04 May Content-rich instruction may boost pre-K math skills
A recent Early Learning Network study builds evidence that providing children with rich content and cognitively demanding instruction in prekindergarten (pre-K) may advance early learning outcomes and help narrow opportunity gaps.
Researchers at MDRC, the University of Michigan and the Harvard Graduate School of Education leveraged data from public schools and community-based organizations using Boston Public Schools’ pre-K model to better understand the extent to which content-rich and cognitively demanding instruction leads to gains in children’s language and math skills, and to create more reliable measures for these two aspects of classroom quality.
- Content rich instructional practices provide children with background and world knowledge that support learning, such as using a letter sound activity as an opportunity to also gain knowledge about a theme, like ocean habitat.
- Cognitively demanding instructional practices promote deeper thinking, such as asking children to explain or analyze ideas and engage in back-and-forth conversations.
The study, published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, revealed that content-rich instruction in pre-K may boost children’s math skills — a critical predictor of academic success from kindergarten through third grade. The study also found that content-rich and cognitively demanding instructional practices in pre-K led to larger gains for children who started the year with stronger academic skills.
The research also highlighted the need for a more nuanced understanding of classroom quality and better measures that consistently predict children’s outcomes.
Why it matters
Children who attend high-quality early care and education programs typically enter kindergarten scoring higher on assessments of early academic skills. Identifying ways to enhance the quality of children’s pre-K experiences is important for promoting more equitable early learning outcomes, particularly for children from historically marginalized groups.
Currently, there is significant variation in the quality of children’s pre-K experiences across states — and no clear consensus on which aspects of children’s environments matter most in supporting early learning and development. This study helps us understand the unique value of providing content-rich and cognitively demanding instruction in the year before kindergarten — two promising pathways to enhance pre-K quality and help children sustain the benefits of attending pre-K.
“What a child knows about the world is important for later comprehension and learning,” said Michelle Maier, senior associate in MDRC’s Family Well-Being and Children’s Development policy area. “Pre-K instruction that includes rich or more advanced content helps children build foundational knowledge about the world, which can act as a lever for learning a range of skills.”
The research study measured content-rich instruction and cognitively demanding instructional practices in Boston pre-K classrooms using observational data and collected assessments of children’s language and math skills in the fall and spring of the 2016-17 academic year. The sample included 378 children recruited from 51 pre-K classrooms within 20 public elementary schools and 10 community-based programs using BPS’s pre-K program, “Focus on K1.” The model uses domain-specific, evidence-based curricula designed to support teacher practices.
The researchers examined:
1. The extent to which classrooms delivering the BPS pre-K model used content-rich and cognitively demanding practices, and how these elements varied by intervention fidelity (how well the BPS curriculum was implemented as intended) and by the composition of children in the classroom.
2. Whether exposure to content-rich and cognitively demanding practices predicted gains in children’s language and math skills during the pre-K year.
3. Whether these associations varied for children who started the academic year with weaker vs. stronger language and math skills and by children’s demographics, such as socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity and home language.
The research team’s descriptive analyses revealed the following:
1. Classrooms used content-rich and cognitively demanding instructional practices at moderate levels.
- Classrooms with higher levels of fidelity to the BPS curriculum (followed it as intended) generally used higher-quality practices.
- Classrooms with higher proportions of Black students scored lower on observed cognitive demand.
2. Content-rich instruction consistently predicted positive gains in math skills across the pre-K year.
- Associations between cognitive demand and children’s gains were inconsistent, as were associations between content-rich instruction and gains in language skills.
3. The benefits of content-rich and cognitively demanding instruction were stronger for children who started the pre-K year with higher levels of academic skills.
4. There was no evidence that associations between content-rich instruction and cognitive demand and gains in math and language skills varied by children’s demographics.
5. Classrooms with higher levels of fidelity to the BPS curriculum tended to use more rich content and high-quality instructional practices.
What this means
The study found children exposed to rich content experienced bigger gains in math skills over the pre-K year, above and beyond a typically used measure of global classroom quality. This is significant because children’s math skills at the start of kindergarten are a critical predictor of academic success through third grade.
Children can benefit from instruction that intentionally adds rich content to boost their background/world knowledge, such as counting the number of seeds during an activity about plant life. The more a child knows about the subject matter a problem/text is rooted in, the better they will be at completing the related task or problem.
The results also showed that stronger implementation of domain-specific curricula focused on both language/literacy and math (BPS’s “Focus on K1” curriculum, in this case) can support higher levels of content-rich and cognitively demanding instruction. This means pre-K programs can focus on curricula fidelity — honing in on ways to ensure an intervention or practice is being delivered to children as intended — as a way to enhance instructional quality.
The findings suggest important implications for racial equity in pre-K. Evidence that classrooms with higher proportions of Black students scored lower on the team’s measure of cognitive demand may reflect prior research finding that elementary school teachers tend to have lower expectations for Black students, regardless of children’s skill levels. It may be the case that curricula that promote cognitively demanding instructional practices may be implemented inadequately in classrooms that include a higher number of Black students due to implicit bias and other reasons. To meet the needs of all children, programs should prioritize and use targeted strategies to ensure equitable levels of implementation quality and instructional practices.
“Enhancing instructional quality in pre-K by providing more rich and challenging content and has the potential to benefit children from all backgrounds,” Maier said.
The following may be useful ways to enhance instruction in pre-K:
- Teachers can use cognitively demanding instructional practices throughout the school day, such as turning routine transitions into learning time or having in-depth conversations with children about their interests.
- Teachers can infuse rich content into instructional practices by intentionally connecting skills-focused activities to a topical theme or focal question.
- For example, a teacher may engage in a lesson to teach letter sounds by having the letter sounds correspond to a picture or word related to a theme, such as ocean habitat. The letter sounds could be discussed as they relate to new vocabulary while background information about the ocean is provided.
- Content linked to science, technology and engineering concepts are associated with children’s early math skills.
- Programs can consider using play-based curricula focused on domains like language/literacy and math to support higher levels of content-rich and cognitively demanding instruction.
Further work is needed to measure and provide supports for exposing children to content-rich and cognitively demanding instruction across a broader range of pre-K programs — and to test whether and how they vary across pre-K curricula and different activity settings. Overall, these indicators of classroom quality show promise as ways to enhance children’s pre-K experiences and support their long-term success.
Reliable measurement remains a challenge for early childhood researchers. Currently available measures of classroom quality may not fully capture content-rich instructional practices and cognitively demanding practices, which are important for supporting children’s early language and math skills.
“This study shed light on observable instructional practices in pre-K that may not be captured by existing measures of classroom quality,” Maier said. “Further exploration can help us determine whether rich content and cognitive demand are potential targets for future measurement and intervention work to support gains for children entering early childhood settings with varying skill levels and from diverse backgrounds.”
Read the full research paper:
- “Content-rich instruction and cognitive demand in pre-K: using systematic observations to predict child gains” Early Childhood Research Quarterly (2022). Michelle F. Maier, Meghan P. McCormick, Samantha Xia, JoAnn Hsueh, Christina Weiland, Abby Morales, Marina Boni, Melissa Tonachel, Jason Sachs and Catherine Snow.