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Literacy and Math Differentiation in Kindergarten

Aurora McCone and Taira McKinney – Kindergarten Teachers

“What can you do? What can you show me?”

With a diverse range of students, teachers are always excited for each student to show their strengths in their work. The pride shines in their eyes as they accomplish something that felt challenging. The tricky part as teachers, is to find that just right challenge for each student. The kind of challenge that makes a kid think, struggle and come out of it with something new. A new skill, strategy or understanding. This struggle and succession is often referred to as the learning pit.

Traveling through the learning pit results in impactful learning, with learners feeling empowered. However, this pit looks different to different children. What is easy for one is difficult to another. We don’t want students to be stuck at the bottom of the pit. Prior knowledge, learning skills and natural abilities may change the height and depth of the learning pit. This means teachers much find appropriate challenges for each student, so all come out feeling strong with new learning. Finding these different challenges is referred to as differentiating.

Differentiating in Kindergarten Literacy with Aurora

In my kindergarten class, there are a variety of levels of literacy present. Some students are learning their letters for the first time. Others are learning English for the first time. Others spent their summer reading chapter books. As we work as a class on a few key letters and sounds, all students are learning and practicing many skills. Letter recognition and letter/sound correspondence are part. But there is also sitting in a group, holding attention, being respectful to peers and teachers and participating in a group. As we practice isolating sounds within a word, some students are practicing finding matching beginning sounds.

“What are some words that begin with P?”

For other students, we may ask them to isolate sounds at the end of the word, a much more difficult task.

“What are some words that end with P?”

As the students break into an individual activity of sorting pictures, students gain more comfort with letters and sounds. They also practice skills of cutting, gluing, writing, following directions, managing resources and collaborating with peers.

Students collaborating and conferring about the assignment.

Students collaborating and conferring about the assignment.

For students who need extra support, a variety of resources are available around the classroom. They can check the teacher example, ask for help or look for an charts, posters and reminders of previous lessons to help them recall information.

A student checking their alphabet chart from their pouch to check letter sounds and shape.

Additionally, there is often an “extra challenge” element to activities. For example, in the cutting and sorting activity, there was a blank square where students must generate their own words, draw or write them and add them to their sorts.

A student, noticing there is an R sound at the end of his name, isolated the sound and put it on his challenge square. 

Differentiating in Kindergarten Math with Taira

Each kindergarten student enters our classroom with their own unique experiences and has their own learning needs and learning pace. Using a differentiated learning approach ensures that all students are reaching their highest potential. In math, we use a variety of different strategies, content and activities to meet needs across the continuum of learning.

Examples of strategies for differentiated instruction:

  • Flexible grouping that considers the strengths and challenges and provides room for growth for all students
  • Hands-on centers where students are responsible for their own learning
  • Math Talk – a strategy that enables students to engage in rich math dialogue based on each student’s readiness and comprehension
  • Open-ended problem-solving challenges

Open-ended Problem Solving

Careful, intentional and mindful questioning is one of the most powerful tools a teacher can use to discover student understandings and misunderstandings. A problem is considered open-ended when a variety of responses or approaches are possible. We use open-ended problem-solving questions to observe students as they engage in activities. The responses are used to inform and serve as a place to look for specific behaviors and skills and discover appropriate intervention (support or challenge) that may be needed. We can then use this information to design instruction that supports learning. Below is a sample lesson of how we can use open-ended problem solving to address the variety of learning needs in kindergarten.

Open-ended Question:

Make a picture with 10 dots. Some are red and some are blue. What might this look like? Can you write an equation to show this?

What can be observed:

Can the student count 10 items?

Does the student know how to begin?

What factors of 10 does the student know?

Can the student write numbers 1 to 10?

Can the student write an equation?

Possible Solutions:

Observations that need intervention:

Student A: Student made a picture with more or less than 10 dots.

Intervention needed: Add a ten frame to help them to visually see when they have 10 dots.


Student B: Used 10 dots but is not able to yet write an equation.

Intervention needed: Use an addition equation template to show the order of the symbols needed.


Student C: Easily creates a 10-dot picture; wrote a correct equation.

Intervention Needed: Ask them to write as many combinations of numbers that equal 10 as they know.

Each student has a unique learning path full of slopes and rises. Every teacher is excited to work and provide challenges and support for students to learn and grow in meaningful ways.

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  • literacy
  • math