundational literacy and numeracy skills, early development such as oral language and problem solving is crucial! Holistic learning is thus key, where more than one mode of learning is available to the young student.

Differentiated Instruction as a Way of Thinking

Certain events can force you to think about differentiation. For example, alternate modes of learning such as e-learning, could have been seen as a differentiation tactic in the past, but the pandemic forced all schools to think about it regardless. 

Approximately four of ten school districts reported last year that they do not have the ability to provide e-learning for students, even for a single day. So when thinking about differentiated learning, it helps to be prepared so you will be able to serve different students based on their situation at the time.

But even beyond contingency plans, it is important to see differentiated instruction as a concept, and not as a tool or tactic. 

We hope this article sparks your interest in differentiated instruction. When you understand the fundamental concept of differentiated instruction, you can’t help but notice it in teaching methods and strategies already used in the classroom. If you ever need to brainstorm ideas, here is a list of 50 strategies to differentiate learning. But as educator and teacher advice columnist Larry Ferlazzo says “Differentiating instruction is really a way of thinking, not a preplanned list of strategies”.